Panzer Paladin (2020) Switch – The Pixels
“Anyone who thinks the pen is mightier than the sword has not been stabbed with both.”
I am always personally impressed with the lengths that indie developers will go to showcase the greatness within their titles. It is one thing to have a game that is “inspired” by a legendary title. It is something far more impressive to have a game that takes inspiration from at least six different titles. During the COVID pandemic last year, I was able to play just such a game called Panzer Paladin.
Designed by Jonathan Lavigne and developed by the pixel-art powerhouse, Tribute Games (TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, Flinthook), Panzer Paladin is a love letter to the late ’80s and early ’90s gaming scene. Though it appears to feature simple 2D side-scrolling mechanics other games capitalize on, this title changes the format in many ways. It is best to see this through the various games it draws inspiration from.
- Mega Man – This is the gaming franchise with the largest influence over Panzer Paladin. One can see various aspects of the blue bomber’s adventures within this game. This includes the “robot master” format of the stage selection where you can choose which level to tackle in any order. Each boss also gives Grit (the protagonist “panzer” of the game) their signature weapon after he defeats them. Even the 2D platforming and color palette are reminiscent of the Mega Man series.
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link – Panzer Paladin features what is described as “intuitive swordplay.” This combat style harkens back to how Link uses his sword and shield in Zelda II. Grit is able to strike standing or ducking, as well as deflect enemy shots by doing the same. Many of the enemies will also do the same, forcing you to strategically engage them instead of just plowing through.
- Master Blaster – Though Grit is the main vehicle used to defeat the forces of evil in this game, he is actually a giant mech piloted by Flame, a petite android who looks like something directly from Voltron. Much like the main mechanic used in Master Blaster, Flame can leave Grit at will to navigate places the large mech can not.
- Bionic Commando – Flame isn’t just your token waifu android, she is also quite acrobatic. Much like in Bionic Commando, she can use a long whip of sorts to swing around the levels and even cause damage to enemies.
I am sure that there are a few more titles that this game drew inspiration from, but these are the most obvious ones. Despite borrowing mechanics from other games from the glory days of gaming, Panzer Paladin is it’s own game through and through.
The 8-Bit Review
It is very clear that the developers behind Panzer Paladin were going for an authentic 8-bit look with this game. They succeeded, for the most part. The problem with many of these newer games that attempt to bring back a retro aesthetic is that they do not use a retrograded engine to do so. What this means is that the developers don’t use the same means to create games as our forefathers did. A type of “newness” creeps in regardless of how you animate your sprites. In the case of this game, the frames per second gives this game away as being from the 21st century and not the antiquated past.
This smooth “pixel perfection” works well for Panzer Paladin but is often overshadowed by it’s limited color palette. Most sprites only have a few base colors, which shows off the mastery of the artists. However, the seamless movements do not help this game to maintain a genuine retro feel. Some would prefer this, so to each his own.
An overwhelming strength of this game is it’s soundtrack. The theme music was written and performed by the heavy metal VG cover band, Power Glove, and it alone sets this game apart from others. The hard hitting licks and thrashing guitar feels appropriate as you watch the opening cut scene on the title screen. Along with that, the game’s soundtrack was created by 8-bit composer Pat Bourgeault, who composed the music for several Tribute games in the past. Each track fits the different country which Flame and Grit visit, and they are very catchy.
On top of the great music, Panzer Paladin uses classic retro SFX to bring home the nostalgia. Each hit and jump sounds like something that came from the past, and that is always satisfying.
I wish that I could say this game plays like a dream, but I can not do that because that is a lie. The controls for Grit are rigid and somewhat unforgiving, especially when it come to fighting multiple enemies at one. The hulking robot is just that, and the platforming is very easy to misjudge. Flame, on the other hand, is a little paper princess that can leap and swing with ease. Her controls are fluid and nice, and that helps, especially when one good powerful shot will end her.
Level design is another issue. With games like Mega Man (which Panzer Paladin draws heavy inspiration from), each level is unique in design and mechanics. That is not the case with Panzer Paladin. All the levels, including the last ones, offer the same mechanics as the previous, so much so that each level could simply be a reskinning of the last. Sure, visually the levels are different, and some of the enemies might change, but for the most part, everything just feels the same going through it.
Due to Panzer Paladin’s plethora of retro inspirations, uniqueness is not a quality that this game enjoys. Though it is a stylized game designed to promote nostalgia among players, it doesn’t provide anything “new” to the action-platformer genre. It makes up for its lack of unique traits by throwing a bunch of inspirations in to a small space. Every new mechanic you discover will have you saying, “oh, I remember that from X” or “this reminds me of that running and jumping game I once played”. Part of the fun of Panzer Paladin is finding all those little connections to other titles from yesteryear.
Pixelated games today have a great deal of history to look back at in order to see what works and what does not. In the case of Panzer Paladin, the challenge of the game is a wonderful mix of not-too-hot and not-too-cold. It sits in that “Goldilocks Zone” of gaming difficulty. This is no doubt due to the examples of the games that inspired Panzer Paladin, which allowed the developer to tweak the game’s challenges in all the right places.
The intuitive combat system adds to the challenge, making this game a sort of side-scrolling Souls-like. Grit can pick up larger and smaller weapons and use them against his foes, but not all weapons have the same effect. The breakable nature of the weapons adds a challenging twist as well. Eventually you will get a hang of it and the game will run a lot smoother. There is, however, a hard mode that unlocks after you beat the game, so that also gives this game…
Panzer Paladin is designed to be played over and over again. One can see this through the various features within the game, including the Hard Mode and the Blacksmith. A player can beat all 17 levels in one sitting, but to truly master the game they will need to invest quite a bit of time into it. The Blacksmith provides a place for characters to design their own weapons that will end up in their, and other’s, playthroughs. There is even a Speedrun Mode that features a timer to test those who want to blaze through the action. All the customizable options makes this game one that a player can return to on a rainy day.
Not all players will enjoy the gameplay of Panzer Paladin because of its retro inspirations. Grit is clunky and slow, and Flame dies very easily. Also the quick movements of some of the enemies may not allow for some players with slower reflexes to dodge the attacks. A seasoned retro gamer can come into this game and feel right at home, but younger players may not see the appeal.
As a gamer and a family man, I enjoy games that allow me to play in short waves. The autosave feature and semi-short levels give me the option to turn the game off and hand the Switch to my son so that he can play what he wants to. This type of “snack bag” content is a huge plus in my book.
The care that Tribute Games takes in order to preserve the authentic nature of their games is quite impressive. Other games (which I will cover at future times) use the aesthetics from different eras of pixelated titles to various effect, but Panzer Paladin draws meaningful inspiration from some of the earliest of times. Regardless, the game plays decently and would make a good addition to any retro gamer’s library.
Aggregated Score: 6.6
J.R. Sommerfeldt is a family man, Baptist pastor, and indie game enthusiast who lives in the American heartland of Illinois. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, J.R. has found solace in farm life, but still has a passion for discovering new (and old), video games. He not only writes reviews, but performs “let’s play” reviews of obscure titles on his YouTube channel, JRSBetatTests!