I've been playing video games for almost thirty years now, so it takes a lot more than pretty graphics to wow me. I'm also kinda tired of cutscenes and games constantly pushing a story in my face, so I'm happy that smaller, gameplay-focused titles have been making a very welcome return on PC and mobile platforms. To make a great game that eats up your time and keeps you playing, what you really need are mechanics that encourage mastery and an idea that just grabs you. A bitchin' soundtrack also helps.
TreeFortress' Bardbarian succeeds on all these fronts, providing a fast, frantic sorta-tower defense/sorta-MOBA/sorta-dungeon crawler that encourages the kind of horrible amazing "one more game" or "just a little longer" feel that you get from Mario Kart or Diablo, and suddenly it's 2am when you have to be at work the next morning.
Please note the very welcome presence of Super Meat Boy and Octodad
Brad is a barbarian who's sick of the thug life--he's had it with pillaging and plundering and punching people in the face, so he whips out his mystical axe-lute and gets to shreddin' and lootin'. As Brad, you protect your village by using Brad's righteous chops to summon and control a variety of minions with different abilities, from basic damage to crowd control to healing, while temporary buffs and debuffs are handled by Brad himself. But like I said earlier, Bardbarian is a fusion of genres that work together to create a single, complete package.
I'm always a sucker for survival-type modes in games--modes that encourage me to last just a little bit longer against near-endless waves of enemies, forcing me to manage resources and make regular adjustments to my strategy to keep the fight going. Bardbarian is no different, allowing you to take a team of three companions into battle so you can fight off the invading hordes. A hundred bad guys with swords are easy enough to manage with a simple team of three Archers at first, but as the game goes on you'll need to figure out what's most important to you: do you want a single, high-damage attack from a Wizard (with really slow recharge time) or do you want a quicker, weaker attack from Archers or Brawlers? Or do you want to cut down your attack a little and add a Healer to keep everybody alive?
This screen is from the mobile version--note the different HUD
MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas, like League of Legends) operate in lanes, which players must prioritize to properly defend a base. Bardbarian doesn't really have lanes as much as it takes place on one giant lane leading toward your base--a giant crystal that you have to protect from enemy attack. While this makes moving around the battlefield much more flexible, enemies can often slip by if you're not paying attention, meaning that you'll sometimes have to dash from one end of the battlefield to another just to plug up any holes.
...but in this case, without the dungeon. Half the point of games like Diablo or Shiren is that you get game-breakingly strong as you play more of the game. It's an RPG in a sense, but it's more about developing a build than it is about playing a role, so you're invested in a more mechanical sense. Bardbarian lets you level up Brad, his abilities, and the townsfolk fighting alongside you, so the game is always dangling that carrot of "you can be just a little bit stronger!" as you cut through more and more waves of enemies and gather up massive piles of loot.
All this gushing doesn't come with a price, though: the mobile versions of Bardbarian are initially ad-supported free-to-play, but ads can occasionally crash the game (like anything else) and the balance can sometimes be thrown completely out the window by microtransaction purchaseables. While I think these issues can eventually be ironed out over time, they're still an unfortunate stumbling block for the otherwise strong Bardbarian. Additionally, Bardbarian just doesn't have a lot of meat to it--you have to really, really care about this particular map, this particular set of mechanics if you're going to play it for more than a week.
Granted, it's going to be a long, fun week of just playing Bardbarian, so I think it evens out in the end. The game gives you a lot of bang for your buck, and delivers in a way that I didn't really expect it to. In the same way that Brad gives up his life of ass-kicking and violence, sometimes it's nice to stop and do something else for a change. Give Bardbarian a shot--it's free-to-play on iOS and Android, and the PC version is on sale at Humble!
+ Tight and challenging gameplay rewards experience, flexibility, and a willingness to sacrifice townsfolk for the greater good
+ Awesome soundtrack
+/- Strong gameplay doesn't really provide you with that much content, but it's justifiable
- Game balance can get absolutely wrecked through microtransactions