A key art from Berserk Boy on Nintendo Switch

Review: Berserk Boy (Nintendo Switch)

We'll never get enough of retro-themed platformers.

7 mins read

We live in a world where we’re all working harder and longer than ever, and what little free time we have really needs to count. I’ve addressed this in opinion pieces in the past that developers aren’t really competing for people’s money any more. Cost of living crisis or not, enough people have money for entertainment that a developer can produce a product. But time’s the big question, and in the years ahead we’re going to see a trend where games really need to have something special going for them, at any price point. Berserk Boy has the right price, but I’m not sure I necessarily justified the time I put into it.

Berserk Boy is a bundle of homages all rolled into one. There’s the “Metroidvania”, of course, with areas that you’ll need to backtrack to as you gain access to new abilities. There are also dashes of Mega Man for its precision platforming, Astro Boy (that GBA classic, I mean), Sonic (for the effort that has been put into movement flow), and so many other platformers besides.

It’s well made. There are plenty of abilities to unlock, and eventually, you’ll be able to switch between Lightning, Fire, Ice, Air and Earth modes to tackle enemies and situations. The sheer variety of techniques and tactics gives levels a puzzle-like quality in how you navigate them (simple as those puzzles are), but you’ll also need to think very quickly on your feet, because this is a game that wants you to go fast, with several ways to keep momentum in the air up in particular. Before long you’ll be using enemies as a kind of slingshot to hurl you around the level and remain in perpetual motion. It’s not the most difficult game, but thanks to the speed and relentless movement, you’ll still find yourself tackling an enjoyable skill challenge.

A screenshot from Beserk Boy on Nintendo Switch

The problem is that Berserk Boy doesn’t really do anything to shape its own identity. There is a risk if you’re going to go with a light touch in the narrative: you’re going to need an incredible emergent storytelling experience to draw players in. Berserk Boy goes with a very light touch on the narrative but struggles to create the emergent experience. I don’t even remember the main character’s name, to be honest, and all I remember about him is that he had a sister that he was chasing after? And there are people he needs to rescue along the way?

It doesn’t help that the character lacks an identity to make me care about him. All the great platformer heroes are visually distinct and have their own idiosyncrasies that connect you to them, even if there isn’t much of a narrative to give them context. Mario’s got the hat and moustache. Crash’s anthropomorphism helped him stand out. Sonic is a quirky, eclectic combination of oddities that, squashed together, translates wonderfully into “blue thing that goes fast.” Shantae has the Arabian Nights theme and harem costume going for her. Berserk Boy’s design is nice and details, animated fluidly and technically well executed. But there’s nothing interesting about him. He’s like an Inti Creates design that was ultimately left on the cutting room floor because there was nothing they could do to give him a personality.

As a final nail on the theming coffin, the levels are not inspiring in the slightest. This is probably by design, given the speed that you’ll parkour your way around them. Straightforward and simple layouts lend themselves to that. But there’s nothing in this level design that you haven’t seen many times before. Contrast that to Super Mario Wonder, which approached level design with such creative whimsy. Mario Wonder was trying to give people that play a lot of platformers a new way at looking at how levels i the genre can be designed. Berserk Boy settles for safe, easy-flowing levels, and they’re constructed perfectly well. It’s just that they fly by and none of them are memorable, either.

A screenshot from Berserk Boy on Nintendo Switch

For everything that I’ve written above, I have to emphasise that Berserk Boy is constructed well, and the precision of the movement and moment-to-moment gameplay in particular is excellent. The protagonist is highly responsive and the mix of powerups and abilities adds a lot of flash to the experience. I’m a little disappointed that boss battles weren’t really exciting or varied enough to allow you to take full advantage of the toolkit, but it’s very clear that the developers are students of the genre and understand to an extreme degree what makes it click.

For this reason, platformer purists are going to love Berserk Boy. As a blended homage to just about everything they have ever loved about the genre, the effort that has gone into meticulously recreating the best qualities of the genre is truly impressive. It’s just disappointing that the game, while drawn nicely and supported by an excellent soundtrack, ends up ringing hollow because the developers forgot to give it an identity that extends beyond the franchises that it celebrates.

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Matt S. is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of DDNet. He's been writing about games for over 20 years, including a book, but is perhaps best-known for being the high priest of the Church of Hatsune Miku.

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