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Review: Cybarian – an old-school action game without the benefit of nostalgia goggles

Too frustrating, without enough reward.

cybarian launch screen
Image: Jacob Vander Ende / KnowTechie

I saw Cybarian on the Nintendo Switch eShop and thought, “A time-traveling Conan-like barbarian in a 2D action platformer that uses a shader to make the screen look like an old CRT running an NES? Fuck yeah, I am so in.”

What I didn’t realize is that would be both the beginning and end of my enthusiasm for this game, as it feels like a retro action game that has learned nothing in the last 30 years of design lessons. Cybarian, unfortunately, delivers on that promise of being an NES game: Action that’s completely stuck in the past.

First, settings: All you get are music and sound effect volume sliders, plus the option to turn the scanlines shader on or off. Interesting note: Screenshots are about 3.5x larger with the scanline shader. Weird. There is no button remapping in this game, but you can look at the controls if you’re on the main menu.

In-game, the “Controls” option is there and doesn’t actually display anything, which may or may not be a bug.

In Cybarian, you play as a time-traveling barbarian, because…reasons, I guess? Honestly, you don’t really need a reason and I can respect that

cybarian gameplay

Image: Jacob Vander Ende / KnowTechie

There isn’t much back story before you get teleported into what looks like a post-apocalyptic future, where you gotta fight stuff. When you start out, the only buttons are moving left and right, jumping, and swinging your sword, which we’ll get into momentarily.

The first thing I noticed was that the three-hit combo is extremely not button-mash friendly. If you taptaptap, you’re completely fucked; you end up stunned for a critical moment, during which I guarantee whatever you’re fighting will hit you. You have to tap…tap…..tap to get it right.

Initially, I thought, “Wow, that’s so cool! What a mindful, intentional approach to classic, arcade combat!” I was wrong, reader. In reality, this means every single time you get this wrong, you lose 1hp. The earliest enemies require one full combo to be defeated and later enemies require multiple, so that is a lot of opportunities to mess up.

There are a number of different approaches where this wouldn’t be that much of a problem, but you only get 5hp in normal and hard, 7 in easy, and the game has no checkpoints. If you die in a level, you get punted back to the beginning of the level on easy and normal. If you die at the boss, you get a checkpoint right outside the boss’s room. If you die anywhere on hard mode, you go back to the beginning of the game.

I honestly don’t know how many levels this game has, because that level of punitive feedback is absolutely infuriating to me

gameplay boss battle

Here’s a boss battle without the scan lines (Image: Jacob Vander Ende / KnowTechie)

I’m also not new to this sort of thing. I’ve beaten Code Name: Viper, one of the most viciously hard NES action games of this ilk. I have the platinum trophy for Bloodborne. I’ve been playing games for about 29 years and this approach to difficulty is just flat-out not fun.

I know it’s the checkpointing, too, because the boss fights are actually fun. They have patterns reminiscent of Mega Man games and they’re fun to fight, a glimpse into what this game could have been.

There’s more that exacerbates this problem and it feels like death by a thousand cuts:

  • You don’t start the game with your core abilities. You get a dodge roll, a sword throw, and a ground pound, all of which significantly alter combat and none of which are in your arsenal at the beginning. Can you even imagine playing Dark Souls without any kind of dodge? Your abilities are unlocked on hard mode, where I literally got farther than I got on easy and normal, which means it was easier to progress through the game with abilities without ever dying to anything than it was to have infinite continues without abilities.
  • The only way to recover health is at vending machines, which cost coins. Enemies drop coins, but they get spewed out in random directions, often into unreachable pits or off the screen entirely. If you want me to have perfect performance at all times, why give me haphazard feedback when you’re supposed to reward that performance? Why not auto-collect coins?
  • Environmental hazards knock you around, sometimes into other environmental hazards and often creating infinite loops where what should have been 1 damage is now instant death that sends you all the way back to the beginning of the level.
  • I cannot stress this enough and need to say it again: Literally, every time you press the attack button a few milliseconds too early or too late while fighting something, you receive damage.
cybarian gameplay

Image: Jacob Vander Ende / KnowTechie

I’m exhausted by this game, but honestly, I deserve it. I wanted what was sold by the screenshots: An NES-era action game. I got exactly that, forgetting just how bad things used to be.

Jake reviewed Cybarian with his own money. It is available now on Nintendo Switch.

Curious what our scores mean? Find out more in our comprehensive guide to Understanding KnowTechie’s Game Review Scoring.

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Jake is a writer and game designer in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He loves action, exploration, building, filling bars, and turning numbers into bigger numbers. Someday he'll release a video game.

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