This is the eighty-fourth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

It’s time for another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. It’s Bleed 2, by BootdiskRevolution (AKA Ian Campbell). Its tagline in the bundle reads:

A relentless arcade action game with air-dodging, bullet-reflecting, and tons …

I’m going to assume that it was going to say “tons of explosions”. Bleed 2 is, of course, the sequel to Bleed, which is also in the bundle. The pair are among the better known games within, having gotten a lot of positive press, and I’d intended to check them out at some point, so this pick was a pleasant surprise. Normally, I’d play the two games in order, but such is not the way of Scratching That Itch. I must embrace the randomness, and play the sequel first. I can now reveal that, despite the name, Bleed 2 has no blood whatsoever. But it sure does have explosions.

Bleed 2 is a fast-paced action game that uses “twin stick” controls, meaning that protagonist Wryn can move and aim her guns independently. It plays as a kind of fusion of platformer and shoot ’em up, placing it in similar territory to games like Intrusion 2 or Noitu Love 2. Hmm… apparently, I only play such games when they are sequels. Anyway, Bleed 2 has the familiar spectacle of the shoot ’em up genre (like the nineteenth entry in this series, Zenodyne R, which, whisper it, is also a sequel), with every stage escalating in bombast, and giant robotic bosses smashing up scenery and filling the screen with slow-moving bullets.

I don’t know if Wryn was a famous hero at the start of the first Bleed, but she certainly is now. When an alien invasion interrupts her while she’s playing videogames, she grabs her trusty katana and pistols and heads out to save the day. This is much to the delight of the breathless newscaster who narrates the cutscenes between each stage, ecstatic that Wryn, The Greatest Hero of All Time, has returned. Wryn can be controlled with a twin stick gamepad or mouse and keyboard, and I imagine both would work well, but I opted for the mouse and keyboard since I’m more used to those. The mouse makes it a snap to aim Wryn’s pistols at any threat that might appear, and most of the time it’s easy to move Wryn around with the keyboard. The only exception is when Wryn must use her triple-jump air dash to weave through bullets or other obstacles, in which case an analog stick might be preferred. But I managed with my keyboard, especially since I could employ the generous time-slowing feature for careful maneuvering.

In fact, I found Bleed 2 to be surprisingly welcoming to new players. The shoot ’em up genre is often fiendishly difficult, as exemplified by games like Zenodyne R and Furi, and from what I’d read about Bleed and its sequel I’d gotten the impression that it would follow suit. Not so! The story mode in Bleed 2 gives players infinite lives, respawning them (after a brief message of encouragement from Wryn) right before they died. And Wryn actually has a decent sized health bar anyway, able to weather several hits before she falls. There are four selectable difficulty settings, the default being the second one, and I found it to be just about perfect for me. I died and respawned quite a few times, but never felt overwhelmed, and was able to enjoy every bit of the seven-stage campaign. Those stages don’t last too long, with the full game completable in just an hour or two, but Bleed 2 is designed with replayability in mind. Not only are there the higher difficulty settings to try, but there’s also an arcade mode which challenges players to finish the whole game without dying once, and an “endless mode” which procedurally generates stages with random bosses from the main game, offering a different challenge every time. And I haven’t even mentioned the other unlockable weapons and playable characters. More on them later.

Playing through Bleed 2 the first time almost felt like a tutorial. Blasting away with Wryn’s rapid-fire pistols is highly effective in most stages, tearing through minor enemies quickly, but her katana — activated with a quick click, as opposed to holding down the mouse button for pistol fire — should not be underestimated. If timed properly, a katana slash can reflect purple bullets (but not yellow ones) back at enemies, and sometimes bosses will glow purple too, indicating that they’re ripe for some slashing. Redirecting bullets and slashing bosses would be tricky to time right, if it weren’t for the time-slowing feature. Holding the right mouse button slows time to a crawl, but I think Wryn isn’t slowed as much as everything else, which is great for careful timing or for dashing through a mess of bullets and missiles to emerge unscathed. Slowing time drains a meter below Wryn’s health bar, but it recharges quickly, and I found I always had enough time-slowing juice for my purposes. As I played through the story, I learned to use the time-slowing ability more often, as it’s one of Wryn’s most useful tools. The game was teaching me to fight more effectively, and let me feel amazing while doing it.

