I’m not certain why this game is actually called Bleed – I have several guesses, though, each one more incongruous than the last. First guess: it’s because things bleed in it. Definitely it is true that things bleed in it. But is this enough for a game to be called Bleed? Perhaps not. So, second guess: the protagonist is a woman. She’s a bit angry at most things. . . . a subtle, if slightly off-colour, pun, perhaps? But certainly that is most inappropriate, so, that’s not it. Playing the game through its more punishing difficulties, I think I’ve come to a conclusion that is apt: Bleed is awfully hard, and this game is called Bleed because it makes you, the player, bleed. In your fingers and thumbs. Like. Because it’s so difficult. Yeah. That’s probably it. . . .
A third-person, pixel art-laden, side-scrolling jump ‘n shoot adventure is the order of the day: Bleed deliberately evokes the memories of old arcade and home console hits of yesteryear – most notably the proto-jump ‘n shoot adventure, Mega Man. But then, no - Bleed is most instantly comparable on a plot- and tone-level to Scott Pilgrim vs the World or No More Heroes, with gameplay in line (for the most part) with the current slew of ultra-precise platformers like Super Meat Boy, Dustforce, They Bleed Pixels and VVVVVV, with a bit of Intrusion 2 thrown in for good measure. It might seem a bit weird just to compare a game to other games, but in this case, the game only really works because it is super tied to the tropes of a particular genre – “generic,” the kids would call it. That’s not negative, mind, just a fact - Bleed is generic by design, and that’s absolutely okay.
Players step into the pink-dyed hair of Wryn (pronounced like the back half of “Erin”), a girl who has aspirations to be the next great video game hero! Complications ensue: to become the next great video game hero, she must first knock off the current six best heroes in the land. A varied mob of robots, worms, teenage girls and indistinguishable, formless blobs, what follows is a series of increasingly challenging stages, with unique boss fights at the end in which you finally get to kill the hero of the moment and make your way up the list. Very Scott Pilgrim meets No More Heroes. Like I already said. Y’see?
The actual game unfolds with an uncanny, organic “cinematic” quality. Wryn controls as tightly and perfectly as any of the aforementioned precision platformers; she stops on a dime and does everything immediately on command, which is certainly satisfying in and of itself. What is most curious is that Wryn has a triple jump ability, which allows her to change trajectory mid-air – giving her just enough hangtime to effectively fly for short periods of time. This is combined with an increasingly useful slow-mo ability – an auto-replenishing bar allowing you to initiate bullet time for considerably long periods.
Resulting of these two mechanics combining is a really quite unique game flow. As the game throws more and more bullets, enemies, and objects at you, the game increasingly resembles some kind of bullet hell shooter – heart-stopping slow-motion near misses ensue as Wryn dodges with perfect precision every nasty laser blast, every heat-seeking missile. Well. She dodges with perfection precision, assuming you’re actually any good. The dodging and jumping though, much like bullet hell shooters, becomes much more paramount to success than properly aiming your shots – keeping track of Wryn’s position and avoiding damage is what will keep you from getting horribly murdered over and over again. It’s like that scene in The Matrix where Neo barely misses getting hit by bullets, but instead of a placid Keanu Reeves it’s a bad-ass pink-haired girl, and instead of bending over backwards to near-spinal cord-snapping injury, it’s zipping about in mid-air like a ninja. So . . . it’s nothing like The Matrix then.
My point is, a lot of the game hinges more on your ability to avoid things than hit things; save for when you get to a more Metal Slug-inspired boss fight, in which case, yes, do concentrate on dodging, but for God’s sake don’t stop pumping those mofos full of lead, gurl! I mean, you’re going to get horribly murdered over and over again no matter what you do, so, do what you want, I guess. (It’s worth noting that you actually have a very small amount of life on your health bar, and there are no health pickups, and there are only three or four checkpoints throughout a level which you go back to when you die. So you basically have to get through whole gauntlets flawlessly to complete certain stages. See? Told you the game was hard!)
The gunplay, making up the “shoot” half of the jump ‘n shoot, is, luckily, fairly solid. You start with dual pistols and a rather slow rocket launcher – you eventually unlock a shotgun, flamethrower, and other manner of high-tech and high-explosive firepower. With mouse and keyboard, you aim with the mouse and hit Mouse 1 to fire – on a control pad, you fire automatically in the direction you push the right control stick in, a scheme not entirely unlike a twin-stick shooter. The controls are pretty well mapped all across the board, really – though I personally would recommend using an Xbox 360 pad. The game doesn’t, though, and works absolutely perfectly with mouse and keyboard. Probably better, owing to the more precise aim offered by the mouse. As far as other technical specifications go, the game runs more or less flawlessly – it being a 2D game, it’s not graphically intensive at all – and the options menu accurately reflects that. Don’t expect to be tweaking much beyond screen resolution and certain volume sliders. The sound design, on that topic, is . . . well it’s not bad, it’s just not standout at all. Some of the more chiptune-inspired beats are pretty rockin’, but overall the game has obviously been built to focus on the old-school, nail-biting challenge aspects – the gameplay, with audio/visual presentation only existing to service its key elements.
