From the jagged teeth of buzzsaws to the spiked walls and floors beneath and above every slim bit of ground players will grasp in the search for some small space to breathe, They Bleed Pixels. Toronto developer Spooky Squid has crafted a platformer without pity, where the typical spiky pitfalls of the past are only the opening to a world of malevolently placed enemies and obstacles guarded by blades of precise timing – eager to spill the blood of opponents and players alike in gathering an offering for whatever dark Gods of old are in league with the design of its stages.
But this isn’t a game that’s hard for the sake of being so, nor some attempt to simply join other recent titles that wear difficulty as the primary incentive and reward to be bragged about at some They Bleed Pixels survivors meeting later this year.
They Bleed Pixels examines the space of traditional platformers, and knowing the habits of those that have grown up playing them, challenges players to make more of the wasted space around said platform. It does this by often providing very little solid ground to stand on, but also forces a new perspective on old habits by offering new spaces to cling to.
If you’re possessed of the ability to double jump for instance, a coin could simply be placed just high enough that you have to double jump to reach it over your head. Here the coin, which is more of a blood pellet, may be on the other side of a double spiked wall, requiring you to fall from a platform before double jumping to grab it – and then hoping like hell you reach the next slim perch safely. This is only one example, and perhaps not as effective at getting across the idea that there is rarely any length of this game that offers a quiet walk through the park – the exhaustion of every physical demand only leads to more demanding situations, where one might scream that such feats are impossible before defying the odds and making it across another of the game’s deadly stretches.
Aside from moving left to right and up and down, the game offers all of two buttons to concern yourself with – jump and attack. And while that would seem to encourage a fairly mindless amount of button mashing, it does not.
Your attack button offers several different features – a simple and effective kick when pressed alone to send enemies flying backwards. A harder kick when held down to send enemies flying upwards – at which point players can leap into the air to unleash several sharp attack slaps. Pressing forward while attacking will cause players to stab their pointy hands into enemies, and doing so faster will send players flying toward enemies with those sharp hands ready to feed.
The point of this toolset is in providing a simple and effective means of using the canvas of death all around you, sending enemies hurdling into the hazards also hoping to catch players who fall short of solid ground. Kicking enemies into saw blades and pits of spikes offers glorious pools of red pixels shooting in all directions to stain the instruments of death surrounding players.
As joyous as the slaughter can be, the incentive isn’t simply in painting this demonic canvas, but in charging a gauge that when filled, allows players to create their own checkpoints by simply standing still on solid ground. And this elegant and simple idea turns traditional planning on its ear – there is no definitive planned space for respawning, no flag to mark progress after a particularly tricky scenario. But there is the constant supply of enemies and the opportunity to dispatch them stylishly enough to earn the checkpoint, and then place it wherever one pleases.
Standard enemies trudge around, flying squids and ghosts wait to push you off precarious perches at all the wrong moments, forcing you to take to the air and trusting that you’ll land again, or at least grab a ledge. The dash attack often proves effective here, but also causes the ground beneath one’s feet to vanish all too quickly.
When you add the controls together with the checkpoint system and the layers of platforming sections that prove fiendishly complex while never baffling in finding the solution, you’re left with something particularly special in the way one could wish for it to never end. Like Super Mario Bros., or Katamari Damacy, Spooky Squid has created a formula that should rightly never end, spawning more stages endlessly to my infinite delight and occasional frustration.
And while They Bleed Pixels must possess an ending for those determined enough to reach it, the fact that it must eventually end is excused by the brilliantly devious designs on hand. While this is certainly a title that kept me up late exclaiming “just one more try,” it is also a game that continually surprised me with the twisted demands it made at every new stage – being chased by saws will never again be something one simply sticks in with half-thoughts now that Spooky Squid has realized their full and entirely evil potential.
When the primary ride is over, They Bleed Pixels also offers bonus levels from other indie designers, including an adorably twisted spin on Untold Entertainment’s Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure.
This deceptively simple retro flavored blood opera deserves your attention due foremost to the methodical level of attention paid to every inch of its stages – you simply have to feel the devil in the details here, fed by tight controls for navigating areas where one easily senses how painstakingly refined the design of the final product is. The dark visual aesthetics that mix pixels with hand-painted backgrounds, much like the soundtrack that doesn’t simply tap nostalgia but brings a staggering level of maturity to match the play in its retro audio seduction, all culminates to find They Bleed Pixels one of the few retro tagged releases that truly stands to not simply tap aged ideas, but to offer players a fresh spin that continues to prove the artistry of 2D gaming still has plenty to offer them.