It’s a wonderful feeling to play a game and tell yourself that you’re experiencing something great. Delivering a fun package that’s difficult to put down with an attractive and clever mix of platforming, brawling, and just a bit of puzzle solving, They Bleed Pixels is such a game. And as a bonus, it’s all set to a fantastic soundtrack by DJ Finish Him.
The game sports a wonderful art style, blending classic pixel art with watercolor-style backgrounds to create a pleasing aesthetic. In the spirit of classic horror films, the narrative (told though comic book panels that emulate the look of Super Nintendo games) revolves around a young girl sent to a correctional school who stumbles across an occult book dripping with blood. Each night, the girl is pulled into a another vivid, monster-filled nightmare in which the book imbues her with blades for arms. She must survive her dreams and figure out the book’s true nature.
This is possibly the most punishing, frustrating, and brutally difficult game I’ve played since Super Meat Boy. Not since Team Meat’s platformer has a game made me shout expletives at my computer, then go get comfort food from the fast food joint. This is in no way a criticism: They Bleed Pixels is simply a very well-designed game that will put your skills to the absolute test. Each level requires extremely careful timing, expert jumping, and the occasional leap of faith. This leap of faith can be frustrating at times, as you’ll have no idea you’re falling onto a floor of spikes until it’s too late.
They Bleed Pixels may appear to be a button masher, but doing so is a one-way ticket to death. The ideal strategy is to utilize the perilous environment to dispatch enemies, as well as mix up various combos and pop-up maneuvers to maximize a score multiplier. This all feeds into a final ranking system, grading on a scale of what is apparently A to D (although I haven’t gotten an S, it may be a possibility).
The game mixes things up just a bit with some minor puzzle solving, usually involving hitting a switch. This can get more complicated when a switch may be out of reach or behind a wall, necessitating the use of bomb-carrying enemies to toggle the switch. Occasionally you may have to step back and observe your surroundings to figure out how to proceed.
One of the most devious features is, surprisingly, the checkpoint system, though it is not in the way you may think. The checkpoints (“Save Sigils”) are generated by the player once the Sigil Meter has been filled. This is more complex than it sounds, as filling the meter requires skilled use of combos and taking risks to collect pickups. In addition, the sigil cannot actually be cast in the immediate vicinity of certain hazards. The latter condition makes for some cruel moments when the apparent ability to cast a sigil is suddenly snatched away by the presence of a saw or enemy. There’s also the matter of trying to estimate the best place to cast the sigil, and actually remembering to do so: in a moment of confidence, I attempted to press on without casting the sigil, and ended up paying dearly with a major setback.
It honestly gets infuriating, as some segments will paralyze the player in the same area for several minutes as they try to pass a particularly difficult hazard. One such situation involves running down a curving hallway away from a line of saw blades while weaving through platforms and fighting enemies. It took me well over half an hour to pass it before finding the right rhythm, ending the level with hundreds of deaths (yes, the game counts the number of deaths per level).
The frustration is not always bad thing, however, as passing each level and hazard is enormously cathartic. The sense of deep satisfaction that comes from overcoming a particularly difficult segment is almost unparalleled in modern gaming, and it’s almost always a welcome experience to have a game that tests the skills, patience, and mettle such as this.
As great as that is, it’s still a good idea to put the game down and walk away from time to time, as some of the challenges just get too frustrating. Some of the levels require such crackerjack timing and reflexes that it can take quite a while to pass them, and subsequent failures pose the risk of a gamepad being flung through a computer monitor.
It’s a good burn in the end. Games are too easy anymore, and They Bleed Pixels refuses to hold your hand. With that steep difficulty comes the joy and satisfaction of brutally dispatching enemies in creative ways (such as bouncing them off multiple blades) and journeying through the eye-catching levels. Meticulous design, inventive art (including bonus “mash-up” levels), and satisfying combat make They Bleed Pixels a perfect choice for action platformer fans, as long as they have a bit of patience.