They Bleed Pixels is an action/platformer rendered in 2D pixel art graphi-WAIT DON’T CLOSE THE WINDOW IT’S GOOD!
Yes, we’ve been inundated with 2D sidescrollers for a couple years now. It was a novel idea when Mega Man 9 did it and the industry was lousy with them by the time Mega Man 10 came out. It’s easy for a gamer’s eyes to glaze over when perusing Steam and seeing the miles and miles of indie sprite-based games. Sometimes it’s a cheap gimmick to moisten players’ nostalgia glands, but it can be a genuine artistic gesture. That’s why it’s up to indie game developers to prove their worth when using pixel art and show that it isn’t just a ploy to wrangle in a few more sales. They Bleed Pixels goes above and beyond that duty.
And I guess ‘They Bleed Polygons’ isn’t as catchy.
Upon arrival at The Lafcadio Academy for Troubled Young Ladies our protagonist finds a strange book. Within it lurks an ancient evil. The book itself is never named, but with TBP’s overt H.P. Lovecraft references I think it’s safe to assume what very familiar book it is. She peruses the tome and heads to bed. When she’s fast asleep the book awakes and transforms her into what looks like Sailor Moon if she lived in a Japanese horror movie and our grim protagonist travels through a twisted other-world full of demonic creatures. Creatures with lots and lots of blood in them. Every morning our heroine awakes soaked in blood and disposes of the book only for it to return and fling her into an even more terrifying and dangerous world that night.
As I mentioned, 2D platforming action games aren’t difficult to come by. But They Bleed Pixels’s surprisingly deep one-button combat system sets it above the rest and takes it from the ghetto of ‘Another pixelated indie game’ to being just a great game. The attack button will react differently depending on how long it’s held and several combinations with other buttons. It’s your choice to send an enemy flying into a bloody pike or get up close and personal with the main character’s giant lobster-y claws. The focus switches from intense platforming sections wrought with spinning sawblades and spiked pits to lengthy combat sequences involving tons of bad guys and gallons and gallons of blood.
For the most part the controls are solid, reacting just as I want them to and making most deaths feel completely on the fault of the player. But there’s a certain floatiness and drift to the movement that sometimes makes platforming harder than the game wants it to be. And occaisonally so many enemies are thrown at you that the one-button control scheme can get a little confused as to what you’re telling it to do. But nothing like that gets so in the way that the game is spoiled. Each level builds upon the last, naturally evolving the action with new abilities and scenarios. There isn’t a half hour in this game that goes by without me stopping to thing, “Huh. That was a brilliant piece of game design. Why haven’t I seen that a million times?”
They Bleed Pixels goes a long way to make the player feel in control. Even the checkpoints are up to you. As you collect pints of blood from enemies a meter fills up at the top of the screen. When this meter is full the protagonist begins to glow. If she stands still for a few seconds without any enemies nearby, a checkpoint will form. Some of the most intense segments of the game came from me trying to hold onto that checkpoint just a few seconds longer without dying so I could place it in just the right spot. Very few games have frustrated me more than when I held the checkpoint just a second too late and died. But it was all my fault.
Each pixel in this game is lovingly placed in just the right spot. The game’s art is a combination of classic pixel style with paper and ink textures. This adds a grittiness and depth to the look that makes it look beautiful in stills or in motion. And the layered backgrounds create a deep canvas that makes the world feel huge and alive. Steam’s screenshot function got a workout while I was playing They Bleed Pixels. On one playthrough I took 116 screencaps. I’ll probably use seven of them in this article, I just kept hitting F12 for myself.
And the soundtrack provided by Shaun Hatton (aka DJ Finish Him) blends a chippy-techno texture with a tonal eldritch creepiness as well as the rest of the game that wears its weirdness on its sleeve does. Just listening to it is captivating in a kind of stressful way. It reminds me of the soundtrack to Drive in a lot of ways. It has a beat but kind of makes me think about everything sad that’s ever happened to me. That may just be my brain connecting it to the game’s imagery, but it’s a deep dirge that gets into your head, then your soul. 80‘s Synth with a melancholy violence to it. I can't remember the last time I felt a soundtrack melded so perfectly with the game it's scoring. You can buy the two hour soundtrack on BandCamp. I’m probably making it sound bad, but it’s beautiful.
They Bleed Pixels comes in a fantastic package oozing with love. As you progress, you’ll unlock art, badges and extra levels designed by indie game creators. Ryan Craighton’s They Bleed Ponycorns combines TBP with Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and Alex Blethke’s They Bleed Stardust does the same with Seraph.
Overall - 5/5
Should you buy it? This game could cost three times what it does (10 bucks) and I’d say yes. They Bleed Pixels is everything I want from a 2D indie platformer and the bar has been set just a bit higher. The game is gorgeous, it plays great except for a couple little tweaks, and the package is just going to get better with free level DLC. Run out to your local Steam shop and pick up this game. Then let us know in the comments or on Twitter what you thought of it. And be sure to let the creators know how much you love it as well.