What would you do if you were perusing a library and droplets of blood drizzled on your hands from a tome on the top shelf? Most people would sensibly flee the scene and immediately head for a sink, but that wouldn’t make a very compelling video game, so it’s probably a good thing for us that the unnamed little girl in They Bleed Pixels made the ill-advised decision to examine the book’s blood-soaked pages.
Her cat-like inquisitiveness results in haunting nightmares, which is where we pick up the action as her purple-skinned, lobster-clawed alter ego. Half brawler, half platformer, They Bleed Pixels feels authentically 8-bit, right down to its two-button controls that could be pulled off with a certain grey, boxy controller. With merely a jump and attack button, the girl is capable of an impressive array of moves including forward kicks, launcher kicks, slam moves, and dash attacks. The two-man development team was inspired by the one-button games at GDC. “It makes you think about your moves. There is something more deliberate,” said Lead Designer Miguel Sternberg.
A brief tutorial demonstrated a few of the basic maneuvers and warned that this isn’t a game for button mashing. Tapping or holding the attack button while standing still or hitting a direction unleashes a different move, and I was initially overwhelmed by the options: a fact evident when I died on the third enemy. But with a little bit of persistence, I was shocked at how quickly I was launching enemies in the air for air combos and impaling them on spikes. “It’s all about the movement set and creating more challenges around that. It’s about gaining skill and perfecting skill with that set,” said Sternberg.
The deadly level design plays a big part in the bloody combat and is decorated with more spikes than Shredder’s wardrobe. “Moves are simple to pull off, but it’s how you use them with the environment,” said Sternberg. I discovered that it’s far more satisfying to kick an enemy into spikes rather than simply slash them to death, and I began to plan my attacks to utilize the hazards to my advantage. At one point I was standing next to a step with spikes on it, and I was able to launch an enemy into the air, hit it to nudge it forward, and then let it plummet to its doom. Spooky Squid Games is still tweaking the levels and trying to maximize the carnage. “We still on occasion find something ridiculous that we hadn’t planned for,” said Sternberg.
Using a bit of ingenuity also rewarded me with additional points that refueled the checkpoint meter. As I collected bleeding hearts and pulled off combos, I filled up a meter that let me place a checkpoint anywhere. It’s a unique system that puts an interesting twist on saving the game. The meter builds fairly slowly, so I wasn’t able to dole them out like candy on Halloween, and I tended to save them for spots right before I previously died.
Those checkpoints do come in handy since They Bleed Pixels is far from a pleasant stroll in the park. The spikes that adorn just about every surface in the game are equally lethal to you, and the demo had me performing some pretty complex wall jumps and platforming segments right away. Sternberg said they wanted the game to have a high difficulty level, but I was astonished at how much easier the level got with every death.
During one segment I slid down one side of a wall, dropped into a freefall and immediately double jumped to latch onto another ledge. One mistake would have resulted in a date with several bloodthirsty pointy objects, but the potentially daunting feat was fairly mundane thanks to the super tight controls. The jumping was incredibly precise, and it was easy to change direction in midair.
The level ended with a series of wall jumps with razor blades that ran up and down the walls. Sternberg said there are no boss fights, but the game introduces a new enemy or unique environmental challenge to wrap up each level. At the end of the level, I found the book and escaped the nightmare. A cut scene revealed that the surreal nightmare had begun to bleed into the real world and the girl’s hands had turned purple. After two years of development, They Bleed Pixels is nearly complete, and they should be announcing release information shortly.