PC | They Bleed Pixels Review
They Bleed Pixels wastes little time explaining its backstory: click Start, and you quickly find yourself in the shoes of a nameless, talons-for-fingers schoolgirl, jumping over spikes and tearing enemies to, well, pixels. Gameplay is a straightforward action-platforming experience, with some enemies placed at regular intervals for you to fight. The crackerjack timing required for the platforming and the button-mashiness of the fighting make the game tough to play on a keyboard, though, so make sure you’ve got a solid controller, or get ready for carpal tunnel syndrome.
While They Bleed Pixels doesn’t do much new with either its action or its platforming, it does do what it does with a lot of style. The story is told via a series of beautifully drawn, dialogue-less cutscenes, and the art is spiced with plenty of weird-fiction inspiration, and outright references: the main character is sent to the Lafcadio Academy for Troubled Girls at the outset, a reference to Lafcadio Hearn, weird-fiction writer and progenitor of H.P. Lovecraft. The gameplay, too, is filled with these clever allusions: combos are lauded not with the standard “Awesome!” or “Brutal!” accolades, but rather with words typical of the Lovecraftian lexicon like “Eldritch!” and the deliciously incongruous “Gibbous!” This sense that the creative designers of the game wanted to ground it in the vibe of the weird makes it stand apart from other games like it.
And there are plenty of games like They Bleed Pixels, make no mistake. Much of the platforming is reminiscent-to-the-point-of-copyright-infringement of Super Meat Boy‘s gameplay, a feeling reinforced by the game’s 2D graphics engine. Spikes abound in the level design, as do buzz saw blades, floating planks, and slippery floors, among other platformer standbys. Level design is generally competent and entertaining, although not nearly as “brutally difficult” as the game’s marketing copy would have you believe. Fighting, for its part, is where the design begins to falter. Scoring combinations on enemies (along with picking up floating bubbles) charges your power meter, and when that’s full, you can place a checkpoint anywhere you like in a level.
But the control system for combo-ing is wonky: to attack an enemy, you need to press the stick toward it and then hit the attack button, but if you want to kick an enemy, you need to just press the attack button without pushing a direction on the stick, and if you want to kick an enemy into the air, then you have to hold the attack button without pressing a direction. If you’re far from an enemy, pressing a direction and the attack button causes you to dash toward it, but you will just attack if you’re close to that same enemy. It’s very hard, therefore, to get close to an enemy and kick, rather than launch a basic attack, as you need to press the directional stick toward the enemy, but release it just in time to kick, rather than slash. But don’t be fooled: the fighting system is hard not because it’s challenging but fair, but rather because it’s uncomfortable and poorly conceived.
That said, They Bleed Pixels is an enjoyable experience. Death is a common occurrence, but not really a big deal, because you respawn instantly at your last checkpoint and can go at it again immediately. While levels get progressively harder, they’re rarely frustrating, and they often offer a kind of self-medication option. That is, you can choose to go the straightforward route through a level and forgo the secrets and pickups, making your life easier, or you can go for these and maximize your score. And you will be scored: every level rates you on speed, number of enemies killed, best combo, number of deaths, and whether or not you collected all the pickups. This makes for replayability, as getting the higher score grades is indeed very difficult.
Also adding to the replayability is the large number of unlockables that They Bleed Pixels comes with, including two customized re-skins with new levels and completely different aesthetics from the main game (more custom levels are apparently on the way, as the game has room for them to be downloaded in its menus). Concept art, tons of metagaming achievements, and a slew of other bells and whistles make for extra value, too.
They Bleed Pixels isn’t bringing you much that’s new or innovative, but the brutal aesthetic and sheer amount of content make up for that in large part. After all, how many games can you think of that use the word “Rugose”?
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