Posted – 12.02.2008
You’ve probably already seen the reviews for Golden Axe: Beast Rider, another franchise from Sega’s revolving door of retro-resurrections and if you had glanced at the scores, you probably think that it has to be the worst game available in this generation. There are problems within it that support that argument, but it isn’t a cesspool of rejected ideas. Unfortunately, the fun aspects are buried beneath a poor effort to rekindle the hardcore excitement of the previous generations.
Golden Axe isn’t a follow up to the sequel that came out for the Genesis or in the arcade. It’s not a 2D side-scroller, nor can you play co-op with a friend or pick who to play as from three different characters. Instead, you play as Tyris Flare, the buxom heroine of the original Golden Axe series who apparently believes as most other female heroes do that wearing less is the best defense against giant bladed weapons. With ironclad skin, she’ll go off in search of vengeance for the death of her sisterhood at the hands of the nefarious Death Adder and free from his grasp the Dragon Titan that they had all worshiped as a living god.
That’s pretty much it as far as the story is concerned, not that the originals had a lot of narrative to go on, either. But titles such as Heavenly Sword and God of War come packed with plenty of personality which, unfortunately, Golden Axe barely delivers. What dialogue there is in the game is pretty low key, packed with all of the lines that you would expect out of a bad Conan knockoff, but spoken with the kind of passion reserved for Gone With the Wind. The story actually gets better in the telling towards the end, but whether players will make it that far depends on how much patience they are willing to invest.
The drab graphics aren’t much better and appear as if they would belong on the previous Xbox, although there are a few memorable set pieces such as a giant turtle shell and an end boss that could have come out from Capcom’s wonder factory. Because most of the game takes place in blasted landscapes devoid of life, don’t expect to see much in the way of colors other than brown, dark brown, and grey saturating everything including the screen tearing that occasionally mars the picture. The generic scenery extends right down into the droves of mindless fodder that are thrown against Tyris, all of whom say or mumble the same things in order to further bore the excitement out from your button mashing fingers. They do come apart with plenty of gory dismemberments satiating your inner barbarian, though.
The music is probably the most forgettable stuff that I’ve ever heard in a game with its mix of tribal sounds and the rare electric guitar that tries to keep the sleep inducing beat going, feeling as if it were composed in order to meet some design doc requirement that says there has to be music in the game. To give you an idea of how much music variation there is, the credits loop the same track about four or five different times because it’s so short. So much for a glorious fanfare, not that any of the other tracks are better.
Gameplay-wise, Golden Axe aspires to bring in some of the thumb blistering, hardcore action that a title such as Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden series wears as a blood soaked keikogi. The game conjures up snippets of difficulty which aren’t impossible to overcome, but also come with plenty of cheap tricks that the actual gameplay pulls from the same kind of issues that plagued old school titles with frustrating moments of pure annoyance. The camera doesn’t help, for one, making it easy to miss foes that come from behind.
You can button mash Tyris’ moves, divided into fast and strong slashes, and chain them into simple combos. We’re not talking the kind of elaborate moves that require a page of dial-a-combos to remember, either, so mashing on the buttons and mixing them up will show you everything that she can do without being creative in the first few minutes of play.
Parrying and blocking depends on the color that flashes on an enemy’s weapon, cluing you in to what to use. You can simply run away and avoid the hit which works most of the time, or you can try and block them with the appropriate move if your timing is right. Successfully pulling them off results in an opportunity for Tyris to counter with a more powerful version of one of the basic moves for serious damage. As a result, you can dance around with some foes and wait to see what they will do, or try and button mash your way through the game which will likely get Tyris often killed. Most enemies can be slashed away with mashing, but the parry/block system will give you the only chance of survival against the most powerful among them.
