Bleed 2 is going to be released in less than a week (February 8), so now seems like a pretty good time to look at the original game in this series. For those unfamiliar with Bleed , it is a brutally hard game focused mostly on its many boss fights which are spread out between seven short and rather varied levels. It shows its age a bit in spots, but the crisp combat and the incredibly smooth controls hold up as well as ever.
Bleed is a fairly simple and straightforward game, so let’s get right down to looking at how everything works. The story bears a striking resemblance to that of No More Heroes as the main character, Wryn, must fight through seven levels to fulfill her goal of defeating the now-retired heroes of yesteryear in order to become known as the greatest hero of all time. Wryn starts out with rapid-fire dual pistols and a slower rocket launcher which can cause splash damage on impact and a good number of additional weapons can be obtained through buying them in the shop and by completing the game on each difficulty. The default guns complement each other well, especially since the explosion from the rockets can hit enemies through walls, and every unlockable weapon helps to put its own spin on the gameplay with mechanics such as the ricocheting bullets of the revolver, the laser rifle’s piercing beams, and the sword’s bullet-deflecting, close-range slashes. Just about every weapon is fun to use and it’s easy to find a combination which fits your playstyle, yet the weaponry is not Bleed‘s main claim to fame.
The various guns and melee weapons at your disposal here are designed well and on their own would make this into one of the better twin-stick action platformers out there, but it is the bullet time and dashing mechanics which escalate Bleed into the realm of legendary indie games. Wryn only has a single jump, but she can follow this up with not just one, but a whopping three air dashes. On top of being able to aim each of these dashes in any direction, you can curve your trajectory mid-dash to dodge between projectiles and bend around corners. Meanwhile, the bullet time mechanic slows down everything in the game to allow for precise dodging and even more dash maneuverability. Enemies and projectiles are slowed down by this mechanic more than Wryn, making this a great ability not just for avoiding fast or dense attacks, but also for putting a good amount of distance between yourself and danger. Bullet time is tied to an energy bar which gradually depletes while it is in use and if you let the bar become entirely empty you’ll have to wait until it mostly refills before you can use this ability again, though the recharge rate is fairly fast even without the passive speed boost from the shop. Between the triple air dash and the bullet time mechanic the latter is definitely the less unique of the two, but it is the combination of the two which makes Bleed such a joy to play; it is incredibly satisfying to weave your way through a labyrinth of projectiles while sniping at upcoming enemies.
Though it has four difficulties to choose between, Bleed certainly doesn’t feel like it pulls any punches on Normal and it only becomes more intense from there. With the exception of the second level, every level has at least two boss fights. Most bosses don’t have multiple phases, but they don’t really need them either. Fights are fast, brutal affairs where both your own health bar and that of the boss can quickly deplete and a victor is usually determined within about 30 to 45 seconds. Likewise, the actual attacks bosses launch come quickly and only give the briefest of warnings, so you’ll need to make ample use of your time slowing ability. Bosses each also have a good number of attacks, enough that you may very well not see every attack a boss has at its disposal in a single attempt, and they don’t follow strict patterns either, so keeping a sharp eye out for the split-second tells is often all that stands between glorious victory and a quick death. Thankfully, you have infinite lives and checkpoints are constantly placed after bosses and other challenges within the levels themselves.
Levels are quite short, coming in at about five minutes each, not including any additional time added on from dying. That said, the levels are also definitely not just trivial, glorified passages between boss fights either. Each level is packed with challenging sequences like rushing up the side of a mansion while avoiding machine gun bullets and rockets from a helicopter or deftly dashing between platforms while dodging moving alarm lasers which will summon in swarms of small robots if they are tripped. The environments of these levels are also all rather distinctive, including such locations as the outside of a moving train and a secret underground lab, and every level has its own, unique set of enemies. The boss fights are still the main attractions, but the levels between these fights are certainly a close second in terms of challenge and entertainment.
