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They Bleed Pixels (PC) artwork

They Bleed Pixels (PC) review

"genuinely, super-difficult, frenetic gameplay...copious amounts of the titular blood"

I typically always play 2d platformers using a d-pad, but when I fired up They Bleed Pixels, that didn't seem to be an option. I quickly found that I greatly enjoyed playing a 2d platformer using an analog stick. Even when I figured out that all I had to do to access the d-pad was press a button on my controller, I decided to stick with the analog stick. I don't think I'll always use analog sticks from now on in 2d platformers, but I can safely say that I will be using it for some and I highly recommend that you do the same.

Anyway... They Bleed Pixels is a 2d platformer with an interesting horror theme. You play through the nightmares of an unnamed protagonist, a student at a “school for troubled young ladies.” Nightmares in which she is transformed into a bizarre purple-skinned alter ego of herself with giant, razor-sharp claws for hands.

The themed levels start with a quote from a famous horror author such as H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe that lead you into each stage's mesmerizing soundtrack (by the incredibly well-named DJ Finish Him) and fascinatingly creepy background art. All of the platforms and architecture are made out of the same black platforms, but each level features crazily detailed background pixel art. Just to name a few, there is a garden themed one and an underwater one. I won't spoil too many details, but the quotes from the authors and the background designs combine with the pulsing electronic soundtrack to create a unique atmosphere that is simultaneously genuinely creepy and conducive to the game's fast-paced, super-difficult, frenetic gameplay and copious amounts of the titular blood and gore spraying and splashing everywhere.

The clawed girl can run, double jump, and has a few basic ways to attack. Just pressing the attack button makes her kick, which sends enemies flying away quite far but does no damage to them. This is still a move you will use constantly as every level is stuffed to the gills with deadly obstacles that are put there to stop you but also damage enemies that get knocked into them. Whether it's a spiky bit on a wall, a giant impaling spike, or an extremely deadly buzz saw, most of your fights will involve kicking enemies into something. You can also launch them straight up into ceiling obstacles with a high kick by holding the attack button. To do a normal attack, you must hold forward and press attack. This makes you stab with your claws, which you can do over and over. Normal enemies take many hits to kill, and if you attack too many times in a row, they will put up their dukes and block your attacks, so you have to mix it up with some kicks and high and low attacks, and charge attacks, which let you charge forward from a distance very rapidly. All the while you need to duck under or jump over their attacks, all while avoiding whatever environmental hazards will doubtlessly be all around you. You only need to get hit 3 times to die, which makes even basic enemies quite difficult to fight. They telegraph their attacks for a split second before lashing out, but it is so fast that I wasn't able to react to it all that often to dodge. Once I had played the game a lot and was able to constantly duck under their attacks, I felt like a genius. No matter how you kill an enemy, blood will be spilling. The title doesn't lie, they do indeed bleed pixels. I'm talking about gallons and gallons coming out of each enemy. Like 20. The animation on the blood is exquisitely detailed. The game is all pixel art, but the blood sloshes and flows around with totally believable liquid motion. It splashes onto walls and floors and ceilings, staining and flowing, and even sloshing around and splashing when you walk through. I believe that this all attained through sprite animation, but it is so convincing I would believe you if you told me there is actually some kind of physics engine running.

There are a handful of enemies besides the basic enemies you'll encounter, and they are all quite challenging to deal with as well. There are tiny squids that charge at you. These guys are deviously programmed to charge into air space that you will be jumping into in the near future. I don't know how it works, but they will hit you in mid air time after time. Then there are tiny guys with knives who can block almost all your attacks but become vulnerable if you let them take a dive at you. They move so fast that they are really deadly. And then there is the game's terrifying take on the Mario style ghost that only charges at you when your back is turned... those things are truly horrifying both aesthetically and as a gameplay challenge.

The other big obstacle in your way are the crazy platforming challenges in the game. Crazy double jumping shenanigans such as jumping into a ceiling and then double jumping around it up to a higher wall (which you can grab onto Mega Man X style) or jumping over a spiked block and double jumping back up to clean side of the same block are the norm here. You will very often be hanging onto the sides of platforms while over a pit of spikes or threading your way through a litany of buzz saws, or being chased by moving saws while doing some hard platforming and fighting enemies. Expect to die a lot. Like, up to several hundred times for the harder levels. Which segues right into the checkpoint system...

You can make a checkpoint almost anywhere, but you have to fill a meter by grabbing collectibles and by killing enemies. Describing that was quicker than I thought it would be, but I think you can see the possibilities just from that brief explanation. The better you do in combat by stringing together long combos and multiple kills, and the more risk you take in grabbing pick-ups in dangerous spots, the more checkpoints you will get to make. It's a simple, elegant, and brilliant way to have a flexible and engaging checkpoint system that more games need to straight up copy immediately.

Once you beat the game, there are tons of achievements (called blood badges) to earn. 150 to be exact. You get them by doing things like beating a level without dying, speedrunning a level, or finding hidden pick-ups, which are pretty easy to find as long as you keep a look out, but often quite tough to get to. In fact, I just have to mention that when I was going through the game again and specifically looking for these hidden pick ups, I never once missed one in the main game levels. I don't think that has ever happened to me in any game before. Usually hidden items are a bit too hidden and are frustratingly un-fun to find, but here I had to look hard but didn't have the frustration of still not finding them. Genius. There are also high scores and other stuff to get you badges. I ended up getting 100 of the blood badges, which took many hours and was tons of fun. Most of the ones I skipped are in the category of professionally difficult. Pro speedrunners and extremely obsessive people should take a look here. Earning blood badges also gives you keys that let you unlock artwork by friends of the developers. These art pieces are crazy good and totally worth earning. They range from the cute to the horrifying and span all kinds of mediums from drawings to photography.

The game's story, which is told through pixel art cutscenes, is very interesting and has a cool influence on the make-up of each new set of levels. You'll soon be rooting for our heroine as she deals with an evil book, and you'll soon start to know what kind of level you are about to face after watching a cutscene before the level even loads up even though you aren't directly told.

I hope I've conveyed just how smooth and tight the gameplay and aesthetic of They Bleed Pixels is. It's one of the few games I've ever played that can basically do no wrong. The levels are designed to pixel perfection, with everything in the right place and a massive amount of forethought and imagination. The enemies are simple to understand but almost always challenging to fight, and some of their AI routines are downright creepy. They know you too well... The controls are different and unique yet smooth and effective. The way you have to press forward and attack to do basic attacks and just press attack to kick sounds backward, but it works so well and leads to such thoughtful and fun combat. The music is absolutely some of the best I've ever heard in a game. It manages to have a driving electronic feel that also matches the horror theming of the game, and a few of the tracks are just plain magical. Finally, the pixel art is universally incredible, from the very simple yet extremely evocative sprites of the main character and creepy enemies to the insanely detailed background art and cutscene art, the game is wholly cohesive in a great way that almost no one in any medium can pull off.
They Bleed Pixels handily earns a perfect score, 5 out of 5.


Robotic_Attack's avatar
Community review by Robotic_Attack (December 17, 2015)

Robotic Attack reviews every game he plays... almost.

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