REVIEW: Panzer Paladin

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

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Title Panzer Paladin
Developer Tribute Games
Publisher Tribute Games
Release Date July 21st, 2020
Genre Retro platformer
Platform PC, Nintendo Switch
Age Rating E for Everyone 10+ – Fantasy Violence
Official Website

I’ve been a fan of Tribute Games for years, but this is the first time I’ve directly received a review copy from them. And though a fan, I feel many of their games in the past have been great, but not amazing. Most were held back by balance issues, such as Mercenary Kings Reloaded or even Flinthook. But turns out it was just a matter of time, cause after playing Panzer Paladin, I’ve come to a revelation. This is the best game Tribute has ever made. Not only that, but it’s my favorite new retro title since Shovel Knight. You’re probably curious why I feel that way, so I implore you to keep reading.

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The first thing that’s great about Panzer Paladin is the plot. It’s very 80s, in the best way. The game starts with magical weapons falling to earth, opening portals for fell armies and turning humans into foul beasts. Several portals have opened up, summoning a horde of eldritch foes ready to lay waste. The only answer to this magical mayhem? Robots, of course! They can’t be corrupted by the magical energy, and thus can wield magical weapons safely. The robots in question comprise the titular Panzer and Paladin. These are Grit, a gigantic mech, and Flame, a human sized android made for rescue operations. That said, don’t count Flame out! Even though she’s nowhere near as tough as Grit, she can wield a mean laser whip, reach tunnels inaccessible to Grit, grapple across pits and even heal the giant mech remotely. Meanwhile, Grit will be what you use for the bulk of combat. He can attack upwards to reach vertical heights, bounce on foe’s heads like Uncle Scrooge, dash backwards, block enemy projectiles with a shield and can withstand a ton of hurt before he crumbles.

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I really was drawn in by the pulpy fun of the premise, and it’s only made better by beautiful anime cutscenes. They look like they could have been drawn by greats of the genre, and they lend a ton of personality to the cast. Even though you’re only controlling Grit and Flame, you have a supporting team of goofballs, mostly lending moral support. You also have a sinister foe in Ravenous. He’s the one behind all the chaos happening on the planet, and he openly mocks your efforts to stop him. There’s also the mysterious Horseman, who seems to have goals all his own, despite obviously being a magical creature himself.

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With the stage set, I should talk about the game itself. It’s clear the folks at Tribute outdid themselves here, finding inspiration in a number of classic series. There’s a level select and final stage gauntlet similar to Mega Man; The Horseman’s musical theme reminds me of Proto Man; there’s a mech and pilot dynamic not unlike Blaster Master; Grit wields a shield that works similarly to Zelda II; and though there’s not Castlevania wall meat, you can often find hidden weapons by busting open walls. That said, this very much feels like a unique experience. These small touches are meant to flavor the larger experience, but it’s one wholly distinct from any of those games. One mechanic that brings that to bear is how weapons work.

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Each of the weapons you’ll discover are one of three types – Cut (sword), Pierce (spear) or Impact (Hammer). There’s no weapon triangle to worry about, but you will need particular types of weapons to break open corresponding blocks. Also, since all these weapons are magical, they increase your burden. I admit I’m not entirely sure how this works, other than having a high burden seeming to guarantee encounters with recurring mini boss The Horseman. You’ll find weapons in levels, and defeating foes also results in weapon drops. Though the weapon type isn’t that important, other than their attack range, their spell type is vital. Every weapon has a spell inside it, and you can unleash it by breaking them. You do so by holding ZL and ZR until the meter fills, and there’s a ton of spells. Some will heal you, others temporarily increase your stats, some literally give you wings and others hurl lightning at foes. That’s far from all of them, but you can see there’s a good variety. There’s a definite risk and reward with the weapons. Do you keep wielding a weapon until its durability runs out, allowing it to shatter? Or do you break it early to cast a spell? Sometimes you’ll need to throw the weapon at a distant foe, losing it in the process but dealing a ton of damage. The nuance is fantastic, and it really lets the player tailor the experience to their preference. On that note, there’s also different difficulty settings, so the game is only as hard as you want it to be. That said, even on Normal difficulty Panzer Paladin is a hearty challenge.

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The cool thing about how weapons work is they effectively let the game play like a Metroidvania without actually being one. Though you can explore and find hidden nooks and crannies, these just have hidden 1UPs. Your only permanent upgrades come from trading in excess weapons at the lab to increase Grit’s health bar. Other than that, you have to manage your arsenal wisely. Keep in mind, the best weapons come from the many colorful bosses in the game. These are found in distinct regions across the world, and all represent iconic mythological monsters. In Egypt there’s Anubis, the USA is seduced by Lilith, Japan is menaced by Gashadokuro, Greece strangled by Medusa and Russia bewitched by Baba Yaga. There’s plenty more, and they all serve as great challenges with amazing design. They have unique attack patterns along with tells, and they force you to react accordingly. Some fights even force you to play as Flame briefly, such as when Anubis casts you out of Grit. Flame has helped save my ass more than once after Grit perished, letting me win hard fights. None of the bosses is easy, but with one exception, they’re all fair. That exception is the first boss in the final gauntlet of the game, and it almost made me give up. Thankfully I found a combination of spells to deal with it, and the rest of the final bosses were more balanced, much to my relief.

