September 8th, 2012 | By Dominic Tarason
What are little girls made of? Well, if Spooky Squid’s new platformer is to be believed, then we can count dark magic, razor-blades, demonic claws and buckets of gore among the standard ingredients. They Bleed Pixels has walked a long, troubled road to release, originally slated to launch as an XBLIG exclusive quite some time ago, but eventually settling on a rather belated but much higher-profile (and PC-exclusive) Steam launch. The trailers look enticing, but is it worth your $10?
Low-fi (but charming) graphics, buzzsaws and spikes aplenty make it easy to compare They Bleed Pixels to Super Meat Boy, but sink an hour or two into the game and the closest point of reference becomes Hitbox Team’s Dustforce. Rather than being a game about 15-30 second dashes to glory with a thousand deaths between you and the target, TBP is more geared towards complex, technical platforming with a focus on scoring in a variety of fashions along the way.
At first glance, They Bleed Pixels doesn’t look to be a huge game – only 11 levels, spread across four chapters, with an extra couple of unlockable bonus stages based on other indie releases such as the hilariously incompatible Sissy’s Ponycorn Adventure. There’s not too many of them, but the levels are lengthy, intricately built and designed to be played again and again, explored, and exploited for maximum combo potential, and each one has multiple completion criteria. Are you aiming for maximum points, or fastest time today?
Despite the game being built around a control system that would work on a NES gamepad – just digital movement, jump and attack buttons – you’ve got a lot of tools at your disposal. Double-jumping, slides, fast diving attacks, wall-clinging with multiple slide speeds, a sideways near-instant dash move, and a few different melee combat options, all of which you’re heavily encouraged to use. Combat is surprisingly intricate and involved, considering that it’s all using just the directional movement controls and a single ‘attack’ button.
In addition to acting as your score, the amount of blood you extract from your enemies (multiplied through extended combos and usage of environmental hazards) charges a gauge which, when filled, allows you to place a checkpoint and restore your health to the maximum of three points. This checkpoint can only be placed in ‘safe’ areas, away from moving hazards or slippery floors, so you sometimes have to search for a safe haven before continuing, but that’s all part of the strategy that slowly reveals itself as you play further. Speed-runs in particular encourage you to avoid placing checkpoints at all, as they require you to stand still for a couple of seconds to successfully place them.
All of these elements are held together tightly by the level design itself. Every level is a lengthy, varied piece of architecture – impressively so, considering that everything is made out of the same black blocks, with the only real visual differentiation being the background. Almost no obstacle is repeated more than is absolutely necessary, enemies are placed in increasingly fiendish locations, traps are located in just the right places to give you pause, and long stretches of obstacles require precision and endurance, especially as there’s seldom a safe spot to place a checkpoint.
There’s multiple roads to completion, with seperate achievements being handed out for just surviving a level, clearing every enemy, finding all six hidden book-pages, completing under a par time, avoiding death/damage or scoring above a certain point. There’s multiple ways to play and approach each level, giving them great replay value. All of this makes me wish that the online leaderboards were a little more comprehensive, and there was an in-game replay sharing system, but these aren’t so much complaints with the game as wishes for maybe a future update.
All of this carefully engineered platforming is held together by some rather impressive aesthetic work. While the levels themselves keep things very clean and simple in the tiles used, the backgrounds are creative and evocative, and the sprites are clear and well animated. Every enemy has easy-to-follow tells on their attacks, and the clawed protagonist herself is clean and clear in her design, and never obscured, even when the screen is covered in blood. There’s a little bit of Lovecraft-inspired story to tie it all together – a cursed book ‘chooses’ the girl and takes her on a tour of a variety of alien dreamscapes – and a great electro-chiptune soundtrack to keep the action flowing.
They Bleed Pixels is not a huge, sprawling game. It doesn’t set out to do much, beyond offering a tight, involved platforming experience. The sparse cutscenes and clean menus do no more than they set out to do. And in the end, it pulls it all off – TBP is one of the tightest, most replayable, skill-driven platformers released in a long time. You might feel that the experience is a little short if you only play through each level just the once, but the entire experience is engineered around repeated play, learning tricks and optimizing routes. It’s not everything to all people, but if you like old-school running, jumping and fighting, then this is about as good as it gets. They Bleed Pixels will cost you $10 or your local equivalent, and is available exclusively via Steam for Windows PCs only.