While both Metroid and Castlevania have been largely absent from our gaming screens in recent years, the genre that they inspired has been going through a relative golden age, at least in terms of the number of games released. The ‘metroidvania’ is a convenient category in which to group the various kinds of gradual exploration games, from Hollow Knight to Supraland.
With the explosion of entries, however, games need to do something different to stand out from the crowd. At first, Batbarian appears to do so by literally keeping you in the dark, but once you delve deeper, it is in fact an admirable attention to accessibility that separates it from many others.
In typical fashion, Batbarian begins by throwing your character in the deep end – in this case flinging you off a cliff. You are at least accompanied by a mysteriously glowing bat that remains loyally by your side throughout the adventure that follows. This is fortunate indeed, since their light is often the only illumination to be found. This oppressively dark setting is, of course, entirely appropriate for the caves and dungeons you explore, but it can lead to moments of frustration as you struggle to see the platforms you are trying to jump on – this was especially the case on my Switch Lite. Despite this, the graphical style did work pretty well (once I upped the gamma correction a little)
The pixel art aesthetic is often a Marmite approach, but if you are a fan of it, then Batbarian is a great example. The enemies have a character that belies their simplicity, an aspect helped out a great deal by the genuinely witty writing. Batbarian is fully aware of its silliness and contains some actually funny parodies of genre expectations and clichés.
Alongside your bat friend, you also find three alternative companions across your adventure, each offering different helpful abilities, but all restricted by limited charges. These characters also have interesting parallel paths through your adventure, some of which only become clear through the occasional flashbacks that mark your progress.
The main marker of success or failure in a Metroidvania is the pleasure of exploration. This can be broken down into the screen to screen feel of the platforming and combat, and then the ease of navigation across the wider map. In the first case, Batbarian is good fun to play. The jumping is reliable with a great sense of weight and in most cases mistakes should be put down to human error. There are some screens that seem especially unfair or require a degree of accuracy that results in multiple attempts, and it’s not always clear whether that’s because they’re a difficulty spike on the main path through the screen or an optional route to a secret.
This leads me nicely on to the second aspect: the map. On one level, the map is exemplary, as there is a brilliantly intuitive notation system where you can cycle through appropriate icons from treasure chests to question marks. This works well at the beginning of the game, but the busy work of maintaining the icons threatens the flow. I’m unsure why this couldn’t be automatic as is often the case in this genre.
Perhaps my main complaint about the map is that there is no marker for your destination. Too often I was reduced to aimless exploration going from dead end to dead end as there was no real clue as to where I should head next. Equally complex maps such as those found in the Ori games manage to demonstrate how a destination marker doesn’t ruin the sense of exploration, but instead avoids needless time wasting. The relative vagueness of your unlocked abilities doesn’t help this issue.
As you venture deeper into the world of Batbarian you’ll come across some mysterious trees with magical fruits. How these trees are growing underground isn’t explained, of course, but the fruits that fall from them become your main puzzle mechanic, with your bright little bat friend seemingly always hungry. You can throw these fruits in order to send the flight-light to specific parts of the screen to either open doors, scare off enemies, and eventually freeze or burn obstacles. Some of the late game puzzles are complex and fiendish, requiring you to juggle a number of different items to progress. You also have stones to throw that can flick switches when necessary.
Batbarian is a game that balances the possibility of extreme challenge with a hugely refreshing suite of accessibility options. In doing so, it becomes a game that you can play on your own terms. From helpful extras such as a slow aim for throwing to more fundamental changes like recharging health, these options open up the game to a wider audience and ensured that I could make it through some of the more difficult areas.