A Labyrinth Of Secrets

HIGH The three imp guards.

LOW The Map.

WTF So Styx is one of my partners? Weird.

A puzzling adventure in the most literal sense of the word, Batbarian adopts the look and feel of a classic metroidvania via 2D combat and new abilities unlocking new areas of a map — and then delivers one of the most devious puzzle games in ages.

Set in a traditional fantasy world of monsters and magicians, Batbarian puts players in the fur boots of a warrior with a glowing bat sidekick. After a misunderstanding involving a thieving goblin and a horde of ogres, they find themselves cast into a pit and forced to fend for themselves against its bizarre denizens. To escape, they’ll have to fight their way past hideous monsters and solve countless puzzles.

While Batbarian features plenty of combat and a number of clever boss fights, the meat of it is in its puzzle-platforming. Offering a truly startling amount of variety, Batbarian’s developers offer almost every possible combination of puzzle elements a player could want. There are switches to flip, blocks to push, timers to race, enemies to lure — I was startled by the its ability to come up with new tricks and twists on old formulas.

At first players are worrying about avoiding spikes and hitting switches with thrown rocks. Then they’ll find themselves using fruit to guide their glowing bat sidekick to crystals that activate when illuminated. Eventually they’ll be armed with a bat that can change between elemental states, portals that send it careening all over, and screens that endlessly loop, forcing the player to fall at just the right angle to reach their goal — and that’s just the regular game. Bonus items are hidden in challenge rooms that are difficult to find and almost impossible to beat. Batbarian is a puzzle fan’s delight.

In fact, puzzle solving is such a key focus that combat can feel more like an annoyance than a feature. While there are puzzles that require combat to be solved, by and large, fights serve only to distract from the main attraction. The boss fights manage to weave puzzle mechanics into battles, but in general the inclusion of combat just pads the campaign’s running time.

There’s some evidence that the devs suspected that combat risked breaking the flow of their work, since they were nice enough to include a comprehensive menu of ‘assists’ that the player can turn on or off at any time — things like letting the character power up, regenerate health, or even slow down time when aiming throws. That last one is especially useful when it comes to late-game puzzles which require split-second timing — adding even half a second makes all the difference in the world.

The game’s largest problem, though, is how little help it offers a player who wants to uncover something other than the worst possible ending.

With a lot of perseverance it’s possible to make it through the trap rooms and boss fights necessary to roll credits. But actually figuring out what’s going on in the dungeon? I’ve got no idea. There are two mysterious locked doors and a wall with (I think?) eight lights that need to be sparked before the true endgame can be started, but the game is resoundingly oblique on this front. There are no hints about where these special challenges can be found, or how to complete them. After beating the game I spent five hours wandering around the maps and searching for secrets, and found just one more light, for a total of three.

Part of the problem is that Batbarian has one of the worst maps I’ve ever encountered in a metroidvania. It’s not an exaggeration to say that close to a third of the secret rooms are not on the map. With incredibly dark rooms that are only illuminated by the bat, and maps that don’t let players know if there’s an exit on a given wall, finding secrets is an ordeal. There’s even a section of the map where the game refuses to tell players how the various rooms are interconnected, making navigation a frustrating mess.

While those aspects need work, I will say that Batbarian’s writing is top-notch. There are numerous conversations with enemies, bosses, partners, and even a item-dealing mushroom. Being a barbarian, the main character only speaks in ALL CAPS, but dialogue options let the player decide what kind of warrior they’re playing as, and there are humorous responses for every possible interaction.

Despite my problems with the combat and supreme frustration at failing to find the true ending, I remain impressed by Batbarian. The characters are winning, the puzzles are brilliantly constructed, and it looks fantastic. While I can wish that the developers had done a little more to make the secrets a little more accessible, I can’t criticize their craftsmanship.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Unspeakable Pixels and published by Dangen Entertainment. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was rated E10+ by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence and Mild Language. Children might be frustrated by the challenging puzzles, but they won’t find anything shocking or troubling in the game — other than a close call with a beloved character nearly dying, of course.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options. This might prove a bit of an issue as there are color-coded enemies that only respond to certain elemental attacks, so players might have to use trial and error tactics with them.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played the majority of the game with the sound off and encountered no difficulties. All information is presented via text, which cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

Daniel Weissenberger
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