They Bleed Pixels: Challenge, style, platform combat

September 12, 2012

The indie scene abounds with platformers, horror themes and the video game equivalent of album names in music: cryptic and asking for a deeper meaning. The latest, They Bleed Pixels, has an innovative performance-based save system that turns this platformer into an entertaining and effective mix of brawling, platforming and scoring. Most platformers have times and points, but in They Bleed Pixels, you are encouraged to kill everything, and to do so with style and combo points. Sometimes you can just kick a monster off a ledge. Or you could throw it up in the air multiple times in an air juggle, then pummel it, and then make sure that it lands on the spikes instead of the ground.

This is where a lot of the creativity exists. You’re a girl with spikes for her hands, and you not only have to jump, wall jump, avoid spikes and beat enemies, but you are rewarded for doing so with style. Sometimes, you have to figure out a way to kill them quickly. Other times you can simply avoid them. One of the best features of the game is that you can kill enemies by kicking, pushing, stabbing or even nudging enemies into the same spikes and saws you are trying to avoid. It’s a new kind of power trip.

My biggest beef with They Bleed Pixels is the design of its challenge. It lets you choose your terms in battle, but not in how you’re going to jump, slide and fall. There are only eleven levels, and the unique save system actually does not add to the fun. I realize that if I am good at beating stuff up, I can get a saved checkpoint earlier, but it doesn’t motivate me much except in obvious ways. There are little obstacle courses where you can’t put the point up because saws will block it, and the course takes about 30-60 seconds of intense action to get through. If you exit the game in the middle of a save, you can finish the level but you don’t get to keep your score. One time I did not get to keep my save. This puts pressure on me to finish a somewhat large level that is really a conglomeration of five or six Super Meat Boy-sized levels. In some difficult spots, if you get hit by one thing, you immediately die or fall somewhere else. The ’80s left that sort of masochism behind, and so should They Bleed Pixels.

As for actually having challenge, yes, it does, and plenty of it. It’s just inconsistent, and there is less creativity involved than you’d think. The pints that you collect help increase your save meter, so it’s obvious where you are supposed to go and what you’re supposed to do if you want ensure having a save point after that section. When that happens, I wish they’d make up their mind. Are these points for your score that it’s a bonus to get, or is it an “option” to help you set up a better, earlier save point? There is not as much choice as you’re supposed to think there is, and even most minimal platformers of today have a good mix of options for tackling issues. The only options here are about how to beat up your enemies.

This is compounded by the minimal art-style, and it’s not minimal in a fresh or easy-on-the-eyes way, either. All enemies, and the girl you play (she has no name), are outlined in white and, after a while, it is uncomfortable to look at. I realize art is subjective; look at the game in action and try to imagine committing time to looking at it. The blood and gore seem needless, and the story is very short. It touts its commitment to Lovecraft, but a few shorts, some mini-Cthulhus and a dark and gory set with the usual spikes and saws does not make something a great homage. It’s simply a theme and setting that any dark or horror-themed game might have.

Many splendid platformers of late are much better in value and in design. However, taken on its own, They Bleed Pixels is ingenious and manages to do something very rare: bring something new and fresh to the table.

Pros: Unique and challenging combat mechanics, lots of cool ways to fight enemies, generally bugless and very easy to navigate, responsive controls
Cons: Ugly and distracting graphics, arbitrarily-frustrating challenge, limited freedom in save system, cheesy ’80s Ninja Gaiden frustrations

Score: 4/5

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