Super Meat Boy has a lot to answer for. The brilliant but maddeningly difficult pixelated platformer inspired a whole swathe of developers to release similar retro themed indie titles, and They Bleed Pixels is one of the best available right now. It is also one of the hardest games you are ever likely to play.
The set up is great, combining a little goth girl (that evokes Emily Strange) with Lovecraftian horror references and buckets of retro, bloody pixels. Its maybe six months late in terms of bleeding edge cool, with many other similar titles stealing its thunder a little in terms of referencing Cthulhu and Commodore 64 inspired visuals and sound. All of those aspects of presentation are wrapped around a solid core of fun gameplay though…. albeit gameplay that will kick your ass then laugh at you when you try to get back up…. before stabbing you in the eye…… over and over.
It all starts simply enough with some basic stills telling the story of a girl who reads a book of evil. People need to be more careful with where they leave their copies of the Necronomicon. From there, each night she wakes up in a nightmare world of evil monsters, spikes and spinning buzz-saws. Thankfully each time she also finds she has grown huge lobster-like claws with which to eviscerate the monsters. Cue lots of difficult platforming as she attempts to get to the exit and escape the dream world.
Once you start playing you find that They Bleed Pixels is fast, has really tight, responsive controls, and is brutally difficult. At first its not so bad, but even early on in the game you find that you can die in mere seconds. This is because although you can take three hits before dying, there’s no invincibility period after you take damage. Also, most enemies or obstacles or traps will knock you back when they hit you. As a result, you will often find that you die because of just one mistake as an enemy hits you, knocks you back onto a spike which then bounces you up onto a saw in the ceiling. At first the levels have only a few obstacles, but later almost every surface has a trap, spike or blade, and there are even larger spikes that kill you instantly if you fall on them.
A couple of things stop this from being too frustrating. Firstly, this is an intentionally difficult game and as such the developers have made restarting very quick. You instantly re-spawn when you die. Often you will play the same five seconds of action over and over until you get it just right. The little corpses of previous attempts litter the level, showing you where you went wrong and offering a grisly reminder of the mistakes you have made in the past.
They also nailed the controls. As well as being able to double jump, your little clawed avatar can also cling to walls. You will very slowly slide down, but making it to a safe space on a wall and surveilling the level for your next safe spot to jump to quickly becomes essential to progression.
Combat is engaging and deep too. In some ways its like Dustforce. While in that title, chaining together “attacks” on the piles of rubbish in the level allowed you to traverse quickly, lots of the attack moves you use in The Bleed Pixels move you around. You can kick enemies up into the air and then jump up and keep hitting them for an aerial combo that will both allow you to float and also move through the air. You can also charge into an enemy almost instantly if they are at the same height as you and on the same surface. This allows you to travel far faster than you could when walking.
All of the attacks come from the one button, which can be held to kick enemies upwards, pressed with a direction to kick them away or simply pressed to slash them with claws. Attacking enemies with claws for too long will make them block, so you need to kick them into environmental hazards or float them to finish them off. The best moments of the game have you zipping around like a miniature ninja while your enemies fly off into lethal traps that convert them to bloody viscera.
The save system is good too. As you collect blood from enemies and floating blood globules you charge a meter. When fully charged this meter allows you to create a checkpoint. To do so you simply stand still in an area that has no enemies for a few seconds and a checkpoint is created.
The basic game has many little nice additions around the periphery that add to the package. Special themed bonus levels are unlocked as you play, including one that changes the game from a dark horror game to something filled with rainbows and “pony-corns”. This section has a recorded child’s voice and is both incongruous and brilliant. The game is filled throughout with great audio, and while the chip tunes in the early levels are just passable, later songs were ominous and foreboding and reminded me of classic C64 titles like Shadow of the Beast.
They Bleed Pixels has problems though. Its hard. Its too hard for me. I made good progress, but later levels required more platforming nous than I now possess. Thankfully it saves your progress at checkpoints as you go.
The levels can also become samey, and there’s only so much brutality the developers can heap on with evil level design before you start feeling a little oppressed. That being said, its a game with great atmosphere, it’s well designed and when you make progress it is satisfying. If you think modern games are too easy, try this nightmare of a game and prepare to be showered with your own (very pixelated) blood.
8 battered, bruised and brutalised reviewers out of 10