They Bleed Pixels
by Polly


Let me hit you guys with my super original and not totally run into the ground game idea, alright?

Intensely difficult indie platformer, liberally coated with references and imagery related to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, main character so gawth she farts dead bats, faux chiptune soundtrack and low-fi sound effects, uses pixel art in an effort to make potential players say, "HEY THAT LOOKS JUST LIKE NINTENDO XD XD XD!" I, for one, think I'm about to take the gaming world by storm, so while you read this review, I'll be readying my back for all those pats from my hipster pals down at the local coffee shop. 

Alright, maybe I'm being a little too hard on They Bleed Pixels right out the gate, but I do think it's a game that represents a bit of a problem when it comes to indie productions and their infatuation with trying to play to a specific crowd. Beyond trying to strike that chord of nostalgia, the "retro" look is rarely ever used to any sort of meaningful effect. If anything, this game would have looked better without leaning so heavily into the pixel art aesthetic and would have felt atmospheric and sincere with a more traditional presentation rather than, "Hey look, it's a retro game!" 

I'm not gonna try and tear a game down simply because it's trying too hard, however. They Bleed Pixels certainly isn't without merit, and I feel that at least some of the ideas it brings to the table could be key to keeping the recent trend of "masocore" platformers vital and interesting. 


The platforming part of They Bleed Pixels is about what you expect from these kinds of games. Movement is snappy, you've got a double jump, and you cling to and jump off walls. There are spikes (of course there are spikes) and buzzsaws (of course there are buzzsaws) everywhere, and they're all intricately configured throughout each stage to maximize the amount of cursing per play session required for these kinds of games. It's just old hat by now and there's never anything truly surprising or inspired on the part of the game's level design other than the overall length of each stage being much longer than the bite-sized chunks most games in this genre offer up. 


They Bleed Pixels' main contribution to the masocore platformer formula is a simple and satisfying little combo-driven combat system. The protagonist has a decent amount of combat abilities at her disposal, and when combined, you'll most definitely be painting walls and floors with the pixelated bodily fluids of your foes by the pint. 

You have striking and kicking attacks. Striking attacks do direct damage to your target, and by combining them with jumps, upward strikes, and crouches, you set up simple bread and butter mashy combos. Kicks act as a defensive tool as well openers to big combos. You can either simply kick an enemy away from you or launch them straight up into the air. 

The big key to setting up combos however, is using the environment as a part of it. Enemies are easily knocked around by your kicks and strikes, so punting an annoying foe into a bed of spikes below or into a spinning buzzsaw is how you get the most out of combat. Chaining all of that together by say, launching an enemy with a kick, jumping up after them, rapidly striking them in mid air, and then blasting them away into a buzzsaw as the combo ends yields far more points than simply button mashing them to death, and it feels and looks god damn awesome. 


Performing well in combat is not only vital for getting the best grade at the end of the stage, but it's also heavily important to They Bleed Pixels' checkpoint mechanics. Earning points by collecting items and doing well in combat fills a meter in the top left of the screen. When that meter is filled, you can drop a fresh checkpoint nearly anywhere, so that when you do die (and you will), you don't lose much progress. The amount of points needed to fill the meter is pretty reasonable, and even if you're not the best at combat, there are still enough enemies that are dumb enough to fall into their own traps and plenty of easy-to-reach pickups so that you'll be able to plop down a fresh respawn point at decently fair intervals. 

I know you're probably already thinking, "Man, this sounds pretty awesome," and I'd tell you that it absolutely is...when it works.

My primary gripe with the game is the controls are kinda terrible. It seems that the developers sorta forgot that they had more than two buttons to work with, or were bullheadedly trying to cling too tightly to the "retro" idea of a game only controlling with two buttons. 


You only have an attack and jump button, meaning that all methods of attack are tied to one button. Slashing enemies and kicking them serve two very different purposes in this game and having them mapped to the same button is just bad design. 

Issues quickly arise with intense platforming sequences featuring loads of enemies. The best course of action, more often than not, is to punt enemies out of your way to keep your momentum going, but in order to do that you have to a stop and THEN press the attack button and THEN wait for the animation to play out. Looking at the moves chart above, you can see that pressing left or right with the attack button can either make you deliver a simple strike attack or make you do a dash attack, neither of which move enemies out of your way. Having to wait for your character to come to a complete stop to get an enemy out of the way just seems counter intuitive to how you'd be using the controls while trying to rush through an area. You're going to have MANY cheap deaths caused by delivering the wrong kind of attack, and it's an issue that could have easily been addressed by having separate buttons for attack and kick. Many segments almost seem built around the idea of you fucking up at the controls like this, and to some degree, it feels intentional on the part of the developers to add artificial difficulty. 


Unfortunately, They Bleed Pixels also suffers quite a bit from some really inconsistent hit detection and enemy placement that, in my opinion, is just a bit too masochistic. Buzzsaws in particular seem to have really weird and varying hitboxes, and it's often hard to gauge when one will actually hit you. That's a pretty huge problem in games like these that often require quite a bit of pixel-perfect perfection. The game really asks for more precision than the hit detection and controls can provide a lot of the time, and it can prove insanely frustrating when you KNOW deaths aren't your fault. 

The level designers also seem to have taken some sick delight in cramming the worst enemies types into every single worst situation they could find, and many of them are specially timed and coded to behave outside their normal parameters in order to fuck you over. I Wanna Be The Guy sprang to mind many times while playing, and that's not the kinda hard you want your game to be. It borders on complete bullshit and crosses that line more than it should, especially in the game's final stretch. On top of all that, level progression doesn't really follow any kind of difficulty curve, it just kinda spikes early and whenever else it wants to, so don't be surprised if the game has you  wanting to snap a gamepad in two 10-15 minutes in. 


Other than the combat elements, which are severely hampered by the game's controls, They Bleed Pixels doesn't really add much to a genre that's already almost comically saturated. If you don't mind hammering through the parts where the combat and platforming are joined at the hip, it's just another fairly standard, "Me too!" Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV cut with a goth edge, and your time would be better spent with something more unique. Like Pid.  

I wish I had played Pid instead. 

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