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PAX: They Bleed Pixels is... whoa! Look at all the blood!

10:30 PM on 04.09.2012 // Tony Ponce

[Update: They game is no longer slated for XBLIG; a proper publisher and platforms will be announced very soon!]

Know what I miss? Battletoads. Where's my update, Mr. No-one-in-particular? I'm dying for that combination of street brawling, precision platforming, and nerve-racking tours through sinister mazes of lethality.

Playing They Bleed Pixels, the upcoming Xbox Live Indie game by Spooky Squid Games, I caught shades of the toad trio's old adventures. I also saw lots and lots of blood ohgodicantgetridofthereditwontwashoff!

In They Bleed Pixels, you play as an unnamed little girl who one day discovers a tome of Lovecraftian horrors, dripping with copious amounts of blood. Once she reads the book, she enters a dream world where she grows these huge claws on her hands. Creepily enough, this turn of events makes her happy.

Each level requires you to carefully navigate platforms and jump off walls while avoiding the oodles and oodles of spikes, spears, forks, and buzzsaws that populate every nook and cranny. In a way, it's a bit like Super Meat Boy, although you are graciously given three hit points before you are skewered.

What distinguishes the game from similarly hardcore, death-around-every-corner platformers is its simple yet surprisingly deep combat system. Drawing upon the contextual fighting mechanics of Smash Bros., you can execute any number of techniques with a combination of the attack button and a control stick direction. Tap the button to kick an enemy across the room, hold the button to kick an enemy straight upwards, hold the stick forward and press the button to lunge with your claws, hold up and press the button to juggle an enemy as it comes down, and so on. This opens up so many avenues for combos and creative kills. For instance, you can kick an enemy into the sky, jump in pursuit, catch him in mid-air, deal a few blows, then smack him into a nearby wall of spikes.

The baddies won't just sit there and take it all the time, however; they will block and start fighting back. You can duck underneath their attacks, but you'll have to wait to dodge until they just start winding up, because otherwise they'll duck down themselves and damage you anyway. With their limited intelligence, individual fights can be more exciting than if baddies were merely punching bags. And with each satisfying death, hundreds of bloody pixels explode and paint the floors and walls, sticking to your feet as you track bloody footprints throughout the rest of the level.

The combo system also ties into the game's rather unique checkpoint mechanic. Instead of reaching a set marker and re-spawning there once you die, you build up a meter by stringing combos and collecting blood orbs. Once the meter is filled, just stand still for a couple of seconds to save your progress at that specific point. The longer you hold off on triggering a checkpoint, the more bonuses are applied to your score, but then you'll risk losing a significant amount of progress should you slip up.

The Battletoads feelings really started to well up during a playthrough of one of the later levels, in which the girl is constantly pursued by a wall of buzzsaws. By taking out enemies in your path, you can build your meter to trigger a checkpoint just at the end of a particular leg of the stage, but by wasting time, the death wall inches closer and closer. That's taking risks and rewards to the extreme!

With literally hundreds of frames of animation, the girl's every action is incredibly fluid and impressive, which stands in contrast with the completely uniform level architecture. Save for backgrounds, all the objects and enemies and solid black, partly to maintain the eldritch theme and partly to expedite level creation. Because level creation is so quick and easy, a few other indie developers have been allowed to create guest levels with their own motif, such as the Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure level that makes blood pink and has a preschooler's flowery artwork in the background.

They Bleed Pixels should be out on XBLIG later this year, so you should stay in the loop if like your blood-soaked platformers to have a little fight to them.

Tony Ponce, Contributor
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