Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials is so much bigger of a game that you would think. The first foray from Unspeakable Pixels is releasing out of a four year development period to PC and Nintendo Switch, bringing a large cave system of platforming, metroidvania elements, action, sarcasm, and magic-hating fun along with it. On the surface, it might seem like another indie inspired by Metroid and Castlevania (the metroidvania term is pretty accurate), but this game is more than collecting coins and fighting slimes.
The developers say that it’s also about light source management, and honestly, that’s not wrong! Instead of being centered around smashing enemies and climbing platforms, the hook of the game is the magical light coming from Pip, our leather winged friend. This leads to some interesting game mechanics that were refreshing to see and explore.
STORY – MAGIC IS THE WORST
The game starts with the barbarian hurtling through the darkness towards the bottom of a cave. After a series of humorous dialogue options, you are left to explore the depths with your loyal best friend, Pip the bat. With little to no natural light available, most of your light source comes from Pip, and as you explore and progress through the hundreds of cavernous rooms, you’ll start to learn more about why Pip can glow like that.
The writing in Batbarian is smart and snappy. Every conversation has dialogue options that are entertaining and fun to explore. The barbarian character is defensive, judgemental of everything they encounter, and just wants to get out of the caves. Pip will go anywhere the barbarian is, or wherever there’s juicy fruit. As the game goes on, different companions will join the pair, offering up different abilities and personalities to the journey. From a sentient mushroom that goes from boss fight to shop keeper within a couple of sentences to a strange old man full of secrets, the cast of characters is interesting and clever.
I think what attracted me the most to the writing is, again, it doesn’t take itself seriously. Encounter a lich with three heads? Ask it to join an a capella group. Falling down an abyss? Pick from three different inflections of “AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!” Every conversation was required, but they are well-written and engaging in a way that made me want to learn more about a system of magical caves.
GAMEPLAY – FLY BY NIGHT
An important aspect of Batbarian is the relationship between the barbarian and the bat. While the barbarian is able to get in close and hack away at enemies, there are many points of interest that they simply cannot reach. By utilizing a number of different types of berries, the barbarian can control where Pip the bat flies and use their magic light to affect their surroundings. If a switch needs to be flipped to create a platform, throwing a tasty fruit will cause Pip to fly after it, triggering the button needed and allowing the barbarian to quickly react to the new pathway.
As I said, there’s a variety of different berries. Some will just send Pip in a direction, some will allow Pip to stay in a particular spot for a longer length of time, and some will cause Pip to attack the chosen spot. There are different things to interact with, and as such there are different ways of controlling your beloved bat friend. Changing the selected berry is as easy as a button tap and the aim/throw control movement is comfortable and not too difficult.
Like any good adventure title, the strategy lies in ensuring that you ration your berry inventory. As you play and explore, your inventory numbers will increase, but boss fights and challenging caverns will always be there to deplete berry pouches. Being smart about where you last saw berry trees will help ensure success.
Something to keep in mind about a title like Batbarian is that the jumping is kind of floaty. These aren’t the precision jumping of Super Mario Bros. Closer to other indie titles such as Cave Story, there’s a bit of a hang at the top of your jumps that you need to account for, which could turn some folks off of the title. After getting used to it, though, I found myself naturally factoring in the odd jump movements, and was able to better progress through the caves.
A particularly memorable early room involved a split cavern. I wasn’t able to move the barbarian into the bottom half of the room, and there was a chest locked behind a door. The area I could move around in had a number of floor buttons that did different things when triggered. However, the effects were all in the bottom of the cave that I couldn’t access. Stumbling around in the dark down there was an armored beetle. Using the switches, I had to maneuver the enemy around a series of platforms, elevators, and spikes to hit a final, inaccessible switch that gave me access to the chest.
Level progression brings with it a stat increase in the form of a slot machine wheel. Three wheels spin and you gain a boost in Awareness, Strength, or Defense. You have control over what the wheel lands on, so there’s an agency in what type of build you go for. If you want to roll a tank early on while progressing, you can.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – IT’S LIT
I cannot stress enough how important the lighting is in this game. There is such an emphasis on utilizing the light versus the darkness of the caves, it truly shows how essential Pip the bat is to the gameplay. But it’s not treated as a gimmick. The implementation of light controls are handled beautifully, and the game looks great because of the care put into the lighting design.
As such, due to the complicated backend required to power such great light effects, Batbarian does hit some performance snags on lower-end hardware. I played through the game on an Acer Aspire 3, with an AMD Dual-Core A9 processor, and AMD Radeon R5 graphics card. This is slightly under the recommended system requirements of an Intel Core i5 and GeForce GTX 560, and there were some noticeable performance issues. More enemies and more light sources would hinder gameplay but not to the point where I became turned off completely. This was most evident in boss fights.
Beyond the odd hiccup, the game was a great example of how pixel art and dynamic lighting can come together beautifully. I have no doubt that with the standardized system capabilities on Nintendo Switch, everything will look fantastic on the palm of your hand.
Sitting right in the sweet spot of adventure, action, platformer, and metroidvania, this game also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Nothing feels like a gimmick. The story can result in multiple endings which allow for replayability. There are so many caverns to explore that finding secret areas is a consistent treat. If you’re hitting a particular roadblock, there are accessibility options that (while not as robust as say, Celeste), allow you to modify the difficulty enough to reach your goal.
Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials was reviewed on PC. A key was provided by DANGEN Entertainment.