Review: Tiny Barbarian DX
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Quit while you’re ahead.” It means that you shouldn’t keep messing with a good thing because you might end up ruining it. Tiny Barbarian was left in a sticky spot years ago, containing two of four promised episodes with no completion date in sight. Those two episodes contained some classic, challenging platforming that people wanted more of, and as of October 2017 they got their wish. Tiny Barbarian is now complete, with four full episodes and one bonus episode to wrestle with. And after working through as much of it as I could, I really think they should have quit while they were ahead.
I’ll give Tiny Barbarian credit for one thing, it has one of the best openings of any platformer around. Right when you start, the game pans up to a desperate mountaintop siege starring you against an endless horde of slavering monsters. The game proper starts when you inevitably die, but it’s a great sort of free-form tutorial and a lot of fun on its own. The longer you hold out the more dire the situation becomes, throwing archers and giants at you as lightning flashes overhead. I adore how it sets the stage for the game and though it never quite returns to the same heights of mayhem and slaughter, it’s a very memorable moment.
The meat of the game plays out over four episodes, each culled from a different cinematic or gaming reference. The first episode is a full homage to Conan the Barbarian, starting you out nailed to a tree and seeing you battle through a desert and palace of snake-worshiping foes in search of your lovely lady-love. In the second episode you and she travel into a steamy jungle filled with wily apes and giant bees that make it less than a pleasant jaunt. The third is very clearly Castlevania-inspired, with your demure berserker assaulting a dark tower suspended above an unfortunate burg. And the fourth episode… well, I won’t spoil it but it subverts expectations in a big way and presents something fresh and entertaining over the rest of the game.
Though the episodes have very little narrative connection to each other, they provide rollicking good backdrops for all the barbaric chaos you can get up to. Your dude has a high-flying leap and a three-hit combo with his sword that does extra damage on the third hit. He can also swing upwards and elbow-drop, and when strung together these moves can juggle enemies to hilarious effect. Combat is a very strong point of this title, allowing you to take on plenty of enemies at once by sweeping them up with your blade and carving them to pieces while they bounce around helplessly. You’ll also get to experiment with other combat concepts like reflecting bombs and magic, riding wild animals and trampling foes, and some projectile-based attacks that even the odds between you and more advanced enemies.
Your enemies can be a challenge to deal with but it’s the platforming that will give you the most trouble, thanks to some old-school design sensibilities. In addition to your jump you can hang on ledges and ropes, often hanging across yawning pits of spikes or bottomless abysses. You’ll need to leap from rope to rope to tiny platform to rope in some cases, or make pixel-perfect long jumps, or contend with swooping enemies that can knock you to your doom. In the opening episode there isn’t much precision platforming (though there are some tricky moving platforms near the end), but every episode after that ramps up the difficulty in some very unpleasant ways.
The problem with Tiny Barbarian is that the quality of design fluctuates wildly between episodes, and threatens to sour you on the experience the further you get in. Episode one is great, don’t get me wrong. It’s tightly-designed, challenging in fun ways, and has lots of neat little setpieces to work through. Episode two is where the paint starts to peel, and not just in a few areas. You have infinite lives so dying usually isn’t a problem but checkpoints are spaced further and further apart, and there’s more than one long sequence of platforming that you’ll have to do over if you miss a single jump near the end. The enemies have some extremely aggressive patterns, especially the insects in the latter half. And the boss of the episode is one of the most infuriating creatures I’ve ever had to fight, requiring ridiculous timing and hopping on platforms that seemed to only work half the time.
I had hoped that was the worst of it, but episode three put it to shame. It introduces a new gimmick where you can move to the background but puts enemies on both layers, making it hard to see where to fight and dodge when you’re behind things. There’s a platforming section with one-square-large platforms and pixel-perfect jumps that you need to make WHILE bats are flying at you constantly. Then you get to contend with multiple levels of crushing walls and floors that are almost completely unmarked, forcing trial-and-error progression. Even after getting through that you’re treated to some screen-wrapping mazes and a final boss with three parts that only gets more and more agonizing with each phase. Episode four almost redeemed it with a clever twist on the gameplay and some much more reasonable platforming at the onset, but descended to the same bullshit difficulty by the end and culminated in a final boss that I’m not going to waste my time trying to beat.
Not only does Tiny Barbarian’s difficulty go off a cliff, it does so in legitimately unfair ways and I’m not just talking about those god damned unmarked crushers. Just like the classic controller-breakers of yore they love to send swooping birds and bats to knock you into pits but during ascents here, they can appear randomly from the top of the screen and hit you before you can react. Bosses can be stunned and juggled by your heavy sword swing but it doesn’t always work, and it’s a lunge so if it doesn’t work you’ll take a hit from running into the boss. And there’s a section near the end where you need an AI partner to do something but they can’t jump on their own, so sometimes when the game separates you they’ll get stuck and you have to restart from the checkpoint. In a game that demands so much precision, it’s unforgivable that it can fail you and force do-overs through no fault of your own.
I really wanted Tiny Barbarian to turn out good, and for the longest time I was still willing to give it a thumbs-up. The pixel art is lovely and the soundtrack is ridiculously catchy, honestly I’ve been humming one of the themes for days despite being mad as hell at the game. But yeah, I’m mad as hell at the game for wasting my time with overly-hard platforming and unfair deaths. This isn’t like Volgarr the Viking where the game is blistering hard but fair, this is overall easier but you will absolutely hate the ways it kills you sometimes. And ever if the platforming was okay the bosses very much are not, forcing you to use uncertain mechanics to overcome brutal patterns and room-filling attacks. If they had somehow preserved the quality of that first golden episode this could be one for the ages, but as it stands the game would have been all the better without anything added.