Roughly ten years ago, the fighting genre was quite possibly the hottest thing going in the video game industry. With games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, fighters seemed to be the center of the gaming universe. Over time, and after countless rehashes of both franchises, not to mention feeble attempts by other developers to create something at least remotely original, the fighting genre has become ridiculously stale. A few exceptions linger here and there, such as the amazing Soul Calibur, but other than that, fighters really have become nothing more than a mix of mediocrity. Titus and Saffire, like so many others of late, are trying to inject new life into this genre with Barbarian. A fighter with a mix of adventure tossed in, Barbarian tries to go a bit farther than most fighting games, and in doing so Saffire has created a somewhat original yet nonetheless mediocre title.
Set in an ancient land, Barbarian promises lands filled with dark, foreboding imagery, hostile climates, and primitive landscapes. To a certain extent this is true, as the levels are full of quasi-ancient ambience. Technically the levels are very well done, with lots of detail and very smooth textures. However, for the most part, there is nothing about them that really gives off that 'barbarian' type feel that one gets when watching "Conan the Barbarian" or other such movies. As for the characters, they move incredibly well, the animations very smooth and realistic. The clothing and weapons are also fairly authentic, though not nearly as detailed as they could be. Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Barbarian, from a graphical standpoint, are the visual effects of the magic involved. Every character has the ability to launch some type of magical attack, and likewise, every character's magical attack is boring and dull looking, having more in common with 16-bit D&D style games than anything else.
Barbarian is set in the land of Barbaria, an empire that is being pervaded by the evil forces of Zaugg. Each character in Barbaria has their own motives for stopping Zaugg, usually revolving around the loss of a loved one. At the onset of the game, players will pick one of 11 characters to fight with, each one having their own story. Each character also has their own unique fighting style as well, which allows you to choose the fighter best suited to your fighting style. The result of this is the ability to play through the same basic plot from 11 different perspectives, giving players the ability to see all sides of the story. After picking a character, a little cutscene plays outlining the story for that character, and after each victory, the story is furthered with additional voice over scenes.
The gameplay in Barbarian is nothing groundbreaking, but that does not mean it is without merit. Attacks in the game are divided up between physical and magical assaults, with two types of attack in each category. By tapping the square button, players will execute a quick, although fairly weak, attack. This type of attack is mostly useful when fighting several enemies at once, as it has the ability to hit multiple enemies. There is also a stronger, yet weaker, attack to choose from, and it can be performed by using the triangle button. While much stronger than the quicker melee attack, this type of assault can leave you vulnerable to quicker enemies, allowing them to counter you for big damage. Therefore, it is important to devise a bit of strategy when fighting different opponents, because unlike other fighters, you can't use the same techniques over and over and be victorious.
Magic attacks in the game, despite being incredibly dull looking, are often very useful, especially when fighting several enemies at once. Simply by tapping the R1 button, you can use your player's unique magic attack, which ranges from simple fireballs to earthquakes and more. In addition to character specific attacks, players can earn the ability to use Rune Magic in the game as well. Rune attacks can be acquired by executing certain commands in battle. You can gain combo runes for executing combos on your opponent, object runes by using objects successfully, throw runes from successfully throwing your enemy, and counter runes can be gained by properly countering an enemy combo. Whenever you gain the ability to use rune magic, a corresponding symbol will appear next to your life bar. If you have enough magic (and that is a big 'if'', because rune magic takes up a LOT of magic), you can unleash a devastating attack by pressing R2.
The gameplay in Barbarian is also filled with lots of other tried and true, and therefore boring, gameplay. Almost every level has several tiers to fight from, and you can knock your enemy down to lower levels. There really is no point in doing so, other than slightly changing the location of where you fight, because knocking your enemy down a 100-foot shaft doesn't really do any damage. You can also use the environment around you to your advantage, by picking up everything from huge slabs of stone to split tree trunks and more. You can pick up these objects and toss them around by simply pressing the circle button, and it apparently does not matter how heavy the object, or how small the character, because there is no limit to who can use what. In other words, the 95 lb elfin girl is apparently as strong as the 500 lb mutant gorilla, because both can cause the same amount of damage when throwing objects. Basically, it is the little things like this that make the gameplay in Barbarian so pedestrian. It's not apparent whether Saffire tried to implement a decent physics engine in this game and failed, or whether they simply never bothered to try. Either way, annoying inconsistencies like this, which make which character you choose utterly irrelevant from a gameplay perspective, really hamper the enjoyment of this game.
Whether or not players can get over such problems in the game will directly affect how much replay value they find in it. It can be appealing to see 11 different sides to the same story, and this may give a few people a reason to run through the game more than once. However, the biggest reason to play this game multiple times, assuming you find enough redeeming qualities in it, is the ability to upgrade your character in various ways. After each victory, characters are awarded with experience points that can be used to increase various attributes such as strength, speed, defense, life, and more. If you enjoy the basics of combat in Barbarian, then it is definitely worth playing through again to max out your favorite character.
The sound in Barbarian is so unremarkable that people may actually find themselves questioning its very existence in this game when they turn it off. The music during battle is so mundane that it qualifies more as white noise not meant to be actively heard as opposed to what good music in fighting games should do- add to the hectic feel of combat and increase the level of intensity felt in the gameplay. The only good thing to be said about the music in this game is that at least it is not bad enough to be a distraction. The voice over scenes between battle are done well enough, but can hardly be called compelling. The fact that most of the story is bland in the extreme does not really help either.
Probably the biggest asset in Barbarian is the control. The game does move very well, the characters being very easy to maneuver. Control is also the one area that really helps differentiate between characters, because the smaller and quicker the character is, the easier they are to maneuver around the screen, while the larger, more powerful characters have more stable attack movements and are less likely to get knocked off balance. However, despite the smooth controls, there is simply too much in the gameplay that screams mediocrity, and in the end smooth handling takes a back seat to other problems.
Overall, Barbarian is simply proof that the fighting genre needs more than a simple makeover; it needs an overhaul. While the game may have an interesting premise, it quickly becomes clouded in a sea of bland, recycled themes. Anyone who loves the fighting genre as is would do well to pick up Barbarian, but anyone who wants a little more than the usual out of a game would be smart to pass this one up.
9/9/2002 Ryan Hartmann