A show of hands, please. Have you heard of Bleed, a 2D indie shooter that appeared on Steam and Xbox Live Indie Games about four years ago? No? I didn't think so.
I wouldn't have heard of it either, most likely, if not for a rather specific set of circumstances. After all, it's not exactly the most inspiring or unique of names. Yet, solo creator Ian Campbell's (working under the name Bootdisk Revolution) Bleed, clearly one of the best things to have ever graced the Xbox Live Indie service and one of the finest 2D action games in many a year, only came to my attention thanks to my old podcasting partner in crime, Chet Roivas.
Long story short, I used to produce a podcast that required both myself and Mr. Roivas to find ten games each, per week, to talk about. It was quite an undertaking, and Chet took to examining every single effort that appeared on that storefront, wading through oceans of silage in order to uncover the occasional - very, very occasional - gem. Mount Your Friends was one. One Finger Death Punch another. But probably the best of the bunch was Bleed.
In Bleed you play as Wryn, a feisty pink-haired lady who can shoot her paired SMGs in any direction the player can hold the right stick, triple jump at any angle, and slow down time like a sugar-rushing Bayonetta. The game was a dizzying rush of bullet-hell slow-mo dodging, blasting, puzzle platforming and relentless ideas. Like Vanquish meets Contra with just a touch of Meat Boy. It was that good.
And now it has a sequel. XBLIG may have died but Bleed 2 lives on - for now just on Steam - and what a treat it is. Two hours of meticulously designed action gaming, hurtling at you with a ferocious pace, never letting up with ideas that push the limits of its own mechanics, and then having the grace and decorum to finish before it ever threatens to outstay its own welcome even for a second.
Visually Bleed 2 is a jump up from the original, now looking like a bonafide SNES game rather than simply pushing for a 16-bit aesthetic, and it moves like lighting (although some mild screen tearing can be a touch distracting at first). While the first game balanced its difficulty with some navigation puzzles and a few areas that forced the pace down ever so slightly, Bleed 2 is relentless.
On top of the sublime bullet dodging and slow motion mechanics, Bleed 2 adds a parry. Jabbing the right stick when confronted with a pink projectile sees Wryn slash it with her katana, sending it in whichever direction you hold the right stick. This effectively allows you to pile into a group of enemies, dispatching most with your guns, slowing down time to navigate a window between all the enemy bullets and then slashing a giant pink ball right back at the guy that fired it at you. You feel like John Wick, Neo and Daigo from that Street Fighter 3 clip all at once.
Quite how a game with such flawless and precise mechanics came from just one person is mind boggling. The fact he also has such a keen understanding of pacing is even more impressive. Bleed 2 is essentially a boss rush; while regular levels do keep you moving and allow you to test your ever-improving baddie-obliterating skills, it's the tireless march of bosses that push you to test the limits of your abilities and the boundaries of the game's mechanics.
One favourite sees you doing battle with an ancient mystical warrior type - think Mortal Kombat's Raiden without the electricity or the weird yelling - in which you're asked to think about parrying and slow motion in a completely different way to before. It's demanding, yet even on higher difficulties the instant restarts mean Bleed 2 keeps you in its loop until your own abilities match the challenge in front of you.
Unlike the original, which demanded a lot from players even on its regular difficulty, Bleed 2 is much happier to ease you in. Normal mode isn't particularly tough; more a training ground for this unusual control method (you'll question why jump is on the right trigger for the first ten minutes, then realise the game would simply not work without it). Ramp up to hard, and the real challenge begins; Wryn turns into a kind of flawless killing machine, your thumbs and fingers performing near-mythical feats. There's no surprise at all knowing that Campbell is a huge fan of Platinum Games. This has their DNA all over it.
The truly masochistic can attempt Arcade mode, which challenges you to beat Bleed 2 with a single life; dramatically ramping up the tension and setting the whole affair to a leaderboard rush that both rewards high scores and your own longevity.
And like all the best character action games, Bleed has a combo system at its core. It's not abundantly clear what exactly awards the most style points (you're graded a la DMC or Bayonetta, with the allure of the S rank as enticing as ever), but getting hit by anything immediately drops you a rank, so maintaining perfection is both necessary, and thanks to the controls, just about possible.
Bleed 2 even offers local co op - play through the game as a pair, and the second character can now parry all those yellow projectiles that Wryn previously had to dodge.
Like its predecessor, then, Bleed 2 is a special game. Perhaps the most exciting thing about it, though, is that it feels truly undiscovered - now a series of impeccable quality - still only known to a few people, and only to me through the oddest of circumstances. Even with so many games released these days, it's hard to find a true gem that people don't already know.
As romantic as the idea of the little game that no one knows about is, the truth is that anyone who has an admiration for Platinum-style games, or even action games at all, needs to play Bleed 2. It's two hours of brilliance; with tremendous scope for replayability, and a game that quite simply demands attention and deserves an audience. This one deserves an S rank of its own.