When I was at PAX East 2020, a booth that constantly caught my eye as I rushed between appointments and searched for expensive convention food featured the vivid mech artwork and popping red logos of Panzer Paladin. As alluring as it looked, and despite my friends raving about it, the only time with the game from stolen glances out of the corner of my eye.
All I knew by the end of the show was that it was some kind of pixelated platformer with a robot and…maybe other robots? My knowledge of the game never really expanded in the months to follow, so when I finally got my hands on a copy of Panzer Paladin to see just what the hell it was, I immediately realised this was way more than just an 8-bit robot platformer.
8-bit platforming is certainly the most basic DNA of the game. You control a sentient Paladin mech called Grit who can jump, punch, and back-dash his way through a variety of standalone locales. The onion starts to reveal it’s layers pretty quickly though, as you can also eject from the robot and maneuver through each level as the Paladin pilot, an android operator with wild blue anime hair named Flame. Each level has moments where you’ll need to exit the robot in order to navigate through tight corridors or recover hidden items, but in tough situations, you may even find yourself forced to fight as Flame after your robot has been destroyed.
The ability to play as Flame or Grit is a fun flavour to add to the usual platformer sandwich, but it’s hardly the meat of Panzer Paladin. That would be the weapon system of the game. You’ll be able to recover dozens of different melee tools from fallen enemies or hidden alcoves in each mission that have their own damage, durability, attack types, and special spells. Don’t get too attached to any particular weapon though, because you’ll burn through them quickly. Much like the weapon durability mechanic in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and survival games, you’ll often find weapons breaking down after defeating just a few enemies.
On top of that, so many mechanics within the game call for the immediate removal of your current weapon. You can fling a weapon at enemies for massive damage, but that destroys the weapon in the process. You can snap a weapon in half to activate powerful spells like thunder blasts or healing or durability buffs but, again, that destroys the weapon. Checkpoints can only be activated by depositing a weapon into the checkpoint stone, and while you can always come back and retrieve that weapon in a pickle, it’ll be at the sacrifice of losing that respawn area.
There’s a massive variety to the weapon and spell types you’ll encounter, but as satisfying as that breadth of content is, I rarely found myself taking advantage of it because of how fragile weapons are. Unless you’ve got a stockpile of weapons in your storage, you’ll likely find yourself bare-handed if you get overzealous with spells and weapon-throwing. You can certainly play the game bare-handed, but it kicks up the difficulty immensely, especially against bosses. The lack of an arsenal ends up affecting difficulty far more than the actual difficulty options, which seem to only slightly adjust the amount of damage you dish out and take.
If you want to expand the amount of weapons available even further, you can even dive into Blacksmith mode. This tool acts like the pattern-designing feature in Animal Crossing, letting you draw within a grid to create your own melee weapon out of tightly packed pixels before naming it and assigning stats and a spell. Once created, you and other players can end up finding custom weapons within missions when the mysterious Weaponmaster drops off a random weapon at the midpoint of each level. Strangely, once I designed a single weapon in Blacksmith mode, it was the only weapon that I seemed to get from the Weaponmaster.
Beyond its inventive weapon system, Panzer Paladin also boasts a stylish aesthetic that’s just as refreshing and unique. You’re tasked with diving into a set of standalone levels to tackle mythical beast bosses Mega Man style, and the clash between your cyborg protagonist, the contemporary locales, and the fantastical foes you fight is a mish-mash of fun ideas that play off each other perfectly. It’s tied together with head-bopping music and brief, stylish cutscenes that boast a wonderful anime-inspired pixel aesthetic. Panzer Paladin could have gone all-in on the gameplay innovations and skimped when it came to the presentation, but the fact that it puts so much effort into both fronts is greatly appreciated.