They Bleed Pixels
There’s a short period at the beginning of They Bleed Pixels, when the game’s teaching you the ropes, in which there’s a little bit of leeway to the difficult. It’s not easy, but it’s also not beating you down, punishing you for every second you wish to play the game. The pixelated art is fantastic and welcoming, the soundtrack groovy. Even the combat has more depth than expected from this kind of 2D platformer. And then, almost without warning, the difficulty spirals up. What once was tolerable has turned to superbly challenging and then, by the end of the game, soul crushing.
The story is simple and twisted. Within the Lafcadia Academy for Troubled Young Ladies a young lady discovers a book covered in blood. It is the discovery, and opening of the book, that forces her to have terrible nightmares in which her hands are twisted into claws, and she must fight her way back into the waking world. There is a degree of mystery to the book, along with a little bit of humor due to her attempts at ridding herself of it, but the story is the window dressing on the game.
They Bleed Pixels can be divided into two styles: platforming and combat. The platforming borrows from Super Meat Boy and DustForce, requiring trick jumping, whether it be platform to platform or wall to wall in order to reach your destination. At first platforms make sense in regards to the direction you must travel in order to proceed, but soon you’ll find yourself standing upon a lone platform surrounded by spikes with no apparent path. Simple jumping gives way to lengthy series of wall climbs, without floor of course, and then giant saw blades become obstacles to that.
Surprisingly, the combat is rather deep. Once again, everything starts simple. The young lady has only one button to attack. There is no success in button mashing, as all enemies have some way of circumventing blind attacks. There’s also no reward in button mashing, since you gain fewer points to add to your checkpoint meter. Instead, the game rewards style. Launching an opponent into the air and juggling them on their way down grants greater rewards then mere basic attacks. Within the level there are spikes everywhere, eager to provide bloody ends to anyone you happen to send their way.
Killing enemies in style fills up the aforementioned checkpoint meter. Instead of having regular checkpoints, this game makes you earn them. Fill up your meter by killing or collecting orbs and you’ll be able to place a checkpoint wherever you please, as long as where you please is not nearby an enemy or a saw blade. Bypassing enemies and skipping over bonus orbs means you’ll fill up your checkpoint meter that much slower, resulting in repeating larger segments of the level.
Does the freedom of this kind of checkpoint system make the game better? Harder, definitely. Especially towards the end, when there are long segments of gameplay in which there aren’t enough enemy encounters to fill up your meter, or there isn’t a chance to place a checkpoint. A large amount of time in these later stages is spent just replaying the same segment over and over, trying to figure out what ludicrous acrobatics are required in order to continue to the next segment, only to discover there’s still no place to set a checkpoint.
And then there are the little things that add on to the frustration. Movement is not quite as tight as it should be. Combat could use multiple buttons. Walls act like magnets, including times when you’d rather not be sliding down them. Eventually it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the main section of a level and the secret, more difficult paths, because all paths become near impossible. Sure, it may take three hits to kill you, but get bumped by a saw blade and suddenly you’re rag dolling halfway across the level.
They Bleed Pixels is a monument of pain and frustration packaged in nostalgia and wrapped in a pretty red bow. Every moment of relief is overcast by ten of anxiety. At least the soundtrack was awesome.