Golden Axe: Beast Rider review

I wrote a misinterpreted piece on Badger Commander about Golden Axe: Beast Rider; some people thought I was giving up gaming or writing or something. Sorry about that (although some might prefer it if I stopped writing about Far Cry 2). Instead, here is the review that emerged as a result of a gruelling three years spent trying to reconcile with myself why I spent money on this game.

We look back at a lot of things through rose-tinted glasses. My fondness for point-and-click adventures from the 90s is always doggedly haunted by the fact that they aren’t as streamlined, logical or clever as I used to think they were. Ocarina of Time seems to be tolerated and even adored by many simply because it came from a halcyon period in people’s lives; to attack it is to attack childhood innocence itself, apparently.

The problem is people forget that we all had terrible taste when we were kids. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the stuff I thought was awesome when I was younger is a bit shit really. Captain Caveman, Metallica, those two Ewok films, the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, Jennifer Connelly, Salvador Dali; I thought these things were great but they really are pretty poor.

Golden Axe 1, 2 and 3 are rubbish. The controls and timing are clumsy, the characters are unbalanced, the soundtrack was pretty good but when stacked up against its peers it really doesn’t amount to much. Like Final Fight, Golden Axe comes from the uncomfortable generation of console ports that took the arcade attitude of constantly demanding coins and forced it into the home where it made no sense.

Its limited continue count meant it was tough enough to get to Death Adder, but trying to get anything higher than a D-rating in the game’s obscure and possibly arbitrary scoring system took nerves of steel and did not offer any kind of reward for improvement. Often, exploiting AI routines was the only realistic way of improving results as the fighting mechanics weren’t really up to scratch.

Designed-for-console fighters like Streets of Rage left Golden Axe in the dust and arcade games like Ghouls’n’Ghosts were able to bring their flavour of challenge to consoles much more successfully. This showed Golden Axe up as the lazy adaptation–with little understanding of its audience–that it really was.

Upon its release, people looked at Golden Axe: Beast Rider and shook their heads. This was marked as a disservice to the Golden Axe name; a smirking imp that deserved to be kicked and kick it they did.

The reality is that Beast Rider is too faithful a 3D remastering of the original series. The developers were so desperately trying to stick to the old rules while incorporating clumsy updates that it can hardly be considered the game’s fault that it had a flimsy foundation to start with. There are some glaring omissions here, the most obvious of which is that this is a single-player only game. However, I just can’t imagine that addressing these missing components would have somehow saved this mess of a game.

For every tentative step taken forwards the other leg was firmly stuck in the same place, possibly even wiggling backwards. Beast Rider tries to go for a God of War¬†style of gameplay, but makes concessions by enforcing a limited move set and only one weapon to play around with. Some of the later spells look pretty devastating but as in the game’s forefathers the refills for these are limited so using them is best reserved for specific points. There is a new parry/evade system but no lock-on function. There are now four different creatures to use as weaponised mounts, but they are as flimsy as their original brethren.

Each level requires intimate knowledge of the layout and enemy patterns to get through and score an A+ rating. Despite the game being so punishing the rewards don’t justify replaying ¬†levels to get better, much like all Golden Axe games.

I really get what the developers were trying to do: their insistence on keeping the experience true to the 2D games is both admirable and damning. I was often left despairing when Beast Rider’s good ideas were stifled over and over again.

Where to start?

Not choosing everyone’s favourite character from the first two games was a mistake. Tyris Flare, the Amazon, was always second choice to Gillius Thunderhead, the baddest Dwarf in videogame land. The developers then decided to follow the original series’ crass character design and dress them in the most ridiculous get-ups.

The parry/evade system is a nice idea which is supposed to give you a level of control when fighting multiple enemies. You can cancel out of a combo whenever you want and counter attacks to unleash even more damage upon reversal of enemy blows. In practice this system fails to impress. The erratic camera, the way in which enemies will mob you and obscure your view, the fact that the enemy tells are often confusing: all of this conspires against the player to offer a miserable experience. There are just too many different counters for a game that insists on throwing upwards of eight enemies at you at any one time, especially as some will be ranged attackers which will leave you even more confused. A Green attack can be parried or evaded but not jumped, a Blue attack can only be parried, an Orange attack can only be evaded and a Red attack can only be jumped (even if this means that the blow passes straight through your avatar’s body).

Assuming that you do manage to deal with the system and memorise each character’s attack patterns and learn to live with the mobs, you will still get hit from time to time due to combined attacks from multiple enemies and also, simply, because the evade/parry system is not as responsive as it needs to be so as to prove enjoyable. Too frequently the counter fails to trigger in time and when some later enemies can also drain you of your magic it becomes an exercise in frustration.

See now this guy, this guy is the man.

This system would be annoying enough on its own but as most levels require perfection from the player–to trigger multipliers on most levels you have to get through them with 0% damage taken–and they last between 15-20 minutes each, you will find yourselves cursing the game and all of its children. Eventually this leads to you looking for exploits and most of those exploits require astute use of the Beasts in the game.

Sadly the creatures in the game, although nicely designed, are as crippled as everything else. The development team felt the need to balance their apparent power in the game by adding a lot of frailty. In the original series this made sense as they were intended as arcade games, so the intention was to not break the game and allow players to 1-CC a forty minute game without considerable effort. Sadly their attempts to balance the mounts in Beast Rider might have actually made whole sections even harder.

Each creature comes equipped with a standard attack which is limited in range, a more deadly attack that drains the monster’s health and a super attack that drains even more. The amount of health the creature loses while performing these attacks and from being hit means that you won’t use their abilities save for when you have to. It is also far too easy to be knocked off a creature by opponents, who will then climb aboard themselves and use the beast’s abilities without draining its health. It is tempting to almost ignore them entirely when they spawn, but some clever dick programmed the AI to be clever enough to track them down if they are unattended. There were several times where I would try and slaughter riderless mounts but the same arsehole that programmed the enemy AI also makes mounts fight back if attacked. In another game I might have nodded at this sly piece of programming but instead, in a game where you are required to deliberately exploit bad level design to kill enemies if you hope to scrape enough points together to unlock the third sword (of eight) by halfway through the game, I found myself slowly crushing my controller.

Golden Axe: Beast Rider is a bug-riddled collision of old-school ideas with poorly-implemented new ones which struggles to even prove passable in places. I am not sure what makes me angrier: that this game is such a woeful mess or that I wrote over 2,000 words (cut down to 1,500 here) about this game when some of the games I have truly treasured have barely mustered 1,000. A good game often speaks for itself but a bad game can make my blood boil.

Addendum:

The developers, Secret Level, wrote a post mortem on Beast Rider here. I think it is an interesting piece because they pretty much admit the game was a turd but try and put a brave face on it. That Secret Level were closed after making Beast Rider and two Iron Man games is no surprise.