Drawing from the chillingly descriptive minds of authors as diverse as the monastic Kobayahi Issa, the imaginative Neal Stephenson, and, primarily, the twisted H.P. Lovecraft for its level design, They Bleed Pixels may be the most erudite platformer ever made. But a quick jaunt through its 10 nightmarishly challenging levels—broken up into parts of dreams, each with their own arcade challenges, a la NiGHTS into DREAMS—reveals that it’s not literary so much as it’s well-red; that is, these stages will soon be littered with enough pixelated blood to make even Super Meat Boy a little squeamish. The silent story, in which a new student at the Lafcadio Academy for Girls must overcome the ritualistic curse the headmaster has put on her, isn’t scary, particularly in its delightful comic-book presentation, but the gameplay is—scary hard, that is.
Each level, inspired by a different epigraph (e.g., lanterns of the dead and a 500-foot clock tower that puts Castlevania to shame), is a challenge in patience and precision, especially as the surfaces are increasingly overwhelmed by spikes and the grounds become coated in a slippery ice. But because that wouldn’t be difficult enough, They Bleed Pixels also throws in a rather robust one-button combat system that, like Devil May Cry’s, rewards air juggling and a stylish variety of combos. Attacking while standing still has a vastly different effect than dashing or sliding into an enemy; you might also use your claw-like hands to impale enemies from above. (Getting each level’s “S” ranking is impossible without a firm grip on these mechanics.) The game also introduces a rather interesting risk/reward system: As you harvest blood from your enemies, a sigil meter fills. When it’s complete, standing still in an area without metal objects will allow you to refill your three hearts and to create a checkpoint; alternatively, pushing through without casting this save sigil effectively doubles the amount of blood you earn.
Spooky Squid Games’s lead designers, Miguel Sternberg and Andrij Pilkiw, have clearly put a lot of care into this game, from the precise coding behind each pixel-perfect jump to the cardboards-and-watercolor-like art, and all the demonic and squid-like images hidden in the backgrounds. They’ve even invited other indie designers like Alex Bethke and Ryan Creighton to design unique bonus levels (every bit as hard as those found in the game), which hints at the potential longevity of this game via updates. That said, there’s already plenty of content here for the hardcore. Thought beating each level was hard enough? Try doing it without dying or beating the par time in a speed run. Perform even more complex double-jumps and wall-grabs as you attempt to gather the six pages hidden in every level, or to kill all of those just-out-of-reach enemies. By the end, your frustration-shattered keyboard may be covered in blood.