Janitor Bleeds retells that classic tale of surviving a car crash only to end up trapped in an arcade with a murderous creature.
Retro-style games are an interesting thing. Years ago, I would look at pixel art games and consider them gorgeous, using that 8- or 16-bit era art style in a modern interpretation of retro games. At the time I thought that the 32-bit era low-poly style of video games could never have that same impact, simply because they’re actually quite ugly to look at — pixels have that timeless quality, those low-poly art styles don’t; or at least that’s what I thought. In more recent years though, developers have started to get quite smart with it, using a low-poly look in horror games. The lack of detail that this style naturally has can work very well in a horror situation, making the world, characters, and creatures have a distorted and inhuman look to them, and with some creative use of environments and lighting, something quite impressive can be made. The likes of Paratopic do this very well, whilst the wild success of the Dread X Collection series and Chilla’s Art games are testament to what can be achieved with smart design and careful use of an old fashioned graphical methods. Janitor Bleeds certainly would fit into this category, if not for one problem that I’ll get to later. I’ve had a play with the recent console release of this short first-person horror adventure.
You begin by surviving a car crash in the woods, after a little exploration to find help you find yourself at the entrance to a neon-lit arcade in the middle of nowhere. Seemingly abandoned, you’ll soon come across an arcade cabinet that’s mysteriously still working, and after finding a few coins lying around you can give it a go. The game is named Janitor, and you play a janitor cleaning up mess on the floor to earn points. Lovely!
Before long though, you may start to notice that the layout of the levels mirrors that of the arcade, and that there may well be something else in there with you. Stranger still, that arcade cabinet seems to pop up all over the building and it soon becomes clear that you probably would have been safer staying away from here in the first place.
At its core, Janitor Bleeds is a stealth horror game with minor puzzles. You’ll need to find your way around Hemo’s Arcade — get it? — whilst picking up keys to open up new areas and avoiding a creature known only as The Entity. Occasionally you’ll find your path blocked by locked doors or obstructions, and this is where the Janitor arcade cabinet comes into play. If you can’t seem to progress, you’ll likely hear the menu music from that game within the game and once you’ve found it and feed it a few coins, you’ll be able to play as the titular janitor once again. When the janitor clears an obstruction in the arcade game, that same obstruction will be removed in the arcade itself, which is a neat way of having you progress in the game. You can also have the janitor find keys and pass them out of the cabinet to your character, and from time to time you’ll need to hand your items over to progress in the arcade game itself. It’s really quite neat, especially when you have to temporarily give up your flash light, leaving yourself more vulnerable as you solve puzzles nearby.
Whilst this is going on, The Entity will be somewhere nearby, and should you get caught by it you’ll be killed and sent back to the last checkpoint. It tends to only appear during scripted events, but when it does you’ll need to use your stealth skills to find a way around it. You can hide under various tables and block line of sight with gaming machines quite easily, but The Entity moves and searches quite erratically at times, meaning sometimes sneaking by is more luck than judgement. In a somewhat near touch, you can’t really get a good look at it either, as the immediate area around its body becomes glitchy and distorted so you’re never quite sure what you’re up against. This isn’t always handled that well though, as if you get close to it your screen becomes wildly distorted to the point that it’s incredibly hard to see anything at all. I found this quite aggravating when trying to sneak around, or rush to hide under something when threatened.
As the game progresses you’ll come across more and more bizarre events that suggest to some sort of horrific history to the arcade. Janitor Bleeds gets the atmosphere right for the most part, although once you realise you’re only occasionally under threat that does dissipate somewhat. The dark arcade punctuated by neon flashes feels suitably creepy, and the ever increasing number of arcade cabinets with bloody sheets over them does a good job of suggesting there’s an increase in the stakes as you go. The game does that thing that a fair few horror games do these days of changing the environment when you look away. It’s almost a trope now, but here it’s used sparingly enough to remain somewhat effective throughout. Towards the end of the two-or-so hour runtime though, you’ll be ready to take the fight back to The Entity and attempt to make your escape.
At least, I think that’s what would happen. When I reached the climax of the game, I was confronted with a rather large boss that I needed to shoot specific parts of. The problem was that only five of the six — I looked it up to check — targets spawned when I fought it, meaning it simply could not be killed and I couldn’t progress to the end. Reloading the checkpoint didn’t work, and the only solution I had was to completely restart the game from scratch. And then I came across the same problem. I didn’t relish trying it again and simply looked up the endings, of which there are two, and gave up on finishing the game for myself.
I was incredibly frustrated at this, as up until that point I had really enjoyed Janitor Bleeds. The art style really worked for it, giving it a 90s flair that really worked with the classic arcade look it was going for, and the music was really effective. In fact, the Janitor arcade cabinet theme is still stuck in my head now. The layout of the arcade is very logical, showing that the developers have put a lot of thought into level design, to the point that there’s a hidden area showing part of their design process if you find certain hidden collectibles. But even with all that, the galling bug that prevented me from finishing the game is stuck in my craw and makes it hard for me to recommend the game. Perhaps I’m an outlier here, and this happens very rarely, but from my point of view I simply cannot finish this and I’m trapped in the arcade forever.
Janitor Bleeds is out now on PC and Xbox.