Review: Tiny Barbarian DX Episode 1 – The Serpent Lord (*** stars)

Tiny Barbarian DX, as per the name, recreates the familiar Conan the Barbarian setting into video game form – although certainly in a way appealing to nostalgia for those of us who know what “8-bit” or “16-bit” means. Think platforming with a barely-there combat system; in fact, the first thing I imagined while playing was Actraiser, of all things.

ActRaiser

A classic, to be sure!

Like in Actraiser’s action stages, you jump and you swing your sword a whole lot while driving forward to beat the boss. The challenge in making that exciting lies within the stage design. Actraiser pummeled you with many, many enemies on your way to the boss, content to just let the aesthetics (of a rather grotesque variety) determine the layout. They presented a challenge via enemy placement and platforming., but never an unfair one. To clarify: you didn’t often jump onto a platform you couldn’t see and land on a foe, and you could fix it just by paying attention to where you’re going (hence the “platformer” aspect overtaking the “combat” aspect). Limited lives kept some sort of pressure on you even with a life meter. Die enough times and they’d plop you back onto the world map with zero accomplishments to your name.

Tiny Barbarian DX instead makes the stages rather dangerous and placing enemies in the most inconvenient of places – you know, on a platform where you jump, or exactly at the moment you’ll need to escape. You’ll make the mistake and lose one health block of seven. Then, you’ll do that six more times and die. Unfortunately, each “room”, as I like to call it, provides you with unlimited tries, so there’s not much tension there.

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These snakes are the worst.

I am not stating that traversing these environments doesn’t require good timing, quick reflexes, or the ability to dynamically respond to threats. Rather, Tiny Barbarian DX always throws you off for the wrong reasons, like a threat you couldn’t see or an unavoidable hit (unless you’re psychic, in which case you can avoid the spear throw I’m sure).

Tiny Barbarian DX likes to annoy you, make you die due to a lack of memorizing a stage area, and then immediately let you try again. I don’t think this quite works in the way intended. Due to my ability to charge headlong into egregious danger, I blazed through the first episode (there is the promise of more, although they don’t yet exist) in about one hour and fifteen minutes. The only real challenge came from the bosses, and you could learn their pattern with enough retries. At least they force you to adapt and learn, or you can’t progress at all.

As far as the controls go, I found one aspect of the platforming truly annoyed me: ledge-grabbing. You press up to grab onto a ledge if you cannot land directly on top of it. While this sounds cool in theory, places where you land nearby multiple ledges turns this into an exercise of frustration. Grab this one, grab that one, and try guessing when the game will jump over the ledge or grab a different one! You will press up a whole lot, especially when you fall from a tall height (pro-tip: hold up a lot).

I’m not sure why this needed to be a manual control idea: although I understand its use for climbing along horizontal change, the ledge grab just complicates normal jumping for no reason (or, as I will guess, variety’s sake). This contributes to the above feeling of “unfairness”, as the slight difference between jumping to a ledge, or climbing up onto that ledge throws off your consistency. Also, needing to hold up every time you jump will annoy you after a while!

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All this ledge grabbing, goodness!

Enemies present a similar problem at times. You will take damage if you touch them; this counts in most situations, including the elbow drop (pressing down plus the attack button). Instead, the Barbarian takes a hit while giving one – somehow a useless move in many circumstances. If they guard from the front, which certain enemies do quite frequently, you’ll just knock them back. That turns into a viable option, but some enemies will continue to attack from offscreen with zero consistency as to whether it will happen or not, Audio cues alleviate long-range attacks somewhat, but how am I supposed to memorize a sequence if things don’t remain the same? I think you might be seeing my problem with randomized game environments, especially ones that don’t fit the game design.

Of course, none of this takes all that long. “Bite-sized” puts it lightly. Tiny Barbarian’s episodes play like one extended stage with checkpoints, and the removal of lives adds a complication that vastly detracts from the game’s longevity. The developers tried to add replay value with a timer, score, and hidden diamonds, but I honestly do not see the incentive to do this. Play an actual arcade game if you want to play for score; they design shmups around them, for example. Tiny Barbarian DX’s scoring, like most home games, seems incredibly superfluous by comparison.

So, with all this seeming negativity, did I like it? Absolutely! But I enjoy everything, so that’s not high praise. As a bite-sized appeal to nostalgia, “Nintendo-hard”, and science fiction/fantasy serials, it functions well enough. The settings delightfully, unpretentiously recreates that same vibe with near pinpoint accuracy, and that can’t be said for most indie games. I would especially note the music, which truly captures that strange mix of artificiality sound chips with incredibly catchy rhythms (seriously, just go download it right now). Hey, Actraiser had a fantastic soundtrack too by Yuzo Koshiro, now that I think about it! But, as for the game itself, I can’t say any of it astounded me at all.

Competent at best, frustrating and difficult for the wrong reasons at worst, it squarely hits the “mediocre” mark as if it were a bullseye. It’s rather unfortunate, given that an incredibly similar game (Volgarr the Viking) hits all the same notes while retaining the difficulty of its inspirations. Tiny Barbarian DX demonstrates a different flavor of a familiar video game, one that merely apes its inspirations rather than doing something innovative or different. In other words:

12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.

– 1 Corinthians 12

Surely, I wouldn’t have purchased Tiny Barbarian DX if I didn’t think I would enjoy it. The game merely provides a different audience its fill of the same nostalgia. If you’re looking for an action-platformer with great music, a pulp style and have about an hour, give it a try. As I await more episodes, I’m not calling Tiny Barbarian DX a failure just yet, so reserve your judgment for the next episode.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.