I’ll say this about orphanages out in the countryside: I don’t trust them. I’ve never been in one without having a fit of the snivels. Not that I’ve ever been in one, mind, but I’ve seen enough of them through the reliable lens of popular culture to know that they are only marginally better for your health and sanity than a grinning lunatic with a stolen scalpel.
Be that as it may, not everybody has this life-saving primal instinct. And what a relief, because if we all had the paranoid nature of a certain game reviewer whose name I shall carry with me to the grave, we would not be cowering beneath the hellsome goodness that is They Bleed Pixels.
Coming out on a Steamy 29 August, They Bleed Pixels is Spooky Squid’s first bloodsoaked foray into the realm of commercial games. And it’ll wring you till you haemorrhage.
The game casts you in the button-black shoes of a lass straight out of a loligoth catalogue. Freshly arrived at an orphanage run by, I would presume, HP Lovecraft’s aborted twin, she comes across a book dripping blood in a library. Then the dreams start.
It’s in these dreams that the game takes place. And to be honest, the minimal framing story takes a welcome back seat to the visceral gameplay.
They Bleed Pixels, a side-scrolling, monster-flogging platformer, has been described by some comment trolls as “Super Meat Boy with fighting”, but they are drooling idiots and deserving of your pity. This is very much its own game, and it’s pixel noir at its very most brutal.
Each level has you traverse an Inquisition’s worth of spikes, blades and homicidal monsters. Following a straightforward set of tutorials, it starts off mildly enough to let you get the hang of the controls. Then it applies the thumbscrews and slams you in an iron maiden.
With any platformer of this variety, everything hangs on the controls, which in They Bleed Pixels are snappy as a bullwhip. The meat of the game rides on the old staples of the double-jump and wall-flip, and these are handled with acupunctural precision.
But the real revelation is the combat. Using just one button, those loveable fellows over at Spooky Squid have created a hypnotic fighting system with the depth of an ocean trench.
The trick lies in context. Tap the attack button while you’re holding forward, for example, and you’ll vindicate that old warning about running with scissors. Hit it while standing still and you snap off a kick, which does no damage but breaks through defences to launch beasties across the screen (hopefully into a set of spikes or a spinning saw blade). Hold that kick down and you send your opponent skyward, from whence you can set up a meaty juggle and lay on some serious beatdown.
And the better the beatdown, the faster your so-called “Sigil Meter” fills. Spectacular, comborific affairs top your meter out in seconds, after which you can cast a sigil (fairyfolk talk for “checkpoint” in this realm) and regain your misspent health. The sheer number of moves you can chain together, and the tactical oversight required in the fighting, make for mayhem with a glossy grin.
When the good game talks of bloody pixels, it sure means it. Enemies bloom into gouts of the runny stuff (tallied in pints for high scorage), which stains the land and drips from spikes in discrete streamers of red.
Most of this blood, admittedly, turns out to be your own. You’re going to die a lot in They Bleed Pixels, and the game sheds not a single tear of shame over rubbing that shit in. See, when you die your corpse remains, most probably impaled on one of the many pikes and spikes that litter the world like the wet dreams of a certain Vlad.
In just one level I died over a hundred times.
God, it’s horrible. But it swims that bloody strait deftly, managing somehow to feel fucking, fucking impossible but never actually undoable. Each successive act of intrepid suicide garners you a little more finger memory, and before long the impossible has become merely transcendentally difficult.
The lot of it is ensconced in an aesthetic that manages to be charming and sinister at once. The pixel presentation is spot-on, managing to be lo-fi stylish while staying the hell out of the way, and the backgrounds do a splendid job of conveying a sense of dreamlike vastness. The sound, too, is weighty, squeamish and full of pent-up goosh.
Now I must make special mention of the music. It’s done by the awkwardly titled DJ Finish Him, one of the many faces of one Shaun Hatton. It manages to capture the ground-pixel glitchiness of that hallowed 16-bit era, taking itself seriously but winking surreptitiously at you, the player. Wonderfully, when you take too many hits to your three-hearted stock of life, the music plunges underwater and warbles away tunelessly. It’s an excellent way to gauge exactly how close you are to a spell in the mortuary, and it sounds cool to boot.
If there’s anything I’m a touch wiffly about it’s the game’s length. It’s bastard-hard, oh aye, but it’s also a fairly short run through the butchery. That said, there are excellent guest levels (with the promise of more), arty unlocks, ludicrous achievements (excuse me, “Blood Badges”) and plenty extra challenges to dig up.
Pettiness aside, I’m deeply chuffed. They Bleed Pixels is every bit as fun-inducing as I thought it would be; no doubt people who have cyborg hands and genitals of tungsten will be posting their 22-second speed runs of the game on YouTube this time next week.