The bad side of all of this is that Tyris doesn’t always do what you want her to, even though it’s exactly what the onscreen instructions have led you to believe. It’s understandable when you get hit for missing a foe, or from a blocked hit, but not when you hit the parry or block button and Tyris fails to do what she is supposed to at the end of a chain or in an attempt at interrupting one. Cheap hits are commonplace thanks to off camera enemies which can also turn her into a punching bag with no hope for countering any chain she is sucked into. Without any kind of lock on feature, it can also be easy to watch her chains end with open air, and slashing away with after an hour or so of this can make you wish you were playing something else.
Tyris also has access to magic which is largely useless aside from solving a few puzzles. Potion slots indicate how much magic she has at her disposal and as the spells get upgraded, they’ll be used up at varying levels. Upgrades happen depending on how much “tribute” Tyris receives in each level which is something of a form of “experience” which can unlock additionally powerful magic and other bonuses, many of which are only useful outside of the main campaign such as more powerful weapons. Players are also rated in how well they do in each area that the levels are divided into which can impact how much tribute Tyris receives.
The beasts are actually fun. They can be used as small tanks and to solve a variety of puzzles that require their particular gifts. Not every beast is made equal, either, and some can’t take as much damage as others can, but resourceful players will manage to keep them alive for as long as possible along with keeping the enemy away from taking control by knocking Tyris off. Tyris can also hijack other beasts by knocking enemies off of them instead, or simply slaughter both the beast and its rider.
As interesting as the combat system is, it quickly becomes stale thanks to the rest of the game built around it. No extra weapons are available in the main campaign to help add some freshness to the linear action, you’ll be fighting most of the same enemies for the six or seven hours that it will take to get through the main story, and there’s not a whole lot to look forward to if you actually complete the game. Most of the experience consists of killing a batch of monsters to open a door in order to move onto the next area, repeating this until you make it to the end of that particular zone.
A few puzzle runs shake things up, sticking out from the landscape making you wonder just how Death Adders’ soldiers deal with all of these pressure plates and unlit torches set up everywhere, but won’t slow anyone who knows how to spell ‘puzzle’. The boss battles provide some color to the action, but are few and far between. Checkpoints mark your progress at the end of each set of areas, but even these tend to create a lot more aggravation than there should be in forcing you to often repeat large sections of repetitive combat if you happen to die without a dragon statue to call you back to life.
The worst example of this is towards the end. Dying at a boss battle usually allows you to come back to it, but in the case of Golden Axe, that particular sequence will let you repeat two “boxed” battles before you even get back to the main event. You can always opt to use a dragon statue that you may have found as an extra life to respawn right where you died, but their rarity makes them useful only for nail scraping encounters…like the final battle with Death Adder.
After the climactic battle, or if you simply want to take a break from the solo campaign, Time Trials and Arena Challenges are available for players to earn more tribute in order to unlock even more stuff such as bonus weapons. Unfortunately, as noted before, these can’t be used in the main campaign, only in these particular modes. Other extras also include the gallery of cinematics and there’s not much else to look forward to. As mentioned before, there’s no co-op at all which Genesis die-hards looking forward to reliving a few memories with friends will have to rely on the XBLA release of the original arcade version for their multiplayer fix. It’s simply bizarre to see a premier title like this one one-upped by an XBLA re-issue over a feature that should have been standard from day one.
Much of the game feels like a homage to the old school design that the original titles were based on with simple, arcade-styled action. But instead of polishing it in the same way that Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden had or reinventing it as Devil May Cry did, it provides a bare bones experience that makes many of the same mistakes that even some of the old school titles had managed to avoid. In addition to the poor checkpoints, invisible walls blocking obvious openings everywhere, and getting cheap shotted off of ledges, dealing with a flood of clone soldiers for several hours on end is also part of the fun that you might be having.
Golden Axe is not a terrible game in the sense that it fails on every level as a few other titles that I’ve played over the years have such as Kengo 9, but the generic level design, nonexistent story, and repetitive combat are far less than what gamers should expect from a title priced as a premium next-gen release. There’s not much in here to recommend over its peers unless you like beating your head against your controller for yet another cheap death, nor enough nostalgia to replace the hours of fun that you might have had with the original Golden Axe.
– World 1-1