Sunday, 6 January 2013

REVIEW - They Bleed Pixels (PC Indie)

They do indeed bleed pixels, everywhere. After only a few minutes of gameplay the stage will be awash with crimson life juice, much of it your own. They Bleed Pixels is a 2D platform game firmly situated in the masochistic camp. It seems to want to out do Super Meat Boy, Spelunky et al in the difficulty stakes. It begs for you to hurl obscenities at it while teasing you to break your controller, but is this blatant aggravation worth the time and effort?

2012 seemed to be the year hardcore games became more commercial. With titles such as Dark Souls, and the aforementioned Spelunky winning universal praise in part due to their fiendish difficulty levels that had heads throbbing and hands sweating across the globe. There are, of course, other examples both recent and old. The Ghosts 'N Goblins series has been relentlessly murdering players for over 20 years and, more recently, Super Meat Boy and PC indie title 'I Wanna Be The Guy' became cult hits due to their fiendish ways. These games kept players hooked due to the actual mechanic being so finely tuned that you always felt that it was your fault that you died, and that pushing yourself just that little bit further will reap the rewards of a completed stage.

Things start off tremendously well. The game's excellent retro graphics sit somewhere between the 8-bit and 16-bit style, and have a nostalgic charm about them. Plus the soundtrack is really good, mixing thumping electronic sounds with some light rock elements. You play as a young girl sent to the 'Lafcadio Academy For Troubled Young Ladies' who, upon arrival, foolishly manhandles a blood soaked magic book, with predictably dire consequences. After being sent into a realm of her own nightmares, and having her hands morph into pincer like blades, she sets off on a murderous rampage through the popular platforming setting of spikes, platforms, and more spikes. Oh, and saw blades, lots of those too!

You are quite an agile girl, with the immediate abilities of running, double jumping and wall jumping at your disposal. Combat consists of frantic hack & slash encounters with the game's black nightmarish adversaries. They can be slashed until they expire or, by holding down the fire button, they can be kicked forwards or straight up. This leads to many gory and humourous deaths as you boot them into spike pits and buzz saws. The levels often have strange layouts, meaning you are never 100% sure where to go, but you follow the route that seems to make the most sense (usually to the right) until you see some clues that take you up, down and around the stages to locate the exit book. Death traps are absolutely everywhere. Spikes and moving buzz saws lurk around every corner, and many platforms only have the sides spike-free. This means you are required to perform pixel perfect mid-air acrobatics in order to cling to the side of a platform before doing the same again. It can be extremely frustrating. This frustration isn't helped by the fact that many of the enemies are tiny and airborne, speedily and unpredictably zipping around as you try to cross yet another perilous section of instant death pits. It feels incredibly obnoxious at times, and you often feel that you have been cheated by the game rather than your own error.

The saving mechanism can be unforgiving too. As you kill monsters you obtain orbs which fill a bar at the top of the screen. Upon reaching the top your character begins to glow blue and, when you stand still on an appropriate platform surface, away from any immediate dangers, the game creates a checkpoint. It's a sound idea, but in practice can often lead to you completing a large section after many frustrating deaths, only to lack the required orbs to save. It is teeth grinding stuff, and the irritating scream the girl omits EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU DIE will soon burn its way into your mind forever. It's a shame as They Bleed Pixels can often be very satisfying to play and does feel rewarding when you complete a particularly tough section (e.g. all of it). The basic platforming mechanics of running and jumping feel precise, and the combat is frantic, bloody and fun. The game's presentation is top notch too, with some excellent cut-scenes that bring to mind the epic Lucasarts point 'n' click adventure games of the 1990s.

If the difficulty level wasn't so needlessly infuriating then I wouldn't hesitate to recommend They Bleed Pixels, but its frustration factor is so high you are often left wondering if continuing to play is actually worth it. I had to call it a day after a particularly stressful section suddenly made me realise that the game was actually becoming a chore to play. It just makes you angry, and anger is not a good emotion to get from a form of entertainment. Joy, excitement, fear and satisfaction are all emotions one can encounter playing a video game, and these can make the experience all the richer for it. But you have to wonder about the value of something so clearly and deliberately designed to piss you off. The 2D platformer is my genre of choice, but I am starting to grow a hatred towards these masochistic games that mock you with their obnoxious design and absurd difficulty levels. Some people love them, maybe the same sort of people who like to wear a gimp suit and get hit with a wooden paddle, but they aren't for me.

If you want a super hard, but fair and rewarding game then go for Spelunky, or Super Meat Boy. You could even go back and play some older games such as Ghouls 'N Ghosts, or the Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 on NES. These games will put your skills to the ultimate test, without making you want to embed your controller into the nearest wall. It's a real shame as They Bleed Pixels could have been really great, but it's design flaws let it down, turning what could have been an indie must-have into a game that isn't actually much fun to play.

The Good

  • Tight platforming mechanics and hack & slash combat
  • Excellent retro aesthetics, including nice cut-scenes
  • Cool soundtrack
  • Can be satisfying to beat a stage

The Bad

  • The constant death scream will drive you crazy
  • The tiny flying enemies make things incredibly annoying
  • Save system isn't very good
  • So aggravating you will want to head-butt the screen

Developer : Spooky Squid Games inc.
System Reviewed : PC
Also available on : n/a
Price : £6.99