The Game: Bardbarian (2014)
Developer: TreeFortress Games
Publisher: TreeFortress Games
System: iOS, Android, PC (Selected)
The Premise: Tower Defense with Nikes.
Is It Any Good?: Before we move on to the Random Select proper, I’d first like to offer a micro-Random Select for Blizzard’s recent time-succubus, Hearthstone. It is a maddeningly addictive vortex of a game that strips away all the labyrinthine complexity of Magic: The Gathering while leaving the slot-machine jonesing of the random card pack (Gold foils? You’re god-damn right there’re gold foils!). It is essentially the Devil given game form, and as such I have looked for every opportunity to weaken its grip on me, even momentarily. Enter: The Backlog. An embarrassingly large backlog given the amount of bundles I take advantage of, which often leads me to me scrolling through game after game I neither recognize nor realized I owned. Bardbarian was one such game, and in a fortuitous turn of events it proved to be the perfect antidote to my grinding card-collecting obsession, instead offering up a grinding stat-improvement obsession. Which is totally different!
Indeed, for hardcore fans of tower-defense games (hey, they might exist) on the surface Bardbarian seems to offer up fairly bog-standard tropes. You’ve got your enemies marching in from right to left, a what’s-it that needs defending, and a horde of upgradable minions with which to fend off wave after wave after wave after WOOT NEW UNIT after wave after wave… well, you get the idea. Normally I’m not one to harp on a game for executing competently on established tropes, but even as someone who’s only dabbled with a handful of tower games even I can tell that at this point the premise has been stretched condom thin over the…penis, of…public interest? Look it’s tired is what I’m getting at, which is why in a bit of peanut butter and chocolate brilliance the developers of Bardbarian decided that the key to breathing new life into the dead horse of tower defense was to staple it to a genre nearly as hoary: the shmup.
And you know what? It works like gangbusters. Again, as a relative neophyte to the genre I can’t speak to the originality of Bardbarian’s gameplay, but it’s certainly satisfying. Rather than building static towers to defend your crystal, your character, the titular Bardbarian, instead summons a group of minions that surround him and constantly attack the enemy forces. While the Bardbarian may not be able to attack on his own, he can buff his posse and more importantly, lead them through the bullet-hell of enemy fire. Various upgrades improve everything from speed, to damage output to the spread of your team, and there’s definitely a measure of skill involved. While your team is replaceable, both you and the units are fairly fragile, which means sloppy play will quickly leave you broke and/or dead. It’s certainly not the height of fast-twitch mastery (I suck at shoot ‘em-ups and still managed 100% completion), but there’s enough challenge to reward good play without being overly punishing.
NOTE: My play-through was on a laptop with both mouse and keyboard and a wired 360 gamepad, so I cannot comment on how playable this game may or may not be on mobile devices.
I also appreciated the game’s generous leveling system. There’s a lot to unlock, but the game isn’t stingy with the rewards, and a checkpoint at every boss means farming for gold is relatively easy. Even in runs where I wiped early, I still usually had enough money to buy at least one or two upgrades, key for the one…more…time mentality. In addition to upgrading the Bardbarian and units, you can also spend cash to unlock a handful of perks within the town, although outside of the healing item none seemed to have a major effect on gameplay. Still, combining the various unit types leaves plenty of room for experimentation, and while the game definitely doesn’t overstay it’s welcome (I walked away with all achievements in under 10 hours) there’s plenty of meat to the basic gameplay, which is good considering that outside of a two forgettable mini-games that’s all you get. As a final note, for those of you operating on slightly antiquated hardware, the simple but charming art-style is surprisingly easy on the old onboard graphics. Overall, Bardbarian definitely falls into the “amusing timewaster” category, but with its no-nonsense approach and bargain price, it’s an easy recommendation.
BONUS POINTS: For fans of Marvel-esque crossovers, several indie game stars show up as playable units including Octodad, Super Meat Boy, Isaac and the War Turtle from Shellrazer.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Shoot 1UP, Toy Soldiers, Jamestown, Sanctum