Metroidvania is a crowded genre. Ori and the Blind Forest, and it’s sequel, as well as Hollow Knight and Dead Cells are recent examples that have elevated the combination of non-linear exploration, leveling up, and artistic presentation. It speaks volumes that 34 years on from the birth of Samus Aran (Metroid) and Simon Belmont (Castlevania), developers still want to emulate this game format. Type in metroidvania on Steam and you’ll get over a thousand results. So how does a new entrant into the side-scrolling arena stand out? Well, in the case of Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials, it turns off the lights.
The game, from indie developer Unspeakable Pixels, opens with our titular muscle-bound hero (or heroine – your choice) falling into a huge chasm. We get our first taste of the games comedic writing and it’s fresh and engaging. You can choose just to scream all the way down, try to flatten out to slow you’re decent, be philosophical about things – it’s all great. In any event you crash onto the hard stony floor of an unlit cave. Miraculously you’re fine! Luckily you’re bestie, Pip, a glowing bat, follows you down to shed a little light on things.
To navigate your way out of the labyrinthine darkness you’ll need to have your wits about you, and Pips favourite fruit to hand – which you can lob into the unknown to send the bat chasing after. With Pip lighting the way you’ll discover traps, monsters, pits, ledges, ancient artifacts, treasure and more. It’s a simple mechanic but the developer has done a lot to make it’s use varied and interesting throughout. As you progress, you find other fruit – some will make Pip stop a while to munch it down, others are abhorrent to the flying mammal and he attacks the spot it lands in with angry swoops.
But our hero isn’t without his own strengths. With a sword in hand (or claws if you chose a heroine), and the legs of an Olympic long jumper, you’ll hack, slash and leap around to fell villainous denizens hell bent on making you the last visitor to their dank and dingy home. The controls are responsive and exploration doesn’t suffer from input delay of any kind.
The duo does become a trio at times. You meet other unfortunate individuals who also find themselves trapped in this creepy dungeon. Early on you meet an ageing wizard. There’s a great Conan the Barbarian moment where you are inherently suspicious of the spellcaster. The Batbarian has to park his prejudice and let the aging mage travel along, relying on his magical prowess to help fell giant slimes and open long sealed doors. It took me back to my old Dungeons and Dragons days and for that I am very grateful.
The game boasts 400+ rooms, 20+ hours of evolving gameplay, and 10+ bosses, plus multiple endings. So there’s a lot to get stuck into.
Visuals and Soundtrack
The games pixel art style suits its retro feel. The lighting effects are well done which is so important given how key that mechanic is to this title. Sure it’s not as gorgeous as other titles, but the classic aesthetic matches the tongue in cheek writing and vintage gameplay. The character designs are well done and the enemies are varied and interesting.
The soundtrack is enjoyable. Each area has its own thematic tone. The music does a good job of indicating you’re in a new zone, or that you’ve returned to a previously explored location. The game begs to be replayed, so having good 16-bit style synth tones is a real plus.
I haven’t mentioned much about the story and that’s because there isn’t too much to mention. You do learn snippets of what the Batbarian before jumping into the abyss, how you met Pip etc. There’s also a mysterious three-eyed entity that pops up from time to time (that may or may not be an eldritch evil). But the story is light, focusing instead on the puzzles and gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, there’s enough here to keep things ticking over, but Lord of the Rings this isn’t.
This genre of game has seen some true masterpieces in recent years. Batbarian, whilst being very good, just isn’t quite as pretty as Ori or as rich in flavour as Hollow Knight. Overall Batbarian: Testament of the Primoridials is a solid entry into the metroidvania family. Fans of the genre should find this an enjoyable and light-hearted challenge.
Release Date: Out now on PC and Switch (other platforms TBC)
Find out more about the game at batbarian.com
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