I'm an action game obsessive and nothing gets me going more than a solid, brainless, gory hack n' slash. Part of the blame for this love of action can be traced back to the good old days of the scrolling brawler, a genre to which Golden Axe once proudly belonged.
Fast-forward to 2008, and our cash-in has arrived. Golden Axe: Beast Rider makes only the most tenuous of connections to the original franchise, throwing away the retro brawler style, the famous playable characters and even the staple co-op, providing instead an action game that is Golden Axe in nothing but name.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider (PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developed by Secret Level
Published by Sega
Released October 14th, 2008
Golden Axe: Beast Rider places you in the role of Tyrus Flare, a redheaded warrior woman who is charged with avenging the persecution of her sisterhood by classic Golden Axe villain Death Adder. With precious few cutscenes or any real hint of story, the plot remains firmly in the background and, just like the Golden Axe of old, you could easily forget it was there completely.
With very little storyline to go off or even care about, Beast Rider plunges you firmly into the action and expects you to stay there until the end. The vast majority of the game will be spent crossing swords with half-naked savages who scream annoyingly at you, interspersed with the the obligatory beast riding that this title so proudly promotes.
We'll focus first on the close quarters combat, of which there is a surprising amount. If you go into Beast Rider expecting a standard hack n' slash affair, then you will fail. The game quickly beats you into conforming with its own idea of combat, producing a more methodical and "strategic" approach to fighting.
Borrowing somewhat from Heavenly Sword, the enemies in this game use different colors to telegraph their actions. Attacks that glow orange can be dodged with a simple press of the left shoulder button, while blue attacks are parried with the right shoulder button. Green attacks can be either dodged or parried. Once you have successfully avoided the blow, you can counter attack by pressing either A for a weaker, broader slash, or X for a stronger and more focused strike.
Using the counter system is key to success in Beast Rider, and at times it works incredibly well. You can cancel most of your moves in order to dodge or parry, so players are rewarded for paying attention to the screen and keeping a constant attack going while simultaneously making sure to deflect blows and counter-attack. It is, in fairness, a solid system.
Sadly, however, solid does not automatically equal fun, and as good as the combat system's implementation is, it's simply not very enjoyable. At times you can feel rather impressive when you string a chain of attacks and combos together, but the slow pace and lack of real reward do little to make the game interesting. Even the gory finishing moves seem soulless and cold, like Beast Rider is just going through the motions because it has to, not because it wants to.
It's a pretty challenging title, but with so little to care about, what might have been a pleasantly difficult experience becomes a frustrating and annoying chore. This isn't helped by commands not always feeling responsive, and enemies that attack you from offscreen to render a counter nigh impossible.
Which brings us to the beasts, and the burning question: Why did they even bother? If you watch trailers or read promotional material, you'll be led to believe that Golden Axe: Beast Rider is all about the riding of beasts. In truth, beasts are nothing more than sluggish and flimsy wastes of time that are only useful for knocking down barriers and precious little else. Even the massive and impressive ones are weak as water and annoying to control. With attacks that can't be canceled or lined up effectively, it's far more efficient to ditch your ride before each battle, tackle the enemies on-foot, and then use your monster for transport only -- not that they're even all that much quicker.
In truth, the lauded beasts are little more than glorified go-karts or fragile meat shields, only truly effective when being ridden by one of your enemies. The game could possibly have been better without them, and certainly isn't enhanced by their presence.
Tyrus has access to a few magical attacks, including a projectile in the form of a broken Golden Axe, which is also used in some boring "puzzles" that consist of little more than "find a target, throw axe at target, open door." Very much like the beasts, magical fireballs and axe throwing tricks do little to add to the experience. Perhaps if Secret Level had focused on improving the promising basics of its combat instead of adding uninteresting distractions, a much better game overall could have been had.
Each stage is graded, based on such things as damage taken/received and completion time. You can replay the main game's stages in a free mode to improve your score, which would have added to the experience if, of course, any of the stages were worth replaying. If one can't care about the thing in the first place, why would one go back to try and be better at it?
In addition to the main game, there are also challenge arenas which consist of more of the same. It's simply Tyrus in an area full of enemies that appear in waves. The sad thing is, you'll be hard pressed to tell the difference between this mode and the main game, save for the fact that it cuts out all the pointless rubbish and cuts to the chase.
Graphically, the game meets industry standards and there's not a lot more that can be said. The art direction is a mish-mash of IPs that have gone before, with some Lord of the Rings here and some God of War there. Ironically, the one look it doesn't copy from is Golden Axe itself, save for the inclusion of Gnomes and their iconic music. Even that fails to raise a smile, however, in this altogether drab and emotionless experience.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider is not a terrible game. At its core is a perfectly adequate combat system that has potential to be something great. However, the lack of speed, flow or excitement undoes a lot of the good found within. Ultimately, it is a slow-paced and drab affair that makes no real effort to connect to the player. In such an environment, what could have been minor annoyances are magnified to significant grievances, and what might be interesting ideas are lost completely.
For action junkies, a weekend's rental might provide some distraction. For other people, there is so much better coming out at this point of the year that Golden Axe: Beast Rider is not worth your time, let alone your money. Not even the inclusion of co-op would have made this one any the better, no matter how angry you might be that it was excluded.
Score: 5 -- Mediocre (5s are an exercise in apathy, neither Solid nor Liquid. Not exactly bad, but not very good either. Just a bit "meh," really.)
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