It’s fantastic to see how many games these days have iterated on the concept of roguelikes. At this point in time, few titles actually bear a massive resemblance to Rogue aside from on a few key points. Barbara-ian is the latest of these roguelike disciples and reintroduces the concept of a “hardcore” game in many respects. Although just launched into Early Access, the game is readily playable which is far more than can be said for some of its contemporaries. The gameplay is simple, but that’s key when you’re pushing an almost arcade-like experience such as this.
Players jump straight into the game as Barbara-ian, a hulking barbarian woman with a penchant for killing. Your goal isn’t actually to kill all these enemies, but to find treasure chests and steal the goodies within. You’ll always find one weapon stashed inside, which may range from a crossbow to gigantic axe. Each weapon has its own attack style, speed, and range, and there’s no doubt that different players will favor different weapons for playthroughs. Unfortunately, they spawn randomly (and you can only carry one at once) so there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to do the dungeon run exactly how you wish. Once all treasure chests on a stage are found you’ll be able to access the way to the next level.
One aspect which makes Barbara-ian stand out from other dungeon crawlers with roguelike elements is that the concept of having “one life” is taken to the extreme. If our barbarian is hit just once she dies. That’s kind of what happens when you run around without any armor, after all. Whether the hit is from a tiny gnome or hulking beast doesn’t matter. Our buddy will go down with a messy blood fountain spurting forth before starting over. Of course, the time between death and restart is quick just as you want in these sort of rapid replay games. Although roguelike by design, it currently appears that you can respawn at a more recent dungeon level instead of beginning from level one each and every time.
Procedural generation is big in the genre and as such is key to dungeon design for Barbara-ian. For the most part, levels work, although I’ve encountered a handful of issues. Sometimes traps are placed right in front of small doorways meaning you’re not particularly likely to make it through alive. In other instances, there’s simply no light source inside a room. Dungeons are pretty dark, but in this game darkness is a huge enemy. If you can’t see an enemy coming then there’s all the more chance that it’ll get in a single, killer hit. Now, there is a design element which gives enemies a green outline visible in the dark, but that’s not ideal either. It’s hard to say if this will be changed, though, since part of the challenge is swinging weapons around without knocking lighting fixtures clear across the room.
Now, if you’re reading this then you’ve seen Barbara-ian’s screenshots which reveal the most obvious, noteworthy aspect of the game right off the bat. It has some intense polygonal artwork. Hard, chunky polygons define everything in the world from Barbara-ian herself to the features of the dungeon. They’re pointy and feel akin to gaming’s first pushes into the realm of 3D, before designers even slapped textures on to try and mask their crudeness. If you play through some of the oldest PlayStation 1 games out there today, you might feel the graphics are similar, though not quite as crisp as this modern release. Some are seriously taken aback by this graphical choice. I’m fine with it, mostly because it gives the experience a super distinct visual feel when compared to pixel art roguelikes.
You’ll die a lot in this game, Early Access or not. It’s just hard to say whether or not that allure alone is enough to keep folks playing in the long run. I enjoyed most of my time with Barbara-ian, but would love to see reasons to return rather than simply descending dungeons to find more similar enemy clusters and the same small stash of available weapons. Given a bit more purpose (or an ending dungeon — which currently doesn’t exist), there’s no doubt that Barbara-ian can transform into a must-have roguelike by launch.