What happens when you distill your typical dungeon crawler down to its most basic of elements, and then crank the action up to 11? You get Barbara-ian, an Early Access game focused on smashing your way through randomly generated dungeons with a single caveat; everything dies in a single hit, including you.
• Developer: Owlbear Ltd.
• Publisher: Owlbear Ltd.
• Reviewed on: PC
• Also Available On: Mac, Linux
• Release Date: July 17, 2015 (Early Access)
The interesting thing about the one-hit mechanic is that it makes Barbara-ian both extremely easy and infuriatingly hard at the same time. You would think that the number of enemies around would be fewer than something like Diablo, given that you die in a single hit, yet as early as the 3rd floor you could be chased down by dozens of mobs at the same time. This brings a frantic element to the game that reminds me a lot of Super Meat Boy, as you can respawn on the last completed floor as instantly as you can hit the start button. Yeah, the respawn button is by default mapped to the start button on the Xbox controller, I think that alone speaks volumes about the nature of the game.
Barbara-ian, while having a very, very distinct art style, looks and plays like your typical top-down dungeon-crawler, though you are given full control of the titular main character instead of the more standard mouse control. This is important because of the one-hit mechanic. I feel like if I had to click around to get out of danger, the game’s difficulty would spike into the unfair range pretty quickly. Because of this, I feel the game fits a controller perfectly, where it controls kind of like a twin-stick shooter, with the right stick to aim around, left stick to move, and the right trigger to attack.
The basic progression, at least in the Early Access build is like a mix of the original Diablo and your standard rogue-like. Your objective is to find all the treasure chests on a level to unlock the stairs leading down to the next floor. Each floor adds another treasure chest to find, and each treasure chest permanently changes your weapon – forcing you to master a variety of completely different weapons instead of finding the one that suits you best and coasting through the game. At first, I hated this mechanic, but after spending plenty of time in those dungeons I can say it is one of the smartest things the game does.
For example, there is a weapon called the Wand of Exploding which puts a rune on the floor that explodes after a short time. It has a weird delay between the press of the button and actually putting the rune down that made zero sense to me when using it the first few times. However, I soon learned that the delay was imperative to be able to use the weapon effectively as, if the rune appeared instantly, it would actually be way more difficult to catch the horde of enemies chasing you in the explosion. In any other game where I could choose my weapon, I would have written this one off almost instantly. In Barbara-ian, you have to step out of your comfort zone and master it if you want to get anywhere.
The weapons you find are a mix of both your standard and off-kilter fare. You start with a pretty quick swinging sword with a very narrow attack, there is the Axe of Axing which is much slower but spins around you dealing area damage, the aforementioned Wand of Exploding that can take out hordes of enemies instantly but requires smart positioning and some patience, a Pump-Action Crossbow which is a welcome ranged weapon with a slow rate of fire but capable of piercing multiple enemies, and more both in the game and coming in future updates as they continue towards their official release date. As of this writing, they are teasing the addition of the Tome of Laser Vision, which as you can guess, is a book Babs can read to shoot lasers out of her eyes.
I have not gotten as far as I would like in Barbara-ian to give a straight verdict on it yet, as the game can get pretty tough fairly quickly. I do know that there is no endgame as of this preview, but the developers have said that is something they are working on. I also do not know if any bosses will be making an appearance, though that is something I would love to see. Titan Souls proved you can make some very interesting boss fights based on the same mechanic of the player and the boss dying in a single hit, and something like that would be very welcome when you consider a lot of dungeon crawler bosses to be no more than click-spam-to-win.
The last great thing about Barbara-ian is the price point. $3.99 is a pretty cheap sweet spot for something that features quite a bit of replayability. I can see the price stretching towards the $7 or $8 as more content is added, but it seems like Owlbear knows exactly the type of game they want to make and what the right price is for it.
It is not very often that you can actually feel the passion of a developer when you play their game, but Barbara-ian is definitely one of those cases. Everything about the game has a light-hearted touch to it and they seem to be concerned with one main thing – having fun. I can get behind that.