Saturday, March 9, 2013

#12: They Bleed Pixels - Taking a Stab at "Good Difficult"

They Bleed Pixels is an H. P. Lovecraft-themed 2D platformer in a pixel-art style with an emphasis on wall-climbin', baddie stabbin', and dying an awful lot. Subtract the Lovecraft and stabbin' elements from that description, and you might notice a similarity to a certain other well known 2D platformer that starts with "Super" and ends with "Meat Boy". The similarities between the two games are occasionally so noticeable that if the Game_Design.doc for They Bleed Pixels doesn't make reference to Super Meat Boy at least once, I will eat my keyboard.

In my best Christopher Walken impression: Spooky!

It's not a crime to borrow elements from other platformers. To an extent, that's what nearly every genre in every entertainment medium does in order to move forward. There are many aspects of They Bleed Pixels that are innovative in the sense that at least I have not personally encountered them before. Therefore, let's discuss what TBP does differently than Super Meat Boy, what it borrows, and what I think works and what doesn't work.

The levels are often heavily vertical. Don't look down.

In TBP, you've got the classic full-stop-in-mid-air double jump and wall climbing abilities, which you will use about a million times per level, so familiarizing yourself with how it works is important. There's a basic combat system revolving around a rapid stabbing move and a kick that can send enemies away into environmental hazards or upward to be juggled further. There is no ability to block, though you'll find yourself often wishing there was one as you only can survive two hits before dying. The more variety in your combos, the more "pints of blood you spill" (translation: points earned). The more points you earn, the faster your checkpoint meter fills up and you can lay another checkpoint in any spot you choose, so long as there are no moving environmental hazards in your immediate vicinity and you can stay still for two seconds.

Exhibit 1: The purple glyph that indicates a fresh checkpoint.
Exhibit 2: The reason the game is called "They Bleed Pixels".
This sounds like a totally rad, hip way of dealing with the ancient problem of saving progress in a platforming game, right? Unfortunately, it becomes irritating after the first time you accidentally place a checkpoint in a terrible spot that requires you to repeat the same section over and over in order to get another stab at the part you're actually dying on. 

The odd thing is that this is a quality endemic to platformers; it's pretty much tradition that until you can do the whole level all the way through, you repeat the sections you've already mastered on your way to the tricky part (which is always toward the end). However, this treatment tastes far, far worse when it's obvious that it's your fault as the player. It also hints at the necessary question: why introduce a feature that does nothing but allow the player to screw themselves compared to static checkpoints intelligently chosen by the developer to minimize frustration? I was unable to find a good answer. The only saving grace is that there is no limit to how many times you can die and retry at a checkpoint. Be forewarned: I died upwards of 100 times on some levels before completing them.

Note the "Lives Lost" section. This was the last level, so it was particularly nasty.

For whatever reason, the creators of TBP chose to eschew the platformer genre convention of the "invincible grace period" after being harmed, an element that exists primarily to minimize frustration and feelings of "cheap deaths" from being trapped or hit multiple times in a short time window with no chance to react. While Super Meat Boy avoided this by not allowing the player to survive any hit whatsoever, TBP gives the illusion of durability through the three heart health bar. In practice, however, it quickly becomes apparent why most games elect to include that grace period; death in TBP can and almost always will be swift and brutal. This brings me to what I consider the primary issue with TBP, which is a pervasive feeling that you don't always deserve your failures. Super Meat Boy managed to be incredibly difficult without leaving the player feeling cheated, TBP does not achieve this same zen.

Here's why, when combined with the lack of a grace period. TBP has more saw blades than Sears, and these buggers will always send you flying harshly in some direction, such as off the platform or into further hazards. Thus, saw blades are often fatal despite only supposedly doing one heart of damage. The stock enemy has an attack that has the same effect of knocking about. Most enemies will simply cause you damage anyway if you try to hit them during their attack animation. Plus, a particularly annoying enemy type resembling a flying squid has a tendency to move in your way while you're platforming, resulting, of course, in an irritating "cheap death". 

Aside from the single saw blade on the bottom left, these are stationary. Regardless, hitting one will knock you into the others and result in death. Also, there's one of those pesky squids.
The game clearly aspires to be "fun because it's so difficult" in the way that is hip right now among smaller game developers, much like pixel art (not to say I think either trend is necessarily negative). At times, it succeeds gloriously; in my opinion, these are the sections heaviest on platforming and wall-climbing, like a spikey-armed Spiderman. However, the combat is relatively shallow, and sections with too many hazards everywhere are often frustrating because of being knocked around like a pinball to your death. If the extremity of some of the achievements for They Bleed Pixels is any indication, there are people out there who are much more dedicated than I (I'd like to see a real life human beat the last level without dying once). 

Oh, and slippery ground. There's a level early in the game absolutely loaded with slippery ground. There's a reason ice levels are always loathed in games: because having less control over your character is awful and everyone hates it. Only more so in a game like this.

I know I likely gave the impression that I didn't enjoy They Bleed Pixels at all. That would be incorrect. I'm pretty sure I only paid $5 for the game. Overall, not too shabby, especially from a value perspective. The main takeaway should simply be that I think the game had potential that it didn't quite live up to. It's the result of an accumulation of minor frustrations hindering enjoyment of the game as a whole for someone like me.

Still, if you like deliberately hard platformers like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, then They Bleed Pixels is worth your time because it was designed for you. However, I don't believe it has the mass appeal of some of its brethren. Perhaps the developers understood that anyway when they chose a Lovecraft theme. 

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.