In Bizarre Barber, you play as a hairdresser who is, conveniently, the last one left “after the apocalypse.”
Equipped with just one pair of abnormally large scissors, you find yourself in themed, underground subway stations where aliens of different shapes, sizes and colors poke their heads out of carriage windows as they pass by on trains. And so, just like that, you begin your game-long journey to trim as many locks as possible off the train-riding aliens’ heads.
As far as story goes, that’s about as much detail as you’ll get from Bizarre Barber. However, it’s a game that is so strange and quirky in concept that it tends not to matter. Developed by Synesthetic Echo, the title is a grant winner from the 2018 Oculus Launchpad program.
The developer’s inspiration for the game came from their experience immigrating to New York five years ago, a place that they found both exciting and somewhat overwhelming at the same time. Those feelings of isolation, excitement and nervousness that come from relocating yourself to a new environment can be felt in Bizarre Barber’s DNA.
The end result is a wacky arcade game that doesn’t really interact head-on with those themes at all, but you can still very much feel the personal connection. In a very loose way, you could look at Bizarre Barber as an artistic interpretation of what it’s like to be somewhere completely foreign and unknown, bending over backwards to fit in and settle down.
In terms of actual gameplay, you play through similarly structured, if somewhat varied, levels set in themed subway stations. As trains move past you, aliens with abnormally long necks will stick their heads out. They come in a range of bizarre designs with equally bizarre hair, and it’s up to you to cut their locks off as they move past you.
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. The game was designed to be equally as accessible to VR newcomers or veterans, and as such there’s no buttons to press at all throughout the entire game — not even in the menus. The entire game consists solely of moving your controllers to simulate a large chopping motion.
As you progress, things get more complicated. The aliens start to spin, get closer together or move erratically. Obstacles are thrown in the mix, as well as power-ups that change the way you use your scissors.
Your performance at the end of each level is graded out of three stars, based on the score you accumulated. The more hair you cut, the higher your score — but to cut more hair, you’ll have to risk cutting close to the scalp and potentially nicking an alien’s head. One too many nicks and you’ll fail the level. You can also gain a higher score through combo chains, which you maintain by ensuring you cut through each strand of hair on every alien’s head.
Some levels will also feature a bonus alien at the very end, with a huge amount of hair that you can use to boost your score up a little bit higher. These bonus aliens will also narrate a strange story to you as you cut their locks, speaking in a slam-poetry type manner. These little oddities sprinkled throughout the game, along with the artistic style and relaxing soundtrack, lend the game a very indie, art-house vibe that suits its quirky subject matter well.
That being said, the game is not without its frustrations. Some of the aliens move very fast and erratically, which is supposed to increase the difficulty. However, this means that the aliens will sometimes zip down into a position you weren’t expecting and often move directly into your scissor blades, counting as a nick or decapitation. Sometimes, you’ll fail the level because an alien suddenly moved into your scissors, which feels completely out of your control and unfair. While there is a pattern to each alien’s ‘erratic’ movement, you often don’t have enough time to study the pattern well enough to reasonably avoid them.
This frustration is compounded by Bizarre Barber’s lack of some crucial user interface elements that would make for huge quality of life improvements. In Beat Saber, when you miss blocks or make wrong cuts, a small bar underneath the track will slowly decrease. If it fully depletes, you fail the level. You can always check how close you are to failing at any given moment. During my playthrough, I never grasped an equivalent in Bizarre Barber, which became frustrating — if you make a few accidental nicks, I couldn’t tell if one more will result in a fail.
Similarly, upon failing the level, the game displays a message to be more careful and not to cut or touch the aliens’ heads with your scissors. However, in certain situations, I was receiving the message when I hadn’t made any such errors at all, leaving me quite confused. I soon realized the message was also being displayed if I missed aliens entirely — meaning there was only a certain amount of aliens I could ignore or miss in each level without failing. The game never explained this to me, and the incorrect level failed message didn’t help either. It’s a small issue, but it’s representative of some other small areas where the game lacks a bit of polish.
Bizarre Barber would greatly benefit from the addition of modifiers, as seen in games like Beat Saber or Pistol Whip. A ‘No Fail’ modifier is the obvious one, but it could be fun to add modifiers that permanently enhance your scissors with the power-ups you use across the levels, for example.
While the levels are challenging enough as-is (I wasn’t even able to achieve the perfect 3/3 stars on any levels in my playthrough), it feels like modifiers would add some further replayability and depth beyond the challenge of going for a high score.
Bizarre Barber Review Final Verdict
Synesthetic Echo should be commended on making a VR game that is so out-there and unusual while remaining undeniably charming. Players who appreciate the artistic side to the experience — its meaningful metaphors melded to an outlandish premise — might get more out of it than those looking for gameplay that will keep you coming back for hours on end. While it falls just below being fully polished, you’ll probably still have fun playing through its short 60-80 minute campaign.
While it might not have the finesse of a AAA title, it has the charm, uniqueness and personal connection that only indie games can offer. In that way, Bizarre Barber feels more like it belongs in an art gallery than on a top 25 list, and that’s the best thing about it.
Final Score: 3/5 Stars | Pretty Good
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