They Bleed Pixels
Super Meat Boy had the gleeful comedy deaths of its icky cartoon hero. Limbo had its oppressive monochrome horrors. A dash of the macabre clearly suits platformers. No surprise when the genre puts players one misstep from death at all times. So They Bleed Pixels has its schoolgirl hero with a cute bow in her hair to go with its pixelated occult aesthetic. However, after skimming through a sinister book she found at her eerie boarding school, every night she mutates in her dreams. Her arms extend into lethal blood tipped prongs. Her skin turns a vivid shade of purple. She can double jump. She becomes a far more dangerous schoolgirl with a bow in her hair. Useful, considering that she's now trapped in a surreal dreamscape full of peril, spikes, monsters, and more spikes.
Spooky Squid Games Inc. live up to their name - hopefully just the "Spooky" and "Games" bits - in creating a terrifically ominous style. A range of muted colours set against detailed, peculiar backdrops, ranging from oversized flowers to hovering chain links and fierce flames, works in tandem with the sinister beat of a creepy pounding chiptunes soundtrack. Versatile beeps and boops mimic booming organs, or a theremin's otherworldly higher pitch, to memorably atmospheric effect, but without ever being memorable for its own melodies.
Visual style and soundtrack naturally fade to the background when the intent business of leaping between cunningly placed platforms begins. And this punishing game will demand your attention. In what feels like an increasingly rare feature in indie platformers, They Bleed Pixels kindly lets players take three whole hits before death. But Spooky Really Not A Squid Games Inc. made a cruel decision to counter the extra hits their prey can absorb: no immortality period follows taking damage. Take a hit, and you're just flung back, impartially, to death or safety. Slipping onto a saw blade can easily bounce you directly into an enemy attack that knocks you off the platform onto a waiting spike. All in a second or two of utter helplessness. Extra lives just prolong the hellish game of pinball the game plays with you.
I'm sure multiple hits were only included as an excuse to triple the amount of things in the game that can hit you. Like a vindictively playful deep sea animal releasing prey from its tentacle's clutches, only to snatch again. I guess they have to make their own entertainment down there. So a number of enemies are added to the murder methods at the game's disposal. This requires a combat system that supports more sophistication than headjump assassination, and that is provided in the form of a swift combo tallying system. With a small variety of attacks, and lethal objects surrounding every environment, fights become haphazard encounters more often than skilful duels.
The effort to create a control scheme so simple it could be mapped to a SNES controller backfires here. Those of us without arms and tentacles to spare can handle some dexterity, our separate evolutionary branches didn't leave us molluscs. The issue here is how attacks are bound to one button. Variation in attacks depends on which directional key is pressed along with attack. Additionally, when stationary, attacks are a kick that deals no damage. So every time you want to attack and inflict damage, you must be moving. Combine this with the amount of fighting on small platforms you'll need to do, enemy tendencies to block attacks, and the sheer number enemies can appear in, this often left me feeling needlessly vulnerable. A short range blink attack, that should help bridging combos, charged me headlong into an attack or a block more frequently than it warped me over to the next enemy to pound. These shortcomings made more challenging fights devolve to me abusing the cheapest strategies just to get out alive. Pity. Issues with the combat hinder what could have been an inspired take on checkpoints.
Instead of crossing an invisible line to trigger a checkpoint, a meter fills as blood globules are collected. Blood, collected either from enemies (the amount multiplied through combos), or from the droplets hovering around levels, is quantified numerically, in a system that could, superficially, appear like a points system. But look at the meter, and it is clearly measured in pints. PINTS. Spooky Squid Games Inc. Plc Ltd Legit deserve your money for that alone, surely? Anyway, once the appropriately named meter is full, stand still, and an pentagramic checkpoint appears (provided no dangerous objects or enemies are close). I really have to applaud a system that does something so inventively practical with what other games simply count at the level complete screen. Opportunities to use the feature are rarer than I'd like, as levels often break down to hazardous subsections bridged by short, safe corridors, but when it's useful, and usable, the custom checkpoint feels incredibly gratifying.
These checkpoints are vital too. What led me to endure the piercing shrieks that accompanied every death, and ignore the mocking ghost of my character left where I died previously, was the excellent design I've neglected to mention until now. The many ways Spooky Squid Games Inc (Marine Division) choose to kill you are, mostly, fair and avoidable (with difficulty). A huge variety of scenarios and layouts come from a small range of environmental features and enemy types. Shuttled upwards by elevating platforms, vaulting criss-crossing platforms to great heights, or running the age old left to right gauntlet, things stay fresh and excessively spiky.
True to the title, blocky blood rains down like confetti
Actual level layout is great, but the way difficulty increases can seem problematic, annoyingly for a game where a sense of brittle hardship is key to the experience. Maybe naively, I like to think competencies developed as I play should allow me to succeed - yes, I do value intuitive design, Rayman Origins, easy mode and afternoon naps. Instead I sometimes found later stages demand that I learn the specific movements of individual scenarios to succeed. I'm no stranger to these demands, but they surprise me when they surface outside of SNES platformers and Panzer Dragoon. In other words, these moments feel anachronistic.
Meanwhile, other areas aim for overwhelming numbers of enemies, or simply add more variable dangers to a scene than my feeble non-cephalopodian mind can handle. One example had me ascending a slippery platforms pursued by saws coming from underneath, a moving saw on each platform I stand on, and enemies coming from above. A single hit from a saw or enemy effectively dooms me, and I am expected to track four movement trajectories, including my own shifting position, to succeed. With no mid-point checkpoints, because of that slippery floor and those ever approaching saws.
Of course that strain, and the subsequent flood of relief coming after success, is exactly what I want from these games. Replacing my small amount of skill and timing with frantic guesswork can be an indictment of my own ability as much as it could be one of the game's design. Maybe I shouldn't expect kindness from a game with more spikes than the entire history of volleyball. If you don't expect games to treat you well, there's cruelty in abundance for you here.
Use a gamepad though. I didn't; my fingers may truly never recover.