They Bleed Pixels [Review]
It was late on a Tuesday night when They Bleed Pixels finally broke me. Even switching from keyboard and mouse to a controller didn’t save me. Through a combination of precise jumps, relentless enemies, and a cruel saving system, I was whittled down until I had no will left. After dying for the fiftieth time on a long stretch of saw blades and moving platforms, I put my controller down and admitted defeat. I haven’t done this in years. Nothing in the modern game market has even come close without being broken or glitched. They Bleed Pixels did, though.
Other than the fact that I almost broken my television over it, the game’s pretty cool. Its backgrounds and ambiance have been drawn from the works of Lovecraft, creating a world that seems more akin to horror than platforming. Difficult platforming carries one of the most important hallmarks of horror – a single poor decision leads to a gruesome end – so the game’s premise really clicks with what’s going on. In Super Meat Boy, the cruel jumps you had to make were played up for comedic effect without really trying. Even if Meat Boy died many horrible deaths in the game, there was just something that made me burst out laughing every time he popped against a saw blade or exploded against a mountain of salt. They Bleed Pixels creates an environment of despair and danger, where you always feel like some malevolent force is setting up the vicious traps you need to get through. It manages to feel sinister and a bit unsettling.
The backgrounds manage to look pretty nice while also being menacing. One level takes place in a giant forest, but the trees all look more like giant, unknown plants. They’re cast in darker shades, showing a forest that is right on the cusp of dusk and giving off a sense of coming danger. The various underwater levels have a similar feel to them, as they’re filled with rusting chains and various creatures floating in the background. None of the hulks attached to these chains are shown, but their presence tells you that there’s some force around that sank them. Even with something as simple as the background, the developers made it feel like something terrible is in the background pulling the strings.
The most terrible creatures of them all would have to be the people at Spooky Squid Games, the ones who created the long stretches of saws, enemies, and spikes that make up this game. It’s not something you’ll start to feel until you’re a couple of levels in. This game doesn’t start off all that bad, instead biding its time until you get invested before it really blindsides you.
One of the things that made me feel like the game was a bit easier was the checkpoint system. The game doesn’t rely on specified checkpoints, but rather ones that build up once you charge a meter. You do this by killing enemies or picking up blobs of blood, and when you get enough, you can drop a checkpoint. Not only that, but if you build up a decent combo while fighting the game’s enemies, you can earn even more blood and gain a new checkpoint even faster. As a final bonus, you can hold ‘up’ on your directional pad or keyboard to save that checkpoint for when you really want to use it. See some danger up ahead? Drop that checkpoint and move onward without fear.
This stuff all sounds great until you get over halfway through the game, and then it stops being so nice to you. The game won’t allow you to create a checkpoint if there is an enemy or hazard within range, and this is a huge problem once you get to the advanced stages. There are a lot of times when the game needs you to run through a gauntlet of enemies and traps without a single mistake, and there just isn’t a time or place to make a checkpoint. In other sections, there are huge expanses where you’re jumping from wall to wall or sliding across ice on every single platform, so there just isn’t any opportunity to actually use the checkpoint you’ve built up. It doesn’t take long for the game to reach a point where the checkpoints may as well be scripted, because there’s almost no safe places in the level. They had to create those places to save, or else it would have been impossible. While I know they were trying to create a difficult platformer, it renders the helpful ability pretty much pointless. What good is being able to save whenever I want when I can only save in one or two very specific places in any given level?
I might gripe about it less if I could just concentrate on the jumps without all of the enemies that get in the way. They Bleed Pixels brought combat into the platformer mix, giving you something new and exciting to worry about. Many of the basic enemies plod along at their own pace while seeming disinterested in your presence. Again, you won’t have a lot of trouble in the first couple of stages, but soon the game’s difficulty rears its head. The main purpose of enemies in this game is to be placed as obstacles in spots where you’re doing something important like trying not to fall into a set of saws. While the game’s various enemies are annoying in the open, they’re absolutely destructive in the places the game likes to put them into.
