‘Tis the month before Christmas, a time of plentiful mince pies, abundant eggnog, and stuffed stockings, not to mention touching stories about love, generosity, goodwill to all, and … stealing from Santa? Yes, indeed, Azazel’s Christmas Fable is a point-and-click adventure about a demon who tries to infiltrate Santa’s castle at the North Pole to find and purloin the joy powering the festive season for children everywhere. Except, well, Azazel’s always been a bit too nice to be much use as an imp and things don’t exactly go according to plan. In solo developer Greg Muhlbock’s jolly debut, the fires of Hell are not so much scary as heart-warming, the puzzles are pitched to entertain rather than strain, and dad jokes abound. It may be more a light snack than a hearty meal, but it’s packed full to bursting with Christmas cheer.
Azazel is one of Satan’s little helpers, an adorably incompetent demon who’s never quite got the hang of torturing the damned. For the souls he oversees, life is more sauna and spa day than everlasting torment, and his boss Gorgomon has had enough. Seeing a chance to both get Azazel out from under his hooves for a bit and just maybe put one over on his old adversary Santa, he despatches the titular protagonist to the North Pole (truly a hellish place for heat-loving devils) to find and make off with the frost star that powers St. Nick’s whole operation. A source of hope and joy in the right hands, in demonic ones it has the potential to cover the world in eternal winter.
If only Gorgomon had sent a crack operative such as the tickle-torture-obsessed Beelzebub, there’d have been nothing left of humanity but frosty statues. Instead he sent Azazel, who winds up fitting in far better among the elves than he ever did in the underworld. And while he does leave a trail of destruction in his wake, it’s entirely accidental. If anything, he’s kinder than the elves themselves, who seem more interested in golf and clubbing than spreading merriment. Indeed, Santa himself has pretty much checked out, turning his castle into a giant logistics operation in partnership with a big toy company and spending his time slaying zombies in virtual reality.
The conflict between traditional and modern looms large in this tale. Santa’s fairy-tale castle and the charming cobblestoned town square with its old-world stone houses and curling woodsmoke sit cheek by jowl with a nondescript toy warehouse and the neon-lit Club I.C.E. (for Incredibly Cool Elves). Likewise, the quaint wood-panelled and candlelit Elven Archive has just invested in a futuristic identity scanner and a robot arm to retrieve those hard-to-reach documents. Time-honoured values are slowly giving way to contemporary commerce – or at least they were until Azazel arrives to shake things up.
Employing an unashamedly retro visual style, the cartoon pixel art is delightful: detailed, colourful and clearly lovingly crafted. The snowy vistas, with the swirling shimmer of the northern lights overhead and a warm glow spilling from every window, are pure distilled Christmas. Add in a synthesised soundtrack packed with lush carol arrangements and cheerfully cheesy tunes and you’d have to be Scrooge himself not to at least crack a smile and start singing along. The voice actors, likewise, are clearly having a good time, with a delightfully deranged gingerbread man being a highlight. Santa himself is as warm and avuncular as you might expect, while Azazel’s piping tones are cheeky and cheerful.
Santa’s polar retreat is packed with curious characters, too, ranging from Todd the elven music geek (who’s happy to reel off a list of genres I’ve never even heard of) to a snowman who’s worried about the cold, and a pair of enormous toy soldier guards who’d be a whole lot more effective if only they could actually move. And then there’s Brad the gingerbread man, whose sides have different personalities, meaning he can flip from kind and generous to menacing in an instant. Having baked his own gingerbread house, he’s now looking to start a family, or as he puts it, find “a batch made in Heaven.” (I did warn you about the dad jokes.)
The interface is reassuringly conventional, with an autohiding inventory bar at the top of the screen, from which you can use and combine objects. You look at acquired items by using them on Azazel himself, but otherwise seasoned point-and-click fans will feel right at home. The puzzles mix standard inventory-based tasks with a variety of mini-game puzzles that ask you to rotate tiles, turn dials and play find the lady (or, in this case, gold coin).
Given the setup, you might expect zany situations and a dash of moon logic, but no: it’s all surprisingly (dare I say it) normal – once you get past the idea that you’re an imp who’s trying to trick Santa but winds up taking directions from a chipmunk, cheating at golf, and playing Jingle Bells so Blitzen will give you a ride, that is. None of the individual steps require lateral thinking or logical leaps, but they build nicely into puzzle chains, leading to some satisfying moments as the pieces finally fall into place.
That’s just as well, as there’s no hint system or hotspot highlighter to help you, although Azazel does throw a suggestion or two your way from time to time. Those jauntily jagged pixels occasionally get in the way too, rendering certain text and symbols trickier to decipher than they need to be. For example, it took a bit of trial-and-error to decrypt a code, even though the symbols were seasonal staples such as Santa hats, candy canes, and snowmen, because each was only a small cluster of pixels.
As befits a light and frothy yuletide romp, Azazel’s Christmas Fable is short and sweet, clocking in at 4-5 hours of gameplay. Azazel himself is both the story’s weakest and strongest point. He’s cheerfully optimistic, a tad snarky at times, and generally adorable. But on the other hand, he never even makes a token attempt to be bad, and there is never any real danger he’ll return to the dark side. Instead of sowing gleeful chaos and destruction and eventually learning a lesson, he makes such a good elf it’s a miracle he’s survived the rigours of demonic life all this time without being banished. I mean, he’s happy to tease a beefy club bouncer about skipping leg day, but even armed with literal glitter bombs, he never gets up to much mischief.
Then again, the experience is so kind-hearted and generous that such criticism seems churlish. Take the ending, for example: Even after closing credits packed with a series of vignettes wrapping up story points, Azazel is free to continue wandering Santa’s village to find out how everyone’s getting on and see sights he missed during the main game. And if you find all the Christmas crackers hidden in each screen, he’ll show off about that too. So yes, you can probably guess where the story is going from the start, and any messages are liberally sugar-coated, but that’s all part of the fun.
Azazel’s Christmas Fable is just the kind of whimsical guilty pleasure many of us are looking for at this time of year. With its lovely lo-res cartoon graphics, perky carol soundtrack and eccentric cast, it’s delightfully warm and inviting. Sure, it’s no Faustian epic or tricky puzzlefest, but it isn’t trying to be. Instead it’s full of festive spirit and delightfully groansome jokes, making it the perfect dash of undemanding Christmassy fun.
Azazel’s Christmas Fable is like a slice of tasty Christmas cake: comforting if undemanding, and guaranteed to get you in a festive mood.
- Beautifully atmospheric cartoon pixel art
- Gloriously Christmassy soundtrack
- Endearingly eccentric characters
- Predictable story
- Fairly straightforward puzzles
- Somewhat short
Peter played Azazel’s Christmas Fable on PC using a review code provided by the game’s publisher.