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I really liked the way the game played, and found the loop of going through levels, acquiring weapons, beating the bosses, upgrading, rinse and repeat to be fluid. You’re free to tackle the stages in any order you choose, though some are definitely harder than others, and some bosses will give you a steeper challenge. The platforming isn’t quite as great as the combat, though not cause it’s poorly implemented. It’s more that Tribute’s tendency for difficulty rears its head more often in these sections. Not really for the platforming while in Grit, but when I had to control Flame solo. Flame has a fraction of the health that Grit does, and spikes he can shrug off instantly kill her. Additionally, the grapple and swing mechanic takes a bit of getting used to. I thought I couldn’t get past a pit in Mexico, and died repeatedly before I got the timing down. Thankfully, the sections where you only control Flame are pretty brief, and generally come right before a checkpoint. The interesting thing about checkpoints is they continue the risk vs reward by forcing you to spend a weapon to activate a checkpoint. Grit grabs it and slams it downwards in what I refer to as a Reverse Excalibur. You’re free to pull the sword back out of the stone, so to speak, but if you do so and perish, you’ll start over from the beginning of the stage. Overall the gameplay is fantastic, and the combat is tremendous. It just can be a bit anxiety inducing during some platforming.

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Panzer Paladin has a surprising amount of replay value. First you play through the game on Classic, and then you unlock Remixed mode, as well as Speedrun and Tournament. Remixed seems mostly the same, other than enemies being more durable, traps being more dangerous and the layout of stages tweaked slightly. The boss fights all felt the same, other than one new boss fight early on. To be fair, I haven’t beaten the game on Remixed yet, so it’s very possible there’s other late game differences. Speedrun lets you challenge stages with set weapons and beat them to try and reach par times. Tournament is fun, other than when I hit the roadblock of the boss I complained about earlier. I think you’re supposed to beat it by using the game’s Parry mechanic, where attacking after blocking an enemy attack temporarily stuns them. Unfortunately I never mastered that technique, so thus far I have been unable to beat Tournament. Also, I encountered a glitch where a boss literally disappeared as I battled through that mode, forcing me to restart. These bonus modes are still fun, but my favorite is a mode I haven’t mentioned yet – Blacksmith mode.

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Blacksmith mode is outstanding. It’s super intuitive, and lets you design your own weapons. You are limited to a color palette of 4 colors, but there’s a lot you can accomplish with that. First I made a boring hatchet, but later went nuts and made a lollypop spear and banana blade. Once you design your weapon, you use points to allocate towards various attributes, such as durability, attack speed and more. Then, after you have saved your design, it will actually show up in the game! After you battle The Horseman, he always gives you a random weapon. If you’ve designed some, he’ll instead drop one you have created. I believe this feature will take online into consideration, so hopefully after this review goes live, I’ll start finding weapons designed by other folks playing the game. Either way, I really like Blacksmith mode, and only wish I was able to save more weapon designs.

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Tribute never disappoints with design, and Panzer Paladin is no exception. This is a game that’s both faithful to NES classics of the past while still showing off a ton of style. There’s great touches during the cut scenes, and though there’s a limited color palette in the stages, nothing is ugly. I especially love the boss designs, which all are equal parts menacing and delightful. One favorite is an angry ice boss I call Frosty the No Man, but they’re all wonderful. All the enemies are fun too, such as snickering goblins, demonic fire spewing plants, lumbering giants, bird men, mummies and so much more. There’s no lack of vision here, and it all blends together into a vast tapestry. The music doesn’t disappoint either, with punchy sound effects. Best of all, every stage has a unique musical theme. It all comes together seamlessly, and just serves to make Panzer Paladin an even more memorable game.

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Overall, Panzer Paladin was actually better than I thought it might be. It wasn’t quite perfect, but it came really damned close. If they had done things like make Remixed a bit more different than Classic, or ironed out the glitches I experienced in Tournament mode, I would have given this a perfect score. It’s a tremendous value for only $19.99, with multiple endings, tons of different modes and an adventure I won’t soon forget. I spent about 10 hours beating the game the first time, but since then have spent several more hours just enjoying the game. I always knew Tribute was capable of greatness, and I’m so glad they achieved it in Panzer Paladin. Now I just hope they have a sequel in the works, cause I want to see more from this amazing world.

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Review Score

Review Copy Provided by Developer

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.