We’ve played enough Five Nights at Freddy’s to know that we should never, ever stay overnight in a ruined fast-food restaurant or amusement arcade. We’ll sleep in our car if we have to. But no, the protagonist runs to a dilapidated arcade like they were clutching a birthday invite.
To be fair to them, they were just involved in a car crash. Alone in the dark with nothing in their pockets, the main character picks up a torch, finds the amusement arcade and steps in. And as you would expect, supernatural goings-on ensue.
JANITOR BLEEDS is a first-person survival horror game that feels like it’s been made with the spare change that the main character finds in the arcade. It’s not the most modern or hi-fidelity of horror games, but it soon becomes clear that the retro-aesthetic is kind of the point. The arcade is filled with old-school arcade games, and the lines between the game you are playing and the cabinets that you pass begin to blur.
That’s no more true than when you find the first ‘Janitor’ arcade machine in the toilets. Having pumped in some coins that you find in the arcade, you begin to control a tiny janitor who is no more than ten or twelve pixels. You move them around the screen, and soon realise that the layout of their levels is curiously identical to the layout of the arcade. As he cleans up dust piles, doors open, and those doors will often represent locked doors in your predicament.
But this is just the beginning, as JANITOR BLEEDS starts to have fun. A glitchy dust cloud appears in the game, chasing your janitor, and that corresponds to the ‘Entity’ appearing in your world, too. Knowing when to bug out of the arcade machine is part of the challenge. Equally, the game can benefit you. Some of the arcade cabinets come with an attachment, where you can place items from the real world and they appear digitally in the world of the janitor. Torches and keys get swapped in and out, allowing you to open up new paths in either world.
It’s the Janitor game that completely elevates JANITOR BLEEDS. We shut our eyes and imagined the game without this cheeky addition, and it’s a bland, generic adventure. But with it included, JANITOR BLEEDS gains the confidence to be subversive and puckish, playing around with reality, turning the lights off, and generally messing with our heads. And it’s unique to JANITOR BLEEDS, making the experience a memorable one.
We’ve probably given the impression that JANITOR BLEEDS is a static game, with you simply bouncing between realities. But JANITOR BLEEDS is highly mobile and explorative. It vaguely wafts you in the direction that you might want to go (often not even that), and lets you have free rein of the entire amusement arcade. This opens up, Metroidvania-style, as fire extinguishers and keys suddenly give you access to places that you hadn’t been before. Soon, a mental map of the arcade begins to develop, and you’re bookmarking places that you might want to return to later.
It can, however, be a little too freeform. Particularly towards the end, JANITOR BLEEDS wants you to do a fair amount of backtracking, looking for keys and locations that have suddenly appeared in places you’ve already been. There’s one particularly egregious moment where you fall through the floor in a location that you could easily have missed. We found ourselves wandering aimlessly, trying to find one last trigger that would begin the next sequence, and we could have done with better prompts. It might be worth having a walkthrough saved on a browser tab, just in case.
As you’re skulking about the place, hunting for keys and picking up any rogue coins that might be used in the Janitor machine, you are the prey for the Entity. This eight-foot glitching pyramid-head is just about frightening enough to keep you on edge. The screen turns static, and his helmet acts like a red beacon when he’s around, giving you ample time to bugger off. The best approach is to hide under things – there are plenty of vents, pool tables and pinball machines to duck under – as he’s as stupid as a sack of spuds, and you can get away with staying there till he’s gone. But be exposed to him for too long, and you will cop it, returning to a previous, surprisingly generous checkpoint.
The Entity could have been super-annoying, a Nemesis chasing you as you’re desperately trying to hoover up the last collectibles. He certainly has his moments, particularly as we thought we were safe, hopping into the Janitor arcade machine, only to find ourselves cuffed round the head. But the designers know when to back off, and have periods where the Entity doesn’t exist in the entire arcade. You can take advantage and explore with the reassurance that you’re probably – probably – not going to die.
JANITOR BLEEDS isn’t a particularly long game – there’s an achievement for completing it in less than an hour for a reason – but we spent roughly four hours in its arcade, mainly wondering what it wanted from us. But it’s far better than that sounds: JANITOR BLEEDS kept us on edge for the majority of that period. It’s a ghost train where we peeped through our fingers to see what it would throw up next. And while it wasn’t stupendously frightening, it has a wild imaginative streak that meant a turn in the tracks was almost never expected.
It may be hard to imagine how a lo-fi survival horror would work, let alone offer some thrills, but JANITOR BLEEDS has the blood-soaked key to that lock. At its finest when it’s blurring the boundaries of reality and what constitutes a game, JANITOR BLEEDS knows exactly when to pull the rug from beneath you.
Don’t be put off by the graphics. JANITOR BLEEDS is a survival horror that is very much capable of sweeping you off your feet.
You can buy JANITOR BLEEDS from the Xbox Store