“Are you a betting man, Mr. Robbins?” - The words were calm and sure, spoken by a man accustomed to being heard. A second man stirred in his chair but froze when he felt the restraints around his wrists.

“I know I am. Every other Sunday my wife and I go down to the races. We dress up, my wife picks a horse, we make a bet. Sometimes we win but... Usually we bet on the wrong horse.” - The bound man squinted at the bright light as the burlap sack covering his head was yanked off. His breaths were shallow against the binding across his chest. Across the table from him sat a gentleman in a well-tailored suit. The gentleman looked young, but his steady gaze betrayed the wisdom behind it. He leaned forward. “Have we bet on the wrong horse with you?”

“I... I... I... Sir...” - The other man gently raised a hand off the table and he fell silent.

“Mr. Robbins. You do not know me but my men have been keeping a close eye on you for a while now. None of this would be possible without our help.” - As he spoke he gestured around and Mr. Robbins tore his eyes away for the first time. They were in the middle of a boxing ring, illuminated by a single floodlight centered on them. Particles of dust hung suspended in the air. Beyond the roped-off edges was absolute darkness but he knew the place immediately. Boys at the pub always talked about the underground fights. Their mates made a killing betting on the winners. It was rumored to have ties with the Mafia. Everyone knew that. Everyone decent stayed away. He swallowed hard.

The man leaned forward and neatly picked up a slice of cheese from the cheeseboard on the table. He chewed, swallowed and reached for a glass of wine which clinked softly against his rings. Still silent, he sat back in the armchair and looked at Mr. Robbins with an unwavering, penetrating stare. Beads of cold sweat running down his back turned into a stream and he struggled feebly against the restraints.

“Mr. Robbins, why am I here?”

“I... I... I’m not sure... sir.”

“I am here because you disappoint me.” - He put his fingertips together thoughtfully. “I heard you were making losses, suffering frequent police raids and your best fighters lost to amateurs. Yet last week...” - Out of nowhere he produced a photograph and placed it neatly in front of Mr. Robbins. It was a blurry shot of two men drinking and clearly enjoying each other’s company. One was unmistakably the Chief Commissioner; the other harder to make out but resembling Mr. Robbins. ‘...last week you entertained the commissioner himself.”

The man reached for a grape and rolled it between his fingers. “You are getting careless. Word is spreading that you have been fixing fights. Do you know how hard it is to mend a tarnished reputation?”

Mr. Robbins’ eyes were transfixed to the photograph. “I... I... That ain’t me, sir. I ain’t even met th’ commish’ner.”

His opponent’s eyes narrowed. “You misunderstand me, Mr. Robbins. I am not here to punish. I am here to give you a chance to... reconsider your actions.”

“But sir, I’m... I’m just th’ cobbler, I am! Ask anyone!” - He shook and droplets of sweat ran into his eyes, stinging and making it hard to see.

The well-dressed man said nothing but fixed his gaze into the darkness for a long moment before slowly returning to Mr. Robbins. He idly rotated a knife on the table with his finger and both men spent some time following its steady revolutions. “You are not John Robbins?”

“N... No sir. I mean... yes sir. Well...” - He swallowed heavily. “I’m Charles Robins, sir. Charles the cobbler.”

Once more the other man’s eyes darted away and glared viciously into the darkness. Someone swore under their breath and heavy footfalls tore through the silence. Another set followed close behind.

“Alive!” - the man called into the empty darkness. He stood up and studied Charles very carefully. “You should come down to the races, Charles. Place a bet or two. You might enjoy it.”

He strode to the edge of the ring and just like that, Charles was alone.

Andrei Petrov is the secret mastermind behind many European
conflicts. He instigates wars, skirmishes, conflicts and, of
course, sells weapons to both sides. He is personally
responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and ongoing
conflicts that displace thousands of refugees every year,
which attracted the attention of several international
agencies. A careful man with few public appearances, he has
one weakness: the annual Golden Cat gala. While a major
fundraiser for cancer research, it is also an excuse for
Moscow’s elite to flaunt their wealth and influence. Hardly
surprising that it attracts men like Petrov. After decades of
service, my final mission was supposed to be simple: get close
to Andrei, plant a tracker and go home to my family. Our team
then tracks his hideout and local special forces handle the
rest.

