I am such a sucker for B-grade fantasy games. It doesn't matter how limited the gameplay may be or how flat the visuals are. Just stick me in some virtual environment filled with sword and sorcery tropes like dragons, hulking musclemen in man thongs, amazonian princess warriors in bikini chain-mail, scaly demonic sorcerers, drooling orcs, etc. and I'll be helplessly addicted. From GAUNTLET LEGENDS to ETERNAL RING to KINGDOM UNDER FIRE to SEVERANCE: BLADE OF DARKNESS, I just keep eating up these mediocre Western-influenced fantasy games like candy. Maybe it's nostalgia or a romantic Campbellian obsession with mythology…who knows. But I think it's because to me, these games represent the essence of the fantasy video game: a lone hero equipped with nothing but a sword and wits descending into the depths of Hell to singlehandedly defeat the horde of dark minions and the big bad Evil Lord. It's like the simplest representation of the metaphorical "hero's journey" conveyed through a couple (or couple million) pixels.
Anyways, this brings me to GOLDEN AXE, one of the most memorable classics of the video game fantasy genre. While its status as a breakthrough 2-D beat-em-up title is hard to dispute, I doubt it's the story it tells would get much leverage in the more "hi-brow" fantasy community. With characters with names like Gilius Thunderhead, Death Adder (!?) and Ax Battler, you know the fictional world of Golden Axe is not exactly World Fantasy Award winning material. But did we really play GOLDEN AXE for lessons in writing fiction? For most of us, it was difficult to care about the contrived and silly nature of the backstory when we were too busy beating the snot out of ugly orc-like henchmen and undead swordsmen. Thus, it's bizarre to see that they actually attempted to reboot/continue this series in 2008. With games like DRAGON AGE: ORIGINS, ASSASSIN'S CREED and even GOD OF WAR ambitiously pushing the creative potential of video game narratives, the creative laxity of GOLDEN AXE's fictional universe seems ill fit for the current market.
GOLDEN AXE: BEAST RIDER should be labeled GOLDEN AXE 4 since it chronologically takes place after the first game and its sequels. The player assumes the role of Tyris, the Amazonian pyromage from the first game. The story is thus: The tyrannical Death Adder (where did that name come from??) has sent his black minions forth to conquer the land and plunge it into an age of darkness. Tyris returns to her home village only to find it plundered and ruined; Death Adder's minions have been waiting for her. After fighting off the initial attack force, she makes a trek to the Dragon God to the gain the magical strength necessary to deal with the main threat. But Death Adder's generals have beat her to that also; wounding and imprisoning the deity. Gilius Thunderhead (the dwarf from the original game) tells Tyris that the only way she can save the Dragon God and defeat the evil warlord is to collect all the pieces of the legendary Golden Axe that have been scattered across the world. Equipped with a mighty sword, pyromagic, and an assortment of loveable (but deadly) beasts at her disposal, Tyris sets forth on her quest to defeat Death Adder restore light to the land.
Judging purely from the narrative, you can already tell there is something wrong here. Whereas, the original Golden Axe was a multiplayer focused game which offered a selection of THREE unique heroes to go up against Death Adder with, BEAST RIDER is a single player affair which limits the player to ONE character throughout the duration of the game. Many fans would argue that Conan-wannabe Ax Battler and dwarven bruiser Gilius Thunderhead were an indisputable part of the appeal of the original title. One has to wonder just why developer Secret Level thought this creative choice would over well with the gaming public.
Most likely it was the result of development time. I also read that they planned to use this game to test the waters of the market so that it would be a forerunner of a grand scale reboot complete with multiple characters and coop play. But given the lack of financial success of this title, that prospect looks quite dim.
When evaluating a modern hack and slash title, there are a few factors I really focus on. First is the depth and endurance of the combat system. Is it a bland button masher that a 3 year old could understand or it something that requires time and patience to master? A lot of the God of War ripoffs fall into the "button mashing" category. Even A+ titles like ARKHAM ASYLUM have moments where you can just pound on the attack button and emerge unscathed. Fortunately, BEAST RIDER attempts to avoid such shortcomings. You cannot button mash your way through Beast Rider or you will get slaughtered quickly.
Similar to the great action title ONIMUSHA, BEAST RIDER's combat system is about proper timing and responding appropriately. It's built around the idea of waiting for the enemy to attack so you can deliver a brutal counter move. In BEAST RIDER, enemy attacks shine brightly before they are executed and these signals are color coded. Blue attacks can be parried, Green attacks can be dodged, and Orange attacks can either be dodged or parried. Dodging or parrying an attack will open up the opponent to a counterattack, which Tyris can execute in the form of a wide flaming slash. This vicious counterslash can kill lesser enemies with ease, splitting their torsos and sending their heads flying. The parry system can also be used to send magical enemy projectiles back to their respective senders by pressing the parry button the moment before the projectile hits you (which reminds me a lot of SEVERANCE: BLADE OF DARKNESS).
