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Janitor Bleeds review: Stranger Pixels

By Alexander Chatziioannou. Posted

Two years after joined-at-the-hip anthologies Haunted PS1 Demo Disc and Dread X Collection coalesced into a rallying cry for horror developers, the popularity of their nostalgia-fuelled nightmares shows no signs of abating. An irresistible combination of moody, low-poly visuals and out-there concepts that would be summarily dismissed by any sensible higher-end studio, some of the ideas presented in nascent form therein have inspired longer, standalone versions by their creators. Such is the case of Janitor Bleeds (first appearing in the 2021 instalment of the former compilation), a game that, despite its title, features little gore but oozes atmosphere.

The Janitor arcade cabinet will pop up in the unlikeliest of places. Power supply does not seem to be a requirement.

The titular caretaker isn’t a person but the hottest new acquisition of a backwoods arcade, as revealed by a series of increasingly obsessive notes strewn around the abandoned venue we break into after a car accident leaves us stranded in the middle of nowhere. The exact location is indeterminate – think the outskirts of Everytown, USA – but the time we can surmise after discovering a fully functional cabinet locked away in a disused storage closet like some dirty secret. Judging by the primitive pixels on the blurry CRT screen, we’re sometime in the early 1980s. The game itself is a fairly innocuous affair, tasking you with cleaning up a simple maze to unlock its next level. But after a short first session culminates in an encounter with an amorphous, vaguely threatening entity, the power goes out, something stirs on the other side of the blacked-out neon cathedral, and an already odd situation takes a turn for the sinister.

Exploring the labyrinthine venue in first-person and effecting changes in that gloomy environment via our progress in the coin-op forms the crux of the Janitor Bleeds experience.

Barricades will be removed and doors unlocked as long as we keep feeding the hungry cabinet with quarters (found littering the establishment’s grimy carpet or hidden among plastic ferns) and solving its rudimentary puzzles. It’s a basic but effective premise elevated by appropriately glitchy visuals, signifying reality spilling over from one screen to another – not least the entity now prowling the darkened halls – and by the chilling leitmotif that somehow channels the chiptune “bloops” from a forgotten NES title and the theme of a lost John Carpenter movie simultaneously.

Your first encounter with the entity is in its relatively innocuous 2D form. Things will get substantially more menacing from there.

There’s a nagging familiarity, the impression that we’ve seen these crude polygons and heard these ominous synths a few times too many that Janitor Bleeds only just manages to keep at bay on the strength of its excellent presentation.

What it doesn’t avoid, though, is a certain tedium during the late game when it runs out of ideas and sends you round in circles, as if to stretch playing time to a respectable length, a flaw nowhere more apparent than an unnecessarily drawn-out sequence of false endings that turn a surprise mechanical twist into something of a chore. Not quite botching the landing, then, but proof that making a fascinating demo is one thing; sustaining its promise in a full-fledged game is quite another.

Highlight

While playing Janitor your field of view is locked on the cabinet, meaning you can’t turn around when you hear a sudden thud from behind or see a reflection moving on its screen. These moments, with your back exposed to the shifting darkness, are easily the tensest in the game.

Verdict

An atmospheric, if derivative and occasionally rambling, entry to the lo-fi horror canon.

57%

Genre: First-/Third-person horror | Format: / PC (tested) / XBO / XB S/X | Developer: Korpus | Publisher: Bonus Stage Publishing | Price:£10.99 | Release: Out now

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