Bleed is short and it is absolutely designed with replayability in mind. You start out with a rather mediocre amount of health and energy and unlocking all of the weapons requires far more points than you could earn in a single playthrough. Enemy placement and attack patterns change quite a bit between Normal and Hard while the jump between Hard and Very Hard isn’t as significant on the surface, but attacks on this highest of difficulties contain noticeably more bullets and enemies are far more aggressive with extremely little in the way of warning before their attacks. As a result, it’s technically possibly to complete the game on Hard or Very Hard with nothing unlocked, but it would also likely be an exercise in frustration in many situations. However, all upgrades are permanent so completing the game on a lower difficulty will let you start your journey through the next tier with additional health and plenty of weapons along with a healthy amount of knowledge about what to expect. The game is also extraordinarily flexible with its difficulty as you can go back to older levels or change up the difficulty whenever you want to. You can go through the entire game in order on Normal and then do a second run in order on Hard and then a final run on Very Hard, but you can also just as easily play through one level on Very Hard and then the next one on Normal or play through any given level multiple times in a row on multiple difficulties – you are never locked into a specific difficulty and level unlocks aren’t tied to difficulty (ex: you could play the fourth level on Very Hard at any time after having completed the previous three levels at least once on any give difficulty).
Significant changes between difficulty settings and permanent upgrades aren’t the only things which give this game replay value. Your score at the end of a level is what serves as shop currency and it is multiplied by your difficulty selection and your ‘style’ while being slightly penalized by each death. The style multiplier starts at D and can be boosted up to S by damaging enemies and it will also sharply plummet if you get hit while also gradually decreasing over time, so learning to go through each level quickly while taking little to no damage is the key to earning a high score. An Arcade Mode option also exists where you only have a single life to attempt to go through the entire game with in order with no healing between levels; you set the difficulty and your starting health in advance in Arcade Mode and there are online leaderboards for both clear time and score for every difficulty. Even if you don’t care about points, three additional characters can be unlocked by completing every level on Normal, Hard, and Very Hard respectively. These characters each change up the gameplay in a significant way, such as by having access to a much higher rate of energy regeneration at the cost of needing to use energy for shooting and dashing or by having a weapon which becomes stronger based on your current style rating. There’s even a Challenge Mode where you can fight any combination of up to three bosses of your choice in various arenas for some chaotic fun. You certainly could play through Bleed a single time before putting it down and still feel satisfied, but you’d be missing out on much of what the game has to offer.
The one element where Bleed shows its age is in its presentation. The levels and the gameplay are undeniably polished, but there are some noticeable rough spots in other areas. For example, completing the game on each difficulty unlocks a new weapon and most difficulties also unlock a new character and you can navigate to your inventory and the character select under ‘Extras’ to see the respective requirements for these unlocks, but they can also be easy to potentially miss as you don’t get any sort of notification that anything has changed after beating the game. Speaking of the inventory, this is another area which feels rough. You can only have two weapons equipped at a time, but you can also pause the game at any point to swap around which weapons you have equipped with no penalty and there is no way to swap weapons from outside of levels that I know of. I spent a good amount of time pressing buttons and digging through menus trying to figure out how to equip new weapons before I realized that it could only be done from the pause screen within a level, a decision which seems especially strange to me as pausing to swap weapons would break the otherwise fluid flow of the gameplay to such a degree that I never swapped other than at the very start of a level or occasionally before a boss fight. Lastly, the graphics are a bit on the lackluster side of things for a game which has otherwise held up better than most; character and enemy designs are solid, but there is a roughness to many of the smaller details which comes off more as amateurish rather than charming, which becomes especially noticeable when comparing this game’s graphics to the much sharper graphics of the upcoming sequel.
Bleed has earned the amount of recognition it has received over the years. The gameplay mechanics work so well together and the movement feels so smooth and responsive that the mere act of controlling your character is highly entertaining even before taking into account how the levels and boss fights themselves are well-made, satisfyingly challenging experiences to control your character within. There are a few rough spots around the edges, but they never affect the gameplay itself. I’m looking forward to the sequel and I suspect that it will prove itself to be an improvement over the original in many ways, but the bar set by this first game is a rather high one.