To accomplish this, a certain Lars Adley, self-made bitcoin
billionaire, spent the last week in a hotel penthouse:
swimming in champagne and indulging in a steady stream of
exotic meals, cigars and wines. On the night, I make a grand
entrance and the real work begins. But until then… the agency
always takes proper care when sending off an agent.

- - -

Light and noise from the banquet filled the street as I walked
up to the grand doors bordered by armed guards. One stepped
forward to check my ticket, eyeing up my white velvet three-
piece suit. His eyebrow arched ever-so-slightly at the
“donation” amount, which were printed on every invitation.

“Добро пожаловать, мистер Адли. Welcome.” – I attempted a
thank-you, but he had already turned to the next guest, a
slender young lady.

The banquet hall dripped with opulence. Hundreds of guests,
each in lavish suits and dresses bought specially for the
occasion, were bathed in golden light from the crystal
chandeliers high above. Servers darted between them with wine,
champagne and hors d'oeuvres while gold-framed Russian
monarchs looked down benevolently from their timeless painted
thrones. A live band filled the room with pop music, blasting
hit after hit.
It was classy, if you ignored the guards with poorly concealed
weapons. Each was trying to be inconspicuous, but their eyes
lingered on guests’ faces just a little too long. The
blissfully unobservant attendees chatted and laughed and
milled around the hall. In the centre of it all, a rotund man
smothered in furs erupted in deep laughter and nudged his
neighbour, almost bowling the smaller man over, which amused
the bear even more. His companion smiled, murmured a response
and broke away, deftly climbing the stairs. Petrov!
Casually flitting from conversation to conversation, I
meandered up the stairs to see two guards follow Petrov
through an unassuming side door. When the moment was right, I
slipped through the door as well. Bright lights and noise gave
way to a tall, dark and dusty maintenance hallway, the rumble
of giant air conditioner units drowning out the conversation
and music. Levels of catwalks ran in parallel with aluminium
pipes and neatly arranged cable bundles.

“Why are you here, Mister Adley? There is party in there,
don’t you know?” – The voice was barely audible over the ever-
present hum but unmistakably Russian.
“Mister Petrov, I was about to ask you the same--” A deafening
gunshot split the air and with a gasp I crumpled to the
ground. Agony blossomed in my shoulder as the second bullet
pinged harmlessly off the aircon vent above.
“You come with ridiculous name, stupid white suit and run
after me. My men know you when you walk in.” – Another shot
failed to find its mark. “My men end you now, Lars.”

Heavy boots from left and right shook the catwalk as I
assessed my options, rolled under the railing and fell. The
pounding in my ears got louder as one knee cracked against the
metal of the catwalk below. I scrambled to my feet and
stumbled forward. A door appeared from the darkness, but it
was too late to stop. It gave way under the impact, the handle
ripping open old wood and clattering across the concrete floor
inside. Fighting through the pain clouding my thoughts and
lights dancing in my vision I forced the door closed, shoved a
metal cabinet in front of it as my legs buckled under the
strain. The cool concrete on my cheek was welcome relief since
all I could do was breathe and wait as my eyes adjusted to the
darkness.

- -

The air in the room was stale and heavy with dust, undisturbed
in quite some time. There were no windows and no doors, save
the one I fell through. Rhythmic bass from the speakers
pounded through the walls – at least the party is still alive.

At the academy over thirty years ago, they taught us a special
phone number. This number was the nuclear option, the “blow
your cover”, “raze the building around you but get you out”
option given to covert operatives. No cover is too deep, they
said. Not the conclusion I was hoping for. I dialled that
number.

“Jonhson’s Hairdressing, how may we help you?” – A carefully
bored female voice answered.

“This is Nimoy. Live long and prosper.” – My son came up with
that one. He was so proud.

“Nimoy…” – Someone pounded against the door, trying to force
it open.

Silence from the phone.

“You’re still alive?”

Do you remember Skannerz? The old physical handheld that let you scan barcodes and if you found one from a rival tribe, you could battle and capture it for use in further battles? It came in different colours which had different monster sets that you couldn’t get, unless you had all three or won the monsters from a friend with one of the other colours. For that extra-special Pokemon element. These are the ones I mean, I had all three of the damn things:

Skannerz, in all their colorful glory

That was my introduction to the world of barcode games but it was far from the first (that honour goes to Barcode Battler from 1991) nor the weirdest (Barcode Kanojo, the no-longer-available game where each barcode held a unique girl for the player to romance, dating sim style). So where does Barcode Knight fit?

