They Bleed Pixels – PC
Developer: Spooky Squid Games Inc.
Publisher: Spooky Squid Games Inc.
Release Date: August 29, 2012
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by ryanvoid
Lovecraftian. Magical Girl. Beat ‘Em Up. If that phrase didn’t immediately make you squeak like a shoggoth’s chew-toy, you and I have very different tastes.
In They Bleed Pixels, you play a young girl (with no name) who, upon arriving at Lafcadio Academy for Troubled Young Ladies, begins having violent nightmares set in surreal, eldritch environments. In dreams, she sprouts what look like twin demonic tuning forks on her hands and battles her way through hordes of monsters and hostile environments. As the game veers back-and-forth between the dream world and the real world of the Academy, her dreams (including her own physical transformation into a killing machine) begin leaking out into reality.
The gameplay shares a lot of its DNA with the slew of Intense platformers that have come out in the last five years, but it’s a very different kind of game. It uses the same unspeakably harsh and difficult environments, but the point of the game is not “look at how impressive I am for having gotten through a gauntlet of traps that want to ruin my life.” You have a much more active role in the game, and you have a greater degree of agency in navigating the levels apart from just avoiding pitfalls. The levels are hellishly difficult to get through, but there’s a much greater emphasis on finding creative ways through them, rather than throwing a series of corpses at the problem until you get lucky. In order to progress through the game, you have to kill enemies as stylishly as possible, because the more blood you spill, the closer you get to using checkpoints. The game encourages you to use the unforgiving stages to your advantage by kicking enemies onto spikes and buzzsaws, awarding more blood for longer combos. When you’ve executed a particularly cool combo while spilling loads of blood, encouragement like “RUGOSE!” and “GIBBOUS!” pops up onscreen as a riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s penchant for unnecessarily verbose descriptions.
The combo system, specifically, is a tremendous achievement because They Bleed Pixels only uses one button for attacks, yet discourages button-mashing by blocking straightforward thrashing. You juggle enemies, pummel them in midair, and chain combos together until your Blood Meter is full, allowing you to create a checkpoint sigil as long as you are on a flat surface and not immediately in the vicinity of any enemies. For only using one button, the game demands a fair amount of skill and precision in order to execute clever combos. The enemies are varied and distinct enough to force you to tailor your approach, especially when you’re surrounded by a score of goons and can’t juggle them individually.
There’s not much of a storyline to speak of. There’s a loose narrative tying it all together, and there’s a transformation/dream sequence every time you drift into the Lovecraftian dreamworld, but let’s be real here, any storyline is purely incidental. What it lacks in actual writing, it more than makes up for with atmosphere, and the game’s aesthetic is unified and stark. The minimal storyline is purely a vehicle for cool gameplay, and this is clearly a game for people who are suckers for 8-bit-inspired beat ’em ups. (I say this like I am not a sucker for 8-bit-inspired beat ’em ups.)
My other complaint about the game is that the one-button controls can feel a bit cramped, and the dozen or so attacks jammed into one button can be difficult to use at points. Certain obstacles require a very exact combination of moves, and it can be frustrating as hell, especially if you happened to cast your checkpoint sigil far away from the obstacle course in question. Mostly this involves memorization of the traps, and a maddeningly precise collection of moves to get through it. These moments place it closer to Super Meat Boy territory, and that’s not a good thing. They Bleed Pixels is in its element when it gives you the option of thrashing your way through enemies with a series of clever attacks rather than giving you an aneurysm trying to avoid traps. After all, the spikes are frequently your friend as you impale your enemies upon them.
Overall, They Bleed Pixels gives you exactly what it promises, and the ‘collect-the-blood’ mechanic is both inventive and messy as hell. Everything gets splattered with the boxy red pixels, and God almighty, they even animated a little splash when you jump into the puddles. The pixel art is beautiful, the soundtrack by DJ Finish Him keeps it humming right along, and it manages to provide an endlessly entertaining experience without going too over-the-top with its take on Lovecraftian lore. Like Eldritch, riffing on Lovecraft is a much more fulfilling experience than taking it as seriously as it takes itself.
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