Even the tone of the story is positive and welcoming. The newscaster who appears between stages is comically reverential towards Wryn, absolutely certain that she will prevail no matter the odds, which is both amusing and encouraging for the player. The villains are cartoony and seem like they’re just a bit grumpy, rather than actively malicious. Buildings may get leveled, robots smashed, enough missiles launched that you could walk across them in flight — literally — but it always feels like the action is in good fun, and once they’re done with hero business Wryn and her friends set about repairing the city with infectious enthusiasm. All of which is to say, if you are intimidated by arcade-style action games or shoot ’em ups, don’t let that deter you from trying Bleed 2. BootdiskRevolution absolutely want you to have a good time, no matter your skill level.

When I’d finished the story, I already felt I’d improved a lot, and dipping into the arcade mode for a bit confirmed this. It was also a great opportunity to try some of the unlocks I’d received at the end. There are mutators, which can change fundamental rules of the game (like turning off gravity) for fun. I’d unlocked three new characters, and there are two more I’ve yet to find (I assume these are unlocked by prevailing on higher difficulties, or in arcade mode). One of these is similar to Wryn, but the others handle quite differently. Claw Girl is, I believe, the protagonist from the game They Bleed Pixels, which is also included in the bundle (and which definitely does have blood). Her attacks are short range, and she only gets one air dash, but her air dash damages enemies if she moves through them, and dealing damage can grant her another dash, so skilled players can fly around the screen slashing everyone. Damaging enemives also refills Claw Girl’s energy bar (used for slowing time), which does not regenerate normally, but can also be used to refill her health. She feels totally different than Wryn to play, and while I didn’t play with her for long, I suspect she’ll make the campaign fresh again. As will the robot character, White, who has a medium range attack but can absorb enemy bullets to refill his health, instead of reflecting them. There is also a whole arsenal of new weapons and a new “Freestyle” mode to go with them. These are only for Wryn, but in Freestyle mode she can change her weapons from the pause screen at any time. Some are just variations on her katana and pistols, but there’s also a rocket launcher and a laser rifle, both of which can be extremely useful in certain situations, even making some bosses much simpler and faster to defeat.

Ah yes, the bosses. These really are the meat of the game. Regular enemies are little more than cannon fodder, mowed down with ease as Wryn stampedes through the stages, but it’s never long until another boss appears. These giant adversaries use tried-and-true telegraphed attacks which must be dodged, specific moments of vulnerability that must be exploited, and/or deadly patterns of projectiles and must be evaded. They look great, the bright and colorful pixel art popping despite all the action going on. And (at least on Normal difficulty) they are always just short of overwhelming, letting me parse what I needed to do to defeat them. And I wasn’t kidding about the spectacle these bosses provide. Mechs are launched from the alien mothership in the background only to crash through the building Wryn is in, leading to a battle on the street below. A robotic ninja duels Wryn atop a flying vehicle high in the air. A whole series of bosses appear in sequence as Wryn boards the mothership, with flaming debris flying past as the battle rages. I also liked how the bosses (and regular enemies for that matter) get more and more alien and Wryn gets closer to the final showdown. Bleed 2 suffers from similar problems to many shoot ’em up games in that static screenshots don’t really do it justice. So much is conveyed with fast-moving sprites and animations, particularly for Wryn’s pistol fire. During play there are far more bullets flying everywhere, but screenshots only catch a few of them. If you think these screenshots look cool, know that the game looks cooler still. Everything sounds great too, with clear sound effects and a wonderful original musical score from Jukio Kallio. All told, it’s a feast for the senses, and worth a play through the story mode for that alone. Good thing it feels great to play too.

This one is an easy recommendation. You may have already heard others sing Bleed 2’s praises, but if not, I’m doing so now. It’s a slick package that looks, sounds and feels great, has an upbeat and humorous tone, is welcoming to players no matter their skill level, offers a short but sweet story mode, and provides a lot of incentives to keep playing for those who want to test their mettle. And don’t forget that you also get the original Bleed in the bundle, so there’s more where this one came from. If you missed the bundle, the original Bleed is sold for a minimum price of $4.99, and Bleed 2 is sold for a minimum price of $9.99. Definitely worth a look!

That’s 84 down, and only 1657 to go!