Format reviewed: Switch eShop
Other formats available: exclusive
Developer: StarQuail Games
Publisher: Nicalis Inc.
Website: Official Website
Players: 1-2 locally
“Steel yourself for a relentless display of might and muscle…of brawn and bravery…of magic and mayhem! Can you cleave your enemies’ skulls, plunder all the booty and flex to impress the barbarienne of your dreams?
Inspired by heroic fantasy fiction, Tiny Barbarian DX combines engaging 2D platform action and combo-based hack-and-slash combat with retro-style pixel art and a loincloth-stirring chiptune soundtrack.”
You are thrown into the deep end from the second this game loads. Climbing up the scrolling screen are Orcs, encroaching upon your position at the height of a modestly sized mountain top. Attack, defend, or die, and you will eventually die, the Orc attack is relentless, slowly whittling your health away, never ending, and progressively more difficult. Welcome to the world of Tiny Barbarian DX, and that’s just the opening scene which feeds to the title screen seamlessly. A brilliant introduction to an all round enjoyable, if somewhat frustratingly difficult game. This introduction is known as “vs. The Horde” and can be played as many times as the player wants through the main menu. Your highest score, in terms of time until death, is recorded for posterity.
Now, don’t get me wrong Tiny Barbarian DX is difficult, but we are not talking about Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts level of difficulty. There’s no hand-holding tutorials anywhere is sight. Learn as you go, or die. Always the end goal is achievable through determination, grit, focus and practice, copious amounts of practice, with many hair pulling sessions, and rage inducing, controller throwing deaths, but always fair. So, get to it, and excel.
Being a 16-bit retro-styled game lends itself to many comparisons of the earlier generations’ greats, and fortunately Tiny Barbarian DX can stand up on its own two feet and battle with the best. It’s roots can be seen in Mega Man, Castlevania, Ghouls N’ Ghosts, and even Mario and Sonic. It unashamedly pays homage after homage to the greats, and excels at those pokes of fun while maintaining its own identity. To be truly critical, this game offers nothing that you haven’t seen before, but it’s just so damn good at what it does offer. Impressive indeed.
Four long episodes are presented with such a variety of activities, that you have seen elsewhere but executed brilliantly here, that within each episode boredom and complacency never occur. One minute you are jumping, hacking and slashing through a combo-driven 2D platformer. Then, riding on the back of a beast. Followed, by a persistently scrolling level, up an elevator, or running from a massive chasing boulder. After that, flying on a tamed bee. Later still, jumping over barrels being thrown at you by a woman stealing large monkey-type creature. Lastly, fighting some dramatic mid or end boss that throws all previous conventions out of the window. Variety is certainly the spice of the Tiny Barbarian’s life.
Pixel perfect jumping and timing are required throughout, and fortunately the game delivers with precise tight controls whether using an analogue stick or a D-Pad, whether on a Pro-Controller, or just one Joy-Con. Yes, Tiny Barbarian DX supports 2-players locally and splitting the Joy-Cons, with a player on each, works perfectly fine. The second player can drop-in and drop-out at any time, but doing so outside of the main menu, will steal the first player of half of their energy. If the buttons seemed cramped, then full customisation of the 2 buttons used can occur. That’s right, use Y to attack, and B to jump (or change them to your heart’s desire). With such a simple button scheme it may appear that this game will be too simplistic, but this is simply not true. Depending on the direction pressed your titular hero will attack differently. Jumping and attacking in different directions lets another layer of complexity breathe, while three hit combos allow for a third more powerful slash, lunge or spin. What about defence!, I hear you cry. Well, hold down and hit the attack button and the hero flexes his muscles in a Mr. Olympia pose to deflect any projectiles headed his way. Simple to pick-up, but the levels’ deviousness tests those reflexes and player’s mettle to the limit.
A single episode is split into many areas. Each area, when started, highlights a map reminiscent of Super Castlevania IV or Ghouls N’ Ghosts. This area is split into many screens (not actually TV screen sized, but much larger which allows scrolling to occur with the Barbarian’s movement). Each screen, for the most part, is modest is size, but they vary throughout the game. If death is met at any time, your hero is taken back to the beginning of that particular screen. This transition is swift, and your hero now starts with a full complement of health to try again. Starting with 6 health squares, with a minor hit depleting one, and a major hit depleting 2, energy is critical to getting you through to the next area. Cracked blocks are visible amid all the splendour and breaking them fully reveals handy chicken based health upgrades or readily flowing gold (Castlevania says hello again). There are no RPG-lite elements here, for good or bad. It may have been great to have an upgrade system for your health and weapon, but it’s not required. Tiny Barbarian DX provides the same experience every time you replay a level, 6 health squares and your wits.
The levels are mostly linear, twitch-based, platforming affairs. Heights do not kill, unless a bottomless pit is encountered. The level design is precise, and in similar titles in the past there has been a tendancy to not show enough of the level on screen at all times. This is something that Tiny Barbarian DX does not suffer from. Firstly, the main character is small in comparison to the total screen size. Secondly, the game is presented throughout in 2.13:1 super widescreen. Black bars are persistent at the top and bottom of the screen, whether in handheld or on the TV. This does absolutely nothing to detract from the colourful 16-bit style graphics on offer, and the beautiful animations on all characters depicted thoughout. In fact, the extra width of the levels allows more of the level to be seen, enemies are able to react to you earlier, and you are able to plan your moves more effectively by ‘seeing’ what’s coming up next and beyond that again.
Music has many standouts, all presented in the 16-bit chiptune style that you’d expect. Colourful, brooding, cheerful, and sinister tunes are all present with wonderful hack and slash swooshes, thudding noises for impacts, and all manner of other grusome enemy sounds. I found myself stopping just to listen to a tune for a little while before carrying on the onslaught.
It’s hard to pick any fault with Tiny Barbarian DX. The level design is a little linear, but because of it, precise. You never get lost and there’s no backtracking needed in this title. At times, you’ll die because it’s not clear what the new style of play entails, or which button presses do what, but the control system is easy enough to pick up on your next try. New ideas are always presented near the start of a new screen, so if death occurs, it’s a short distance to retread. The music isn’t always great, but the vast majority of the time it is. The game is fantastic as a solo experience, but I had so much fun with this in 2-player co-op, that it is my preferred style of play, and when another player is not around, enjoyment is lowered by 12.5% (number may not be based on actual statistical fact). The game is difficult, to the point of frustration, but it’s always the player’s fault when death occurs, and with persistence you’ll reach that next screen by learning enemy patterns. My biggest gripe, however, would be with the price point. Games like SteamWorld Dig 2, Stardew Valley, Golf Story, etc., have come onto the eShop at fantastic, to the point of being cheap, price points. Tiny Barbarian DX is slightly more expensive compared to them. But it’s hard to even point at that due to what is on offer here, and what’s on offer is a fantastically constructed game, which has been created by people who understand what makes a 2D platformer of yesteryear great, and they’ve only gone and added today’s standards of precision controls with no hint of slow-down.
I can’t recommend Tiny Barbarian DX highly enough. If you love 2D action platformers this is a must, another great Switch game among all the others. Pick this up if your Switch backlog isn’t too big already, and you don’t mind the slightly larger price tag.
Review originally written by Lee Davies for Nintendo: Review.