And taken purely on the merits of its base gameplay, Bleed is absolutely worth playing. The mechanics offer a degree of highly entertaining and truly rewarding free-flowing action, with some really really exciting moments as you become ever more adept at the slow-motion dodging mechanics. A few set-pieces are memorable as hell – fleeing from robotic drones as you hit switches to doors so you can run through before they swarm you, just one of the many more scripted sequences on offer. However, the game brings something quite else to the table – a little flavour unique to itself, all courtesy of protagonist du jour, Wryn. She’s quite an enigma of a female protagonist in this day and age, and refreshingly so. She’s absolutely kick-ass, diving in slow motion and firing akimbo pistols and nasty creatures and such – but at the same time, she is traditionally attractive without resorting to any kind of fan service; she’s dressed sensibly, for starters, and carries herself with a confidence rarely given to many female action stars.
Where I think developer Bootdisk Revolution (which is actually just a single guy, one Ian Campbell) really got Wryn right was in the fact that she is a female character who is funny, without also being a joke. Wryn has an impeccable wit on her, sometimes fourth wall-breaking, other times just standard one-liners – and, although most dialog is confined to game over screens which you’ll undoubtedly see a lot of (because the game is haaaard), they’re all absolutely zingers. This makes her seem, by association, like a smart girl, instead of a hapless, oblivious bimbo like in Lollipop Chainsaw. It has been a while since I’ve seen a girl in a video game tell jokes instead of being the joke, and it is an endearing quality the game has. Or maybe it’s just because I’m a horrible semi-feminist who is easily impressed by anything even slightly running against the grain. At any rate, I enjoy Wryn’s characterization, so, y’know, chances are good so’ll you! If nothing else, Wryn is infectiously enthusiastic as she goes about her business – she’s a happy lil’ girly, clearly having as much fun during the proceedings as you have playing it.
Less endearing: the game is really hard. I mean, like, really fucking impossibly hard. Circumstances permitting, you could probably whiz through the campaign on Normal in about an hour, give or take depending on skill level. But if you stop there – and may I encourage you not to – you miss out on what Bleed is all about. The true meat of the game lies in the absolute brutality of Arcade Mode – you must traverse and complete all the levels, in a row, on one life. A life that shares the same health bar, mind. The levels on their own provide enough of a headache as it is, on Very Hard in particular. I can’t imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to clear Arcade on Very Hard: no continues, no health top ups. Man, I’m cringing just thinking about it. At both the prospect of doing it, and the triple-jointed, spider-fingered, asexually breeding, slimy, shedding, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly-esque quasi-human that could accomplish it. Yeurgh.
For only $5, the “lack of content” can be put to the back of your mind – if you need convincing, it’s worth mentioning that each different difficulty actually changes major elements of levels, so it’s not just health tweaks and damage modifiers that separate Easy from Very Hard – different obstacles throughout are a factor, too. Score attack is more than possible, as you have a rapidly depleting combo meter that needs to be kept up by doing lots of damage quickly in succession without getting hit. And did I mention it’s only $5? ‘Cause it’s only $5. The price is right on this one – very right.
If Bleed looks like the kind of game you’ll love, I can absolutely assure you it is. It delivers spectacularly on most everything it says it will, with perhaps a minor exception that the same-screen co-op (which was a major factor in my decision to purchase the game) is a shared lifebar, screen focuses on Player One sort of dealie, which is a little bullshit – it feels really tacked on, as much as it is a welcome, extra addition nonetheless. The game provides some seriously difficult, high-octane thrills with a likable protagonist and a super-high skill ceiling. If you’re into this kind of slightly more unforgiving 2D platformer-shooter thing, Super Meat Boy meets Intrusion 2 style, well, Bleed slots right alongside the bests of the genre with ease.
Oh. Just a request. If you, while playing it, do manage to find out why the game is called Bleed, do tell me. I’m still not 100% sure on that. Perhaps it’s a Predator reference? If it Bleeds, we can kill it. No? Well, I’m stumped. Just like the bloody stumps on the end of what used to be my hands.
Genre: Action Platformer
Release Date: July 4, 2013
Developer: Bootdisk Revolution
Publisher: Bootdisk Revolution
ESRB Rating: Unrated