Now, before you get too excited and start thinking of a barbarian running around with a cowl and utility belt on, hold your horses – we’re not looking at that kind of Batbarian. Sadly. The Batbarian in the case of Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials is a barbarian with a bat partner, called Pip. The bat, that is, not the barbarian. Promising a “Snarky action-adventure”, does Batbarian deliver? Come with me to a Metroidvania-type of world; one full of darkness, dungeons and demons…
The story of Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials is fairly generic, and that is being kind. In fact, using the word story may be overkill, as the whole premise of the game is that you, as a male or female barbarian, have found yourself deep within a dark underground complex, after being pushed off a cliff by a group of angry trolls. And you need to get out. That’s it. Luckily, you aren’t alone and have your erstwhile bat companion Pip coming along for the ride. It can’t help but be noticed that Pip glows in the dark, so that’s helpful! Luckily, Pip can also ignite crystals in the walls of the caverns and also torches, so the underground isn’t as dark as it might otherwise be.
In fact, Pip goes on to form a large part of the mechanics of Testament of the Primordials, being used to solve all manner of puzzles. As you explore the dungeon, you will find various types of fruit to harvest, each of which will cause Pip to react in a certain way. There are fruits that she will blindly follow, so if you throw it near a crystal that needs to be ignited, she will do that. Other fruit causes her to linger in the area, and these are used for puzzles that require crystals to remain in the dark; forcing her to stay away just long enough to make a series of jumps over a cavern, for instance. A third type causes her to smash blocks that you attach things to, and so on and so forth. With a twin stick aiming mechanic, it is easy to throw the fruit where you need it to go, and further to that, our chosen barbarian can also throw stones to flick switches that are out of reach.
This then is Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials in a nutshell: jump about a bit, fight some creatures (and eventually bosses) and solve puzzles in order to advance. There are companions to find and recruit too, and also a nice thread of humour running through the dialogue. Oh, and a massive dungeon to explore as well, so we’re pretty much sorted in all regards.
The dungeon map is made up of squares, so if you ever get to what appears to be a dead end, a little light backtracking will usually allow you to discover a new route to explore. Also, finding new fruit and abilities for Pip can help to open up new rooms, and the size of the game, along with the amount of secret areas to find, should keep you playing for a good long time. Of course, the achievement for beating Batbarian in under three hours will take a good deal of practice.
Presentation-wise things look good, with side-on retro-styled platforming fare, and lovingly crafted pixel graphics doing a good job of portraying what’s going on on-screen. The sprite for Pip, in particular, is a lot more expressive than a 16-bit bat has any right to be. With branching dialogue choices and consequences based on your actions (which will ultimately affect which ending you get) there’s certainly much more to what Batbarian has to offer than just slashing. The music is also worthy of praise, managing to deliver extremely atmospheric audio whilst fitting the action on screen perfectly.
Are there any downsides? Well, sadly, yes there are, but on the flipside there is nothing overly major to get worked up about. The hitboxes for some of the enemies (take a bow, the squid/bat-type things) are ridiculously small, so hitting them without getting hurt can occasionally feel like a dice roll. The jumping is also quite annoying, but this seems to be a design choice, as after getting access to “the boots of speed” – which do exactly what it says on the tin – jumping and landing on small platforms becomes ten times harder. You can toggle the boot’s effects on an off, but when you are fleeing for you life from fireballs, remembering to slow down isn’t really on the cards. It’s here where you’ll find yourself making a jump yet noticing your barbarian then sliding off the little blocks to an ignominious death. Other than these tiny niggles though, the rest of the game is pretty solid fun.
And that means in conclusion Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials goes a long way towards scratching a bit of a Metroidvania itch. It’s big, it’s sprawling and there’s a lot to see. With a little more attention to the combat and the jumping, this could well have been a bit of a genre-leading contender. As it is though, Barbarian is a good game, but not a great one.
Help out a barbarian in need in Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials, now available on Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One