The word “pixel” in the title obviously refers to the jagged sprite art but is also a clear attempt to join jump the “retro” bandwagon (scare quotes intended) that permeates indie gaming. Games in the 1970s and 1980s never looked or played like this, not even on the extremely blocky Commodore 64 or Atari 5200. It’s an obvious stab at appealing to the aesthetic of old games without containing any of the gameplay elements of something like Ice Climbers or Wrecking Crew. They Bleed Pixels is a platformer, but it has more in common with Super Meat Boy than Super Mario Bros.
My friend Aaron will give me grief for saying this, but the whole H.P. Lovecraft thing is done. It’s a stale pop culture cliché. Fantasy writing is as plagued by regurgitations of Cthulhu as it is by the many lifeless imitations of Tolkien. I enjoy tales of people slowly going mad from trying to grasp incomprehensible concepts and creatures as much as the next internet nerd, but give us a new fantasy setting, please. If you want to create something about horror, I don’t want Lovecraftian influence anywhere near it. As least not as openly as in They Bleed Pixels. And you’d think something that’s obviously cribbing from Lovecraft would have more interesting monsters than long-armed ghouls and tiny flying squids.
OK, enough about the aesthetics. Let’s talk about killing things. Combat in They Bleed Pixels is enjoyable but much too basic. All attacks are mapped to a single button and change properties depending on the direction you press or how long you hold that single button. This streamlines things a bit but also oversimplifies combat, limiting the things you can do to several types of stabbing and kicking. I would have appreciated a greater variety of moves. They Bleed Pixels bills itself as a beat-em-up, but in this post-God Hand world, I want a larger diversity of ways to slaughter things.
The long-armed zombie things will block your moves after taking exactly three hits, making it trivially easy to kick or juggle them, even in groups. The other enemies all have different (but similarly easy) patterns and won’t pose any trouble except when big hordes of them swarm you at once, and then usually only if there are sharp objects nearby. I found the innumerable spikes, sawblades, and guillotines to be a bigger threat than any of the living obstacles. And unfortunately, there are no bosses. An action platformer like this is just crying out for some big bloody boss fights, but they aren’t there.
I did enjoy running through the levels, though. They are mostly quite linear but they are designed to test your control over the in-game avatar, which moves quite smoothly. I rarely felt like a death was anything other than my fault; there are spikes everywhere but no cheap deaths. Especially entertaining were the segments with buzzsaws chasing after me while I darted through corridors or climbed up irregular cliffs.
Have you ever played a video game and wished there was a save point right before a particularly difficult section so you didn’t have to numbly go through a long easy bit until you could attempt the challenge again? Sure, you could just allow quicksaves everywhere or have very frequent save points like in VVVVVV, but either of these will outright kill the challenge.
What makes They Bleed Pixels unique is its save feature. Killing enemies (varying your moves to get style points, similar to the Devil May Cry games) and collecting scattered red orbs fills a meter you can use to create a save point anywhere in a level where there are no nearby enemies or traps. This enables the player to save nearly anywhere they want.
I like the choose-your-own-save-point mechanic but it makes the game too easy. The levels would be a fantastic challenge on their own, but you can use save points too frequently for your death to feel like it holds weight. They could have cut the amount of meter you get by half and created a much more tense and difficult game overall, one that respects memorization and intelligent play. But as it stands, I didn’t feel like my abilities were at all tested until the “The End” level which occurs after you’ve apparently beaten the standard game.
There are some extra-hard bonus levels to help pick up the slack difficulty, and the game itself encourages you to extend the game’s length by repeatedly speedrunning through the levels you’ve already beaten so you can pick up more unnecessary achievements and unlock some fanart that is probably easily available online. That’s more replayability than the average indie platformer, but the game is too short and too simple to justify staying around long.
My complaints may seem overpowering, but They Bleed Pixels is a decent diversion of a game. A friend gifted it to me or I never would have played it, but I wrangled some enjoyment from playing. It seems like a blueprint for a great game rather than a finished product. They Bleed Pixels could have been better with harder levels, more variety in battle, and some good old-fashioned bosses. Let’s hope that Spooky Squid Games’ next title will be more fleshed out.