They Bleed Pixels is an Absolute Fucker -- You Should Play It
There’s something about a game that’s impossibly challenging yet mechanically precise, a game in which every fault you make is entirely your own, requiring a level of determination and skill (and an Everest-sized mountain of luck) that constantly propels the player forward. It’s addicting — incredibly so — with a cathartic release unlike anything else in video games. And so They Bleed Pixels, the latest outing by Spooky Squid Games, joins the ranks of such “fuck you” titles as Super Meat Boy and I Wanna be the Guy (alright, maybe not that bad).
The core mechanics of They Bleed Pixels should be familiar to anyone who’s played a platformer released in the last twenty or so years. You’ll jump from platform to platform, avoid spiky/sharp objects and collect items all the while. There’s a combat system here and it’s actually pretty satisfying, with the ability to string combos together, dash, and kick enemies into the air in order to juggle them akin to a fighting game. The main hook and most original thing about the game is the ability to create checkpoints on the go once you fill up a meter from collecting red orbs or finishing off enemies. It’s a neat mechanic and one that’s sort of hard to describe without seeing it in action.
Maybe saying that one gameplay device is the only original thing about this game is a little harsh. After all, I can’t think of any platformers off the top of my head that feature an art style that borrows so heavily from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The 16-bit graphics and unique art direction mesh well, creating an oddly endearing mixture that almost lets you forget just how incredibly fucking hard this game is.
And this game is hard. You will die many, many times, and often times you might feel as though the game is cheating you. I’ve walked into several sections of the game and quickly let loose a “What the fuck!?” before dodging and wall-jumping my way to complete and total failure. But the game isn’t unfair so much as it is demanding — there was almost never a moment where I didn’t know what to do, and most (if not all) of my failings were entirely self-afflicted. They Bleed Pixels is the type of game that requires Super Meat Boy levels of precision, timing those jumps without the slightest margin for error. It helps, of course, that the core gameplay mechanics are rock solid. The jumping feels just float-y enough that you always feel in control of the player character (who, as far as I know, does not have a name) and the combat system is fun without being overly complicated.
The best (and worst) part of the whole experience is that it’s only as unforgiving as you make it. It’s easy to keep pushing forward once you have a checkpoint built up, trying to get as far as you can without using it, until a floating squid creature rockets towards you like a bullet made of concentrated asshole and throws you like a sack of sad puppies into a whirling saw blade below (that’s enough similes for one day, kids). I have rarely experienced a sense of shame that’s comparable to realizing I could have used my checkpoint moments before dying, losing entire chunks of progress due to my own ego.
They Bleed Pixels does a lot of things right, but it isn’t without fault. The story is basically non-existent, and while one could easily make the argument that a story isn’t necessary for this type of game (which I completely agree with), unnecessary does not mean unwarranted. It would have been nice to give a little more color to this world, interesting as it is. Instead, we’re mostly treated to the same 16-bit cutscene of our protagonist (who I’m tempted to call Orphan McLobsterfist from now on) burying/burning/drowning an evil book that has been causing her to transform into a horrible Lovecraftian beast and transporting(?) her to some sort of side-scrolling hell-world. The only scenes that differ from this are the intro and ending. Sure, it’s probably just a limitation of the engine and the budget that the team was working with, and at the end of the day it doesn’t mire the experience in any significant way, but after seeing how much effort was put into crafting such a solid game I can’t help but wish for more. Also, the music (composed by DJ Finish Him) is decent but sort of forgettable. It’s not the type of soundtrack you’ll find yourself listening to long after you’ve finished the game, but it certainly does a decent job setting the tone and pace of any given moment while playing.
At the end of the day, though, They Bleed Pixels is an enjoyable platformer with a few neat gameplay mechanics. It’s fun, charming, and completely addictive. The gameplay is as solid and refined as you could ask for in a platformer, with both the combat and checkpoint system being pleasant surprises. It’s the art direction and crushing difficulty, however, that gives They Bleed Pixels it’s distinctive feel, setting the game apart from other like-minded 16-bit indie platformers. If you’re fan of games like Super Meat Boy, I’d highly recommend giving this one a shot.