Conceptually, it's a great idea. It's a system that requires a lot of focus and timing and will definitely separate the amateurs from the experts. In execution however...something just doesn't feel right. In more polished action titles like ONIMUSHA, the counterattacks you pull off always looked and felt really vicious. Even the largest of opponents would reel in pain from the strength of the blow. Tyris' flaming counterslash by contrast hardly seems to have any effect against later game enemies since they can't be stunned by any attack. Also there's a bit of a lag when she executes it, meaning it technically makes her vulnerable. The enemies of course don't stop attacking. This presents a problem. Since your counterattacks can't stun the bad guys and they leave you open to attack nd the bad guys won't stop attacking...why would you use the counterattack at all? You end up parrying and dodging just to survive the rain of enemy blows landing on your head more than anything else.
The developers tried to make up for this though. To tackle the big enemies, Tyris can execute "brutal counterattacks", which are basically fatal grapple attacks which play out in a GOD OF WAR style cinematic. These can executed just like counterattacks, but the attack button input is different for each opponent (and usually requires you to press two buttons instead one of one). Alas, these "brutal counterattacks" lack a sense of impact thanks to subpar sound design. You can barely hear Tyris as she impales, gouges and hurls her victims in these vicious cinematics. Control-wise, it's troublesome to execute them because the timing and button inputs vary from enemy and enemy, and you'll have to experiment around and readjust appropriately for every opponent. It's a good idea, but one in need of polish.
When you remove the whole counterattack system, the combat becomes kind of boring. Tyris only her one weapon (her sword) for the entire game and the combos and attacks she can perform with it never change. Why do modern developers do this? In a short, action packed arcade style games like GUNGRAVE, this is more understandable because the game can be completed before the player has time to get bored. But in a more standard 6-10 hour action game like BEAST RIDER, limiting the player to a single weapon and moveset throughout the entire game doesn't make any sense. Two hours in, the player will naturally get bored. Also, your sword will feel like a dinky toy against the armor of some of the bigger opponents you face later on.
Positive reinforcement is also another aspect of modern action games that I place high value upon. Are you getting experience for killing enemies? Are you getting appropriate bonus points for doing so skillfully? What is the game rewarding you with for spending the time executing all this redundant enemy slaying? BEAST RIDER sort of accomplishes this requirement…barely. Actually, you could argue it doesn't really accomplish it all. Every time you kill an enemy, you are given a little bit of gold ("loot"). "Loot" is used purely to buy unlockable weapons, armor and stages (for an alternate survival mode-style arena game called "Trials of Tyris" that you can unlock later). Obviously the stages won't do anything for your character in the main game, but you'd think the weapons and armor would serve some purpose, right? Nope. You can use these unlockable weapons and armor ONLY in "Trials of Tyris" mode, meaning their accumulation will not help you in the main game. Why?? Why not use the opportunity to program in some diverse new weapon types or outfit that actually benefits Tyris throughout the course of her main 6-10 hour adventure?? It's not like "loot" is easy to rack up in this game either…you're only given loot bonuses if you successfully slay enemies while avoiding ANY damage. Given that this game loves to throw hordes of aggressive enemies at you at a time (some of which take a damn long time to kill), that's not an easy requirement. And if you don't receive any immediately noticeable awards for doing the challenge, then what's the point?
Fortunately BEAST RIDER tries to make up for the relative lack of a balanced arsenal with the addition of beasts that Tyris can mount and rides. These beasts are quite impressive to look at. They drool, they shake their manes, they breathe heavily they're tired, etc. From a technical standpoint, they could easily be the best features of the game. But these detailed critters aren't just for show; they add substantial depth to the gameplay. They serve as living tanks that can absorb tons of damage and take out several enemies before they're felled. For example, the first creature you encounter is a cross between a dragon, an ankylosaurus and a Tauntaun from STAR WARS. This guy can set several enemies ablaze with his fire breath and smash the rest into gory bits with his mace shaped tail. Beasts are also necessary for solving environmental puzzles, either through the use of special techniques like invisibility or simply through their naturally enhanced speed and girth. And unlike many action games where the finding of such creatures is few and far between, the developers of BEAST RIDER were smart to ensure that they occupy a large portion of the main game. But when you think about it, its a shame...if the on foot combat had been more entertaining, you wouldn't need to fall back on a gimmick like beast riding to save the game.
