Big. That’s probably the best word to describe Tribute’s latest action platformer. Big and chunky. Everything’s bold, brash and refreshingly straightforward. Of course, there’s no shortage of pixel-heavy games on the Switch, but there are few that feel quite so immediate and responsive. Joymasher’s brilliant Oniken and Odallus hew the closest, but even they don’t match the arcade action impact of Panzer Paladin.
Taking control of a large bipedal mecha, your mission boils down to stomping through each of the internationally-flavoured stages, finding and beating down every monster that gets in your way. It’s a little bit like Mega Man in that you can select which creature you want to go after first, though there isn’t a “golden order” to the boss battles; each one can reasonably be defeated from scratch.
That’s a testament to the exceptionally careful design of Panzer Paladin. It’s a trait that’s a little bit difficult to describe in a way that sounds positive, but the game is very simple. You move, jump and attack. There’s also a Symphony of the Night style back-dash. Occasionally, you’ll hop out of your mecha to do a little bit of swinging around – your human pilot is equipped with a fancy whip which they can use to latch onto aerial hooks – but this is brief and you’ll soon be back in the figurative metal arms of your walking death machine. The level design is rarely involved, and your interaction with the enemies isn’t particularly complex. But this is a good thing.
Panzer Paladin’s vivid, beautifully-drawn graphics are somewhere between the familiar 8-bit aesthetic and the smooth fidelity of contemporary coin-ops – to put it bluntly, it felt to us like a Neo Geo game (such as Spinmaster) with NES visuals. And it works brilliantly. From the backgrounds to the enemy sprites to the perfectly-done animation, the game’s look flawlessly complements its feel. That’s the absolute most important thing a video game can do, and it means that there’s never a moment in your time with Panzer Paladin where you’ll think, “hold on, this isn’t working”. Your mecha does everything it feels like it should do, with a nice sideline in satisfying down and up stabs, the latter serving as a double-jump of sorts.
That consistency runs through the whole game, including its unique gimmick: the weapons. Enemies have a chance of dropping weapons – hammers, swords, spears, et al – which your mecha can grab and use. They’re not complicated in their rules; rather, you’ve got some that are longer, some shorter, some sweep and others point straight forward. Learning how to use them is a trifle, but each implement of destruction comes with a baked-in magic spell you can use by holding the ZL and ZR triggers to break the weapon and release its power. These range from basic buffs (attack/defence up, etc) to powerful offensive onslaughts. The trade-off, obviously, is that the weapon you broke is gone, which can put you in a spotty position when it comes to the boss battles. You can also throw weapons straight forward for high damage, but this isn’t hugely useful compared to the spells or retaining said weapon to use normally.
Said boss battles cap off the lengthy stages, and they’re excellent – multi-phase fights that aren’t about sitting around waiting for an opening, allowing for a refreshingly aggressive approach. They all have multiple attack phases and plenty of ways to kill you, which on your first attempt it’s quite likely they will. Which leads to the only really notable flaw that we found in Panzer Paladin – there aren’t enough checkpoints.
Yes, it’s an old-school tradition to send you back through the level when you lose a life, but we thought the stages here were so large that they could have done with at least one more checkpoint per stage. Given the relatively straightforward level design, replaying them sadly isn’t hugely rewarding – especially since there aren’t really any alternate routes. Additionally, using a checkpoint costs you a weapon; a decent little system, but the risk/reward seems a little skewed when the only reward is another relatively disposable sword, and the risk is replaying the entirely of a six-or-seven-minute stage.
Another potential issue is that losing to a boss after exhausting several weapons is a sickener – fighting them without weapons is far from ideal (though your mecha can use its bare fists), and unless you have been forsaking checkpoints you won’t be able to acquire new weapons for your next attempt. In these situations, we’d often back out to the menu and try another stage. And it’s great we were able to do that, but we can foresee some players not having the patience for battling through these extensive stages over and over again just for another crack at the boss monster.
While we’re picking nits, it’s a shame that upgrading your mecha is so basic. You can exchange your collected weapons for points which ultimately buy incremental health upgrades. This is in keeping with the rest of the game’s laser-focused style, but it is a little plain. One final small issue is that the sections where you’re forced to eject and proceed on foot are often fraught with instant death pits – not especially tricky to navigate, but losing a life in these areas sometimes really stings, given how defenceless you are and how much ground you may need to re-traverse.
These really are minor problems, though, as the bulk of the game is just so damn enjoyable. Weapons are tucked in all kinds of secret breakable walls (think Castlevania) and it’s a game that makes you feel very powerful. It’s generous with its content, too; the 17 levels are nothing to sniff at, given their size, and beating the game also unlocks “Remix Mode”, a harder, reshuffled take on the proceedings. You can also design your own weapons using an in-game pixel-art tool, which is neat; you draw it, set its stats and then share it online with other players. A cute feature, but ultimately not as interesting as getting stuck into the main game.
Panzer Paladin’s uncomplicated gameplay won’t be for everyone and there are some very minor niggles that hold it back from true greatness. Even so, it has heart, and that goes a long, long way. If you’re into retro throwback games then you should really give this a try; Panzer Paladin is an unpretentious, exuberant action game from start to finish, and a must for genre fans.