Barcode Knight is developer Magic Cube’s second barcode scanner game, the first being Barcode Kingdom. It is also a departure from the usual style where each scan would unlock a single item or monster. Instead, every barcode generates a unique mini-dungeon for your character (or characters, if you hire a mercenary) to fight through. Scanning the same barcode multiple times increases the level of the enemies but not their type, encouraging you to be that guy at the supermarket, touching every item but never actually buying anything. Of course, if you don’t have access to thousands of barcodes, the developers have included two other dungeons, neither of which makes you look mad.

That’s great, right? The thing is, those other dungeons cost you Ability Points, a freemium-like energy currency. You get an AP every three minutes and the two dungeons cost 5 and 30 points. Leveling up restores your AP to full and increases your maximum capacity – I’m sure you’re familiar with it if you’ve ever played a “free” game. A fairy occasionally flutters by and grants you 10 AP a pop or, of course, you could use AP potions purchased with real money to restore your energy. You can also occasionally get these as a reward for completing the 30 AP dungeon.

Barcode Knight review screenshot 1

Speaking of which, let’s say you are fully stocked on energy. You’ve rearranged your pantry so the barcodes are facing you, time to do some DUNGEONEERING, right? …right? Each dungeon consists of a single screen. Your character(s) start on the left, the enemy starts on the right and they run at each other until the strongest party wins. It’s an experience that’s short, hands-off and ultimately hollow but just sweet and just more-ish enough to keep me coming back. Your swings connect with a satisfying crunch and visual effect, critical strikes feel painful, enemies fly off the screen when defeated and upbeat music plays throughout. It’s a very satisfying experience, however brief. Not knowing which enemies live inside your breakfast cereal adds to the fun and the loot drops add the cherry on top.

Barcode Knight review screenshot 2
The developers boast over half a million different combinations which is definitely impressive, since each item changes the way your character looks. Some are downright cool too, like the ghost dress. There is a kind of crafting system in the game. If you find two of the same item, you can give them to the appropriate crafter who will improve them. For a cost. And he’ll make you wait, too. That’s right, there is a wait timer for crafting – another freemium mechanic. As usual, it’s non-invasive at first (a few minutes) but quickly ramps up to over 6 hours to craft a +5 item. Thankfully and rather surprisingly, you are given the option to speed this time up using gold – the regular and abundant currency.

In fact, you can pay for most things with good old-fashioned gold. Hiring a mercenary? Gold. Combining an item? Speeding up a wait timer? Resurrecting a fallen mercenary? Buying a special item chest? All gold. Which is amazing considering how much of it you get. You are showered with loot and if you’re smart about it, there are massive profits to be made. Dungeons give gold all on their own and you can sell the loot you find directly. If you manage to snag two of the same item and combine it though, the new value is always higher than the sale price of the original items AND the combine cost. To use our earlier example of creating a +5 item – the blacksmith asked for 40 000 gold to craft the weapon and it costs 80 000 to speed up the 6 hour timer. 120 thousand gold is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but I could have afforded it if I didn’t keep dying to a quest mission in the third dungeon and had to resurrect my companion over and over again.

I use the word “quest” very loosely. Of the three dungeons you have access to, the first is generated from barcodes and costs no energy. The second costs only five AP but no barcode and randomly draws a selection of enemies for you to fight. The third dungeon, for 30 AP, has definite and pre-set combinations of enemies you have to find. There is no story, at least not in the six hours I’ve played, but these dungeons would be the closest thing to a quest. They get extremely difficult and reward you with AP potions for completing the ‘chapter’ a first time. If you repeat a chapter, you can get either a potion or thousands of gold, chosen randomly. Naturally it’s skewed towards the gold rather than the potion, but is still worth doing.

Barcode Knight review screenshot 3
That’s all there is to the game, really. There is very little that breaks up the repetitiveness of battles, barring the occasional boss fight. The gameplay loop consists of you scanning a barcode (or spending AP), running a short dungeon and selling, keeping or crafting loot. Rinse and repeat till the end of time. It sounds like a shallow experience because that’s ultimately all it is. You can’t, won’t and shouldn’t play the game like I had – for 6 hours straight. Chances are it’ll become something you keep in your pocket to get out and marvel at in a shop every once in a while. It’s a beautiful and satisfying audio and visual spectacle, but a game to sit down and play? Not so much.