The game loves to put the basic enemies in tight spaces when I have to move quickly. They might be slow, but it’s hard to get around or over them even when it looks like you should have enough space. As for ghosts and those little homing squid things, they can be dodged with ease most of the time but are almost always on your tail when you have to wall jump for long periods of time. I wasn’t impressed with the enemy that shot a spike out of its head at the beginning, but was literally screaming at them when I had to ride a platform over them later. The little guys with the swords were pretty laughable until I had to limp to the end of a long platforming section, only to have one hop above my head while I was stuck in place after an attack, killing me and making me do the whole thing over again. None of these guys are that hard on their own, but they’re always placed very deliberately to give you the maximum amount of trouble.
With all of the game’s combat options it doesn’t feel like the enemies should be a problem, though. The main character has some pretty cool claws that allow for a variety of attacks. You can do a basic slash, dash in from a distance and attack, and also do an upward attack on things that hits anything that might be falling on you. You’re also given a powerful kick that can knock enemies back, letting you turn all of the game’s traps on its inhabitants. It’s something that always put a smile on my face, and it’s probably the most useful attack. Why hit something nine times with your claws when you can just kick it into some spikes and let nature take its course?
The problem is that all of these attacks are tied to a single button and acted out based on what context. If you’re moving forward for a bit before attacking, you’ll dash and attack. If you’re pushing up, you’ll do the upward attack. It seems pretty intuitive and straightforward until you try to kick. You can execute the kick by hitting attack without pushing in any direction, and can kick enemies straight up by holding the button down longer. The problem is that there isn’t a lot of times when you aren’t pressing forward, so I typically would do a basic slash when I wanted to kick.
I was still hitting the enemy, so what was the big deal? Well, there are times when you absolutely need to kick, often when you’re rushing through one of those gauntlets with saws moving up behind you. Remember that devious enemy placement I mentioned? Well, a lot of guys are plopped right in your path during difficult patches, and the only way you can get past them is with a well-timed kick. When you’re already pressing forward because you’re rushing through the area, I think you can see what’s going to go wrong. Unless I was very deliberate about my movement, I would usually run up and do three or four basic slashes before I managed to release the direction and do the kick. If the enemy needed multiple kicks to get out of the way, then I would end up wasting a lot of time trying to get by and would end up getting killed.
They Bleed Pixels is a PC game. Even if it recommends using a game pad, there are still a whole lot of buttons that aren’t being used on it. The other attacks could have been mapped to one of the buttons instead of making it context sensitive. It’s the kind of decision that probably seemed like it was streamlining the game, but it only ended up making parts of it far more frustrating than they needed to be. It’s the one place I would say that the game was being genuinely unfair, and I really wish I could have had the kick tied to another button.
As frustrating as this game can be at times, all of its elements flow together in such a way that you still know that you can beat it. It’s the delicate balance that hard games often have trouble maintaining, hovering between glitched and easy without falling too far into either. The game needs to be infuriating without crushing the player’s hope, and They Bleed Pixels pulls it off. I got angrier at it than I have at any game since Super Meat Boy, but it was a trial to pry my controller from my hand. With the exception of the annoying kick, the failures felt like they were my own, and not something the game had done. It’s unfair and cruel, but in a way that makes you hunker down and practice instead of walking away in disgust.
I put the controller down and walked away that Tuesday night, but I can already feel the game calling out to me again. My mind turns to it frequently, planning my movements through the jumps that broke me. It haunts me, like the book that haunts the protagonist’s dreams and repeatedly pulls her into this nightmare world. It’s striking in its beauty and cruelty, and I have just as much difficulty turning away from it as she does. Neither of us are entirely willing participants in what’s going on, but neither of us has the ability to turn away from it, either. Download it and you’ll soon find your evenings haunted by it as well. Soon, you’ll come to crave it like I do.