Later on in the game, there are some really frustrating platformer/puzzle sections which require a bit of ingenuity and the aid of your beast friends to overcome. The level design doesn't make the rules and limitations of these sections clear, forcing you to completely guess as to how to approach the situation. Let's say…you enter a long stretch of land with a number of pressure platforms lined up one after the other which can only be activated through the weight of your beast friend. So you ride over to the first plate, stand on it, hear it click into place, hear the sound of a gate being opened…but you can't see the gate. So you stand on all the pressure plates, then you proceed forward…only to find a locked gate blocking your path. Where was the "gate opening" sound you heard before coming from? You go back, press on all the plates in order and…the gate in front of you is still locked. The solution (if you haven't guessed it by now) is to run over all the pressure plates IN ORDER within the space of a FEW SECONDS using your beast friend's enhanced speed. However, what was the point of fooling you with the false audio cue of the gate opening in the first place? Shouldn't that sound be reserved for after you solved the puzzle and managed to open the door?
Similar unintuitive sections abound…for example there's a part in the game where you have to make a long jump over a gap using a leaping attack you probably would never use anywhere else in the game. Despite the HUD dropping hints everywhere else in the game on how to approach a situation, it completely forgets to mention that you could use a specific leap attack to "extend the range of your jump". Whereas such a cryptic and non-intuitive puzzles might have been acceptable back in the days of a clumsy 16-bit platformer, I find their presence a little frustrating for a polished action title in 2010. Also, unlike a lot of modern action/adventure games, missing a jump in BEAST RIDER sends you all the way back to the beginning of the level. Being a little too faithful to our source material, aren't we?
The technical qualities of GOLDEN AXE are either hit or miss. The visuals are impressive from a distance, with the character models being the highlight. Unfortunately the environments you visit from a rocky wasteland to a ghost city, are bland and lacking in color and imagination. However the game makes up for this with a huge draw distance, which is highly impressive. I personally wish more creativity had gone into the enemy designs, since some, like the skeletons, floating knight armors and the lizard ladies you fight near the end of the game, are predictable and boring. Whatever the case, the game looks miles better than a B-grade title like BULLET WITCH. But given that that was a budget title which preceded this one by about 3 years, that's not much of a compliment.
Sound is also another shoulder shrugging inducing matter. With the exception of Tyris, the voicework is pretty lousy, although that might have been intentional given the camp nature of the title. Combat sounds are pretty dull and subdued (especially Tyris's standard attacks) with the occasional highlights being the firebrand attacks Tyris unleashes and the gore sounds that follow. The way the enemy soldiers die gasping their bloody throats and gargling reminds me a lot of the impressive death throes from the original TUROK game. The music is pretty generic percussion heavy orchestral fare. Appropriate for a sword and sorcery setting, but nothing particularly memorable.
In the end, GOLDEN AXE is really undone by its own legacy. With such an entertaining bunch of side scrolling beatemups on the Genesis, you'd think this game would pull all the stops trying to create the same frenzied slam-bang action that those games conveyed. It...BARELY even tries. While the gory action owes more to GOD OF WAR and ONIMUSHA than GOLDEN AXE, the simplistic mayhem of its source material has been all but lost. Lack of multiplayer, one playable character, underwhelming boss battles, annoying puzzles, a campaign that drags on far too long, a broken counterattack system, etc. render it more of a lousy knockoff of more popular modern games than an earnest update of 16-bit gaming's classic franchises. Combine this with the fact that the game insists upon retaining the primitive restrictions of its predecessors (a single weapon throughout the entire adventure, no upgrades or new abilities, falls that send you back to the beginning of the level, etc.) and you've a recipe for frustration. Revisiting a franchise from the primitive days of gaming should not be an excuse for developers to aim low.
With that said, I did like BEAST RIDER. It was a flawed, somewhat nostalgic romp through a gory reimagining of 16-bit gamings classic franchises. It had potential and for $4, I wasn't missing much. For everyone else though, consider your interests. Diehard fans of Frank Frazetta or CONAN THE BARBARIAN might be intrigued. But for the rest of the gaming crowd, there are better options out there. For Eastern sword and sorcery gaming goodness, I would recommend either the original ONIMUSHA (the Xbox update GENMA ONIMUSHA is compatible with 360) or the first two entries of the NINJA GAIDEN reboot. For more "Western" influenced sword and sorcery, go with the GOD OF WAR series or, heck, maybe even the original GOLDEN AXE trilogy.