They Bleed Pixels (PC)

Games Reviews
They Bleed Pixels (PC)

“You say that so often! I wonder what your basis for comparison is?” – Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth

It’s not fair. It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair. These words define the lives of both children and platformer gamers. You’ll probably utter some variation on them during an average playthrough of They Bleed Pixels.

Other terms likely to come up while playing Spooky Squid Games’ latest: fuck, shit, bullshit, damn, cock, “why would you do that?”, “that wasn’t my fault!”, “I hate you”, cock, shit, damn, fuck, bullshit, fuck, “that’s not fair”, “that is not fair”, “that wasn’t fair”.

Yeah, They Bleed Pixels is an—all together now—old school indie platformer. You play a schoolgirl who discovers an evil tome which gradually mutates her into a purple claw-demon, while also populating her “dreams” with shadowy figures to beat on. Combat is a stripped down fusion of traditional platforming and spectacle fighting. Our young heroine can stab, slide, stomp, kick and air juggle opponents—simply, with one attack button and the directional keys. What complicates things are the environments.

Levels in They Bleed Pixels are lethal. It seems as though only the legal minimum of platforming space has been set aside for the player to navigate, with every other pixelated inch allotted to spikes, buzzsaws, trapdoors, insta-killing tufts of javelins and other bits and bobs of edged death. Unfortunately, for the player, these things will chew through a mere three-heart life bar in seconds. Fortunately, they will do the same to the grim thugs somnambulating around our girl’s head.

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Players are encouraged to turn the tables on their foes by forcing them into these unnatural hazards. Strangely, for a platformer—a genre where the level itself, more than anything, is the “enemy”—the inky corridors of They Bleed Pixels don’t always feel that hostile. When you first launch one of the game’s basic zombie-esque foes into a spike pit, trick a floating mini Cthuloid to careen into a buzzsaw or land a combo which builds the bonus meter up enough to earn a checkpoint, you almost want to reach out and high five whatever Deep One crafted this razor-wire nightmare. Hey, the level’s on MY side…

But this feeling doesn’t last. Later stages are kinetic maelstroms of gore and embarrassment, where the energy and thought the player previously devoted to combat is spent on complex, occasionally overlong wall-jumping segments and devious timing challenges. The goal becomes to just survive, with a secondary objective to “let God sort out the rest.” (“God” here being a maddening, tentacled dimension-being unto itself, with a sick sense of humor.)

Much of the game is spent navigating the uncertainty between embracing and cursing the devilish level design, and the sudden jump in difficultly feels like a betrayal. And it should. While They Bleed Pixels proudly wears it’s Lovecraftian influences on its sleeve, its story (young girl goes to some type of orphanage or boarding school, discovers dark secret) seems more in the vein of Dario Argento. It’s a tale about growing up and the sometimes horrifying changes—physical, metaphysical and supernatural—that entails. It’s about finding out that the world can be a bad place and, to a degree, about allowing oneself to become part of that badness. After all, despite their terror and frustration, the razor-pitted stages of They Bleed Pixels still feel familiar for a platformer. They are the world, and fairness was always a lie. The true horror is that when we see our precocious heroine transform into her mottled, empurpled form, it almost looks like she’s smiling.

They Bleed Pixels was developed by Spooky Squid Games. It is available for the PC.

Sean Clancy is a freelance writer in the Boston area. He’s a frequent contributor to DigBoston and gets all kinds of silly on Twitter.

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