Review: Bardbarian18 Jun 2018 0
Released 15 May 2018
This is the story of a brad named Bard who became a ... no, sorry, it’s a bard named Bradbarian who ... wait, a barbarian named Brad who became a bard. That's it. He hung up his steel axe for a golden six-stringed axe and has an axe to grind with the monsters trying to destroy his home's precious Town Crystal, which, as we all know, was the centrepiece of any medieval municipality.
Bardbarian is a really cool mix of tower defense, action RPG, and bullet-hell shooter. Since Brad the Bradbar... Bardbarian has tired of busting skulls over shredding riffs, he doesn't do any fighting himself, preferring to summon a party from the town to support him. Each party member has a slightly different ability, from pure DPS to area-effect to healing, which makes up the strategy part of the game. More important, though, is the action.
All the baddies shoot projectiles, so that's where the bullet-hell shooter gameplay comes in. You've got to dodge the incoming fire, not only to stay alive but also to build up your stun ability that only charges after five untouched kills in a row and is vital to bring down the larger groups later in the game. Overall, the bullets are slower than in your average space-shooter, and they start pretty well spaced. However, in Bardbarian, you also have to drag along your party of warriors and keep them from getting hit too, which can be an impossible task when a half-dozen goblins are shooting death-flowers at you. Weaving your party through incoming fire is a major part of the gameplay, so much so that one upgrade (it's Body spray, hah!) helps you tighten up the group to make them harder targets. The controls are a solid swipe-anywhere control stick that is precise and easy to use even as the gameplay becomes more frantic. There are also two bonus modes that get rid of any strategy elements whatsoever and go pure arcade.
The game has a great cartoony art style with floating limbs like Rayman that may have been chosen only because they are easier to animate but are still working really well in this game. Enemies and bullets are easy to spot and distinguish, even on tiny devices. The music is good fun too: pounding heavy metal riffs that will pump you up but won't bother you when they repeat or get stuck in your head later in the day. Each of Brad's buffs and summons will let loose a squeal of a solo, but even those are varied and fun enough to not be a drag after the hundredth time you hear them. The sense of humor is goofy in that very online sort of way (strips of delicious bacon are your healing pickups, for example) but never obnoxious.
You make progress by collecting gold each run through the campaign and upgrading Brad's abilities, the troops, or the town itself. Some of them make bigger change in the gameplay than others, like the pet that will snag pickups for you. Most of them are just iterative numerical upgrades that make your party faster or stronger, without changing the fundamentals is a big way.
Despite all the loot and upgrades, it’s difficult to feel like you are making real progress in Bardbarian, mostly because the playing field is identical every game. Once you finally do beat a boss and unlock the next chapter, you can feel free to start your new game from the checkpoint. However, you'll be at a major disadvantage, because your troops will start at their base level (admittedly, this base level can be upgraded) and your stockpile of notes will start at zero too. It's very difficult to make any more progress from that point, so a better idea is to start your new game all the way over from the beginning. Of course, your higher-level allies and buffs will (albeit slowly) make mincemeat of the initial waves of enemies but putting up with the boredom will net you piles and piles of gold and notes that you can use to push forward once you reach a level that's challenging. That leaves the game feeling very grindy, because your best strategy is just to take it easy until you can upgrade your stuff enough to survive the higher-level enemies. It's just a slow race to make your numbers bigger than the bad guys.
Whether you enjoy the game will depend on how much the core bullet-dodging gameplay sinks its hooks into you. If you have a blast weaving your party around the slow but soon overwhelming bullets you won't mind facing the same enemies over and over to make a little progress. If you're looking for a deeper strategic tower defense or RPG experience, this is not your game. There's a free-to-play version of the game for Android, so if that's your platform, you're lucky to be able to try before you buy. It's actually too bad that the iOS version is premium only because the real test of a game like this is whether it's genre-bending scratches your itch or not, because the rest of the design just isn't that compelling.