Title: Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials
Developer: Unspeakable Pixels
Release Date: July 15, 2021
Reviewed On: PS4
Publisher: Dangen Entertainment
While there is no shortage of Metroidvania games, Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials is a jack of all trades. Not only is it an action-adventure puzzle game, but it also successfully encompasses elements from many different genres. This eccentric and humorous, 2D pixel art, side-scrolling adventure brings out the nostalgia of classic NES titles while exuberating modern-day humor, aesthetic, and gaming mechanics.
In an over-the-top fashion, you, the titular barbarian, and your pet bat Pip are immediately thrown off a cliff by a group of ogres, plummeting to the bottom of a mysterious cave. With no light source other than Pip, you must navigate your way out and uncover the events that led to this moment. The story is told in retrospect and pieced together with flashbacks and visions as you progress in the game.
Batbarian’s level design pays homage to classic Metroidvanias by throwing you into situations where you do not know how to proceed. Vines, boulders, and walls block the way until you learn a new skill that allows you to advance—a major component of the genre in terms of exploration and backtracking.
Batbarian incentivizes these two gameplay elements by rewarding you with secret treasure rooms where you can find permanent stat upgrades among other rare commodities. The only complaint about exploration is that there is generally no direction on how to advance, so you may end up aimlessly exploring rooms that lead nowhere.
Though the game holds your hand at the beginning with tutorials and hints, you will quickly be left with nothing but your brains and wits to figure out what to do next. The first few rooms of the cave serve as a way of teaching you the basics, where you learn to jump, slash, and direct Pip to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Combat mechanics are simple enough, with a single attack that you can spam and a charge attack that you can unlock later on.
The puzzle mechanics include jumps, triggering switches, and directing Pip, or some combination of all three. When you level up, a slot machine mini-game appears, in which you can increase one of three stats (strength, defense, awareness). Though the minor increase of these stats barely contributes to the sense of progression, they do provide a break from the puzzling, platforming, hacking, and slashing.
While your trusty bat companion will be by your side the entirety of the game, you do not have full control of Pip. Instead, you command her by throwing fruit for her to eat, where different types of fruit allow her to perform a different action. This gameplay mechanic is both innovative and frustrating at times as there are puzzles that require you to command Pip and jump on a platform at the same time.
Along your journey, you also meet other characters that agree to assist you and become companions with their own abilities and backstories. Unfortunately, you also cannot control them. Instead, each character you recruit has their own ability, from throwing bombs to shooting magic balls. These abilities are not unlimited either, as they are restricted by a stamina gauge that can only be refilled at a save point or by killing enemies.
The combat and puzzles in Batbarian are more about execution than finding the solution, as the game requires you to manage the position of yourself and Pip and other enemies and obstacles on the screen. Even though the requirement of immaculate timing and execution can be frustrating sometimes, this type of gameplay is satisfying and refreshing as it forces you to think outside the box for an answer.
There’s still an emphasis on the narrative for a puzzle platformer that even features branching dialogue choices and multiple endings. A minor disappointment is that most dialogue options make no difference to the story’s outcome but instead provide varietal humor for you to enjoy when playing through the game again.
For a game that relies heavily on comedy, Batbarian never overdoes itself, managing to tell its story in a witty and subtle manner. In addition, it has a little something for everyone: a true secret ending for those looking for a fleshed-out narrative and an in-game speed run timer for those looking to test their skills or look for a challenge.
Perhaps one of the most commendable feats of this game is its performance and accessibility options. Shamefully, so many release-day titles are riddled with bugs and crashes that any 1.0 launch that plays like a 1.0 launch is a pleasant surprise.
Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials runs at a silky smooth 60fps on the PS5 with extremely fast loading times and no bugs. In addition, Batbarian boasts an imposing list of accessibility options that range from slow aim, health regen, more ambient lighting, boosted attack and defense, and open the game up to a wider audience.
With an in-your-face title and wacky cover art, Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials was initially not my cup of tea, but that’s me judging a book by its cover. Nevertheless, Batbarian manages to excel in multiple gameplay elements with beautiful artwork, ambient soundtrack, witty story, inventive puzzles, and evolving combat mechanics. Along with its refreshing arsenal of accessibility options and dozens of hours of gameplay, Batbarian is a hidden gem that Metroidvania and puzzle lovers will fall in love with right off the bat (no pun intended).
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