I really wish indie developers would hurry up and start fetishizing N64/PS1-era games, but until that day comes, we have games like Pixel Quest and its cousins. From just reading the title, Pixel Quest sounds like the platonic ideal of a pandering retro RPG, but it’s actually after a little more authenticity than a lot of the winking mobile games out there that are trying to be cute or ironic with titles like Loot Dungeon or Swipe Hero or whatever. Pixel Quest plays it straight and doesn’t care if its gameplay systems are taken straight out of 1988, which is to its credit, but at the same time, why wouldn’t you just play a game from 1988 if you’re craving something retro? Have you really played every game in the Ultima series? What about the Wizardry games? Pixel Quest’s ceiling is “low-budget Zelda II,” and that’s interesting, but the games that inspired it are still out there, leaving it fairly redundant and lacking the quality-of-life gameplay improvements that might distinguish it.
When you start Pixel Quest, you’re unceremoniously taken right to the game’s first town. That’s when you learn that you’ll be playing as an elderly mage and that you don’t get to pick your stats. As you walk around town, you notice that most of the buildings are shops filled with items that are too expensive for you, so your best bet is to walk around in the forest outside town, fighting wolves and such for a coin or two at a time until you become powerful enough to advance. That’s the kind of game Pixel Quest is, throwing you pennies at a time as you grind your way up from the absolute bottom. It almost plays like a parody of an unforgiving classic RPG, where you’re always walking uphill both ways in the snow like your grandparents did.
If this sounds interesting to you, Pixel Quest might be worth checking out, because it really goes for this concept. But be warned: the pace is incredibly slow. In battle, your attacks are represented as cards, and each time you use an attack, a card is drawn from that attack’s deck. Cards of the game’s more powerful spells are a lot scarcer than the ones for your basic staff attacks, which means that the least important battles you fight, the ones between point A and point B, are just as grueling as the significant ones. In the overworld, your HP regenerates between battles, meaning you’re also going to have to wait each time you walk into a goblin, or else you won’t have enough HP to beat the next one. You can imagine the tedium inherent in this system, but the other side of the coin is that doing just about anything is a major challenge.
While the gameplay is frequently the bad kind of retro, the game’s aesthetics flirt with being the good kind. The pixel graphics are hit-and-miss, mostly because of the bizarre main character, who slides across the map with splayed, unmoving limbs. The elderly mage you control is a surreal element among the typical fantasy archetypes that pop up all throughout Pixel Quest. It’s not like the character needs to be a knight, but a little more context and/or a better character model would have gone a long way. The rest of the pixel art is pretty serviceable, though. Where the game really nails it is the music. The overworld theme has an off-kilter prep school quality that’s a dead-on imitation of the classic RPG sound. There are also an abundance of good sound effects that add character to the otherwise monotonous battles. This game could have been a monster with a better combat system.
Pixel Quest earns some good will by refusing to compromise on the frustrating elements of retro games, like walking up to your destination and getting told that you need a SOURCE OF LIGHT to enter. Unfortunately, it’s missing a good deal of the character and idiosyncrasy that might cause one to recommend it over an actual retro game. There are a few bright spots, but Pixel Quest often seems like it’s only lifted the frustrations of super old-school RPGs, and none of the things that made them worth playing anyway. It’s also majorly hampered by a battle system which is so merciless and resource-based that it takes the fun out of actually doing the quests. That said, anyone looking for an extremely challenging old-school RPG in the vein of some of the earliest games ever might at least check it out.
Is it Hardcore?
An authentic homage to hyper-challenging retro RPGs that gets a little to into being grueling and suffers for it.