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Pawnbarian review - "A minimalist roguelike that's hard to put down'"

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| Pawnbarian
Pawnbarian review - "A minimalist roguelike that's hard to put down'"
| Pawnbarian

Stepping into the horrors of the fabled goblin lair, you prepare yourself for the monstrosities lurking around every fetid corner. It is said that overgrown rodents and ogres with ulcerous spills have been corrupted with Blight in its depths, but - armed with nothing but your chess-based skills and your unwavering resolve - can you truly embody the spirit of the Pawnbarian and make it out of the Blightvoid unscathed?

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Despite the ghastly horrors you'll have to face throughout the roguelike title, Pawnbarian boasts a lovely minimalist approach that makes fighting unholy abominations look super clean. The characters you unlock and play - the Knight Templar, Shogun, Nomad, Capyzerker, Mystic and the Pawnbarian himself - all feature simple vector art-esque designs versus equally clean-looking enemies, while combat is laid out on a minimalist 5x5 chessboard.

The intro page for each new dungeon offers a handpainted look at the lairs you'll be stepping into, but other than that, it's all mostly monochromatic, and the cards or moves you unleash are presented as silhouettes of chess pieces you move across the board.

The beauty of such a neat visual design is that you can focus on the gameplay of the roguelike without any unnecessary distractions, because yes, the gameplay really does deserve your full attention. 


Depending on the character you're playing, you'll essentially have a deck of chess-based cards you can use to defeat the randomly generated enemies that spawn on your board on each level. These cards have their own unique traits and can be modified based on your character as well as upgraded when you buy boosts at the shop.

The gold you acquire after defeating floors can be used to purchase these upgrades, whether you're adding a special attack to a regular pawn or buffing a rook with a useful shield effect. Of course, the longer it takes you to defeat all foes on each floor, the less gold you earn, so apart from trying to survive, you'll also have to think about how you can kill off those pesky golems as quickly as possible.

You can also buy one heart or 1 HP in each shop if you've got enough gold, which is pretty crucial to your survival on the next floor. This being a roguelike, losing all of your hearts means losing the game, and you'll have to start from scratch all over again with each new run.

While it all sounds simple enough, Pawnbarian still somehow sets itself apart from other games in the genre thanks to its presentation and unique chess-based mechanics. The key to surviving each floor with as many hearts as you need to fight another day is to anticipate your own moves as well as your opponents'. You can long-tap on an enemy to see their target squares, as well as check your own cards' traits and the tiles you're planning on moving to.


Planning ahead lets you take out multiple targets at once, or allows you to conserve your HP. Red notches on tiles tell you how many hits you're going to take by landing on that square, and it's a pretty useful mechanic for when you're at the boss level and you've only got one heart left.

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Of course, you'll have to be careful not to long-tap on tiles while you've got a card selected, as releasing your finger might just execute that move unintentionally (this happened to me a few times, and needless to say, it led to my character's ultimate demise). It's also a little frustrating that you can't immediately see what the status effects of certain terms mean.

For instance, when I first started trying out the Mystic character, long-tapping on her icon offered me a description that said, "Can't buy Shield, but can Purify. The first move each turn leaves behind a Ward." Obviously, I hadn't played the Mystic before, so I had no idea what Purify did or what a Ward was. There are plenty of these instances in the descriptions, and it's a shame that you'll have to play through the game and sacrifice a few early runs just to see what the enemy attacks are for and what certain symbols mean (there's also this thing called Blight, and enemies leave this behind a LOT).

Still, these minor inconveniences didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying the game, especially after I first cleared the Pawnbarian character and was able to unlock all the other fighters and dungeons. My favourite so far is the Nomad (with the Mystic coming in a close second), because it's always fun to snipe unwitting foes from a distance without anyone being the wiser.

Overall, Pawnbarian is a lovely addition to the roguelike genre that can be played in short bursts whenever you're up for a chess-based challenge. I personally don't know how to play chess, but I still had a lot of fun with the game despite never having figured out exactly where a Horse piece can go.

Pawnbarian review - "A minimalist roguelike that's hard to put down'"

Pawnbarian is a roguelike battler on mobile that features chess-inspired moves across a clean 5x5 board. The demo content is free to download with no ads, with a single IAP to unlock the full game. It doesn't have any fancy artwork or over-the-top effects, but it doesn't really want to - the minimalist vibe is necessary for players to concentrate on the challenging but enjoyable gameplay, especially when you're looking for a brainteaser on the go.
Catherine Dellosa
Catherine Dellosa
Catherine plays video games for a living, reads comics for inspiration, and writes because she’s in love with words. Her Young Adult fantasy novel, Of Myths And Men, has been published by Penguin Random House SEA and is her love letter to gamer geeks, mythological creatures, aliens, and epic quests to save the world. She one day hopes to soar the skies as a superhero, but for now, she strongly believes in saving lives through her works in fiction. Check out her books at, or follow her on FB/IG/Twitter at @thenoobwife.