Genre: Hack-‘n-Slash Developer: Secret Level Publisher: Sega Players: 1 Released: 10/14/08
When Sega announced that it was bringing back the Golden Axe franchise with a new installment on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, fans were hoping that the company would make amends for never releasing the arcade hit Revenge of Death Adder on any home console. Here, it seemed, was the perfect chance for Sega to not only revitalize an excellent property from its glory days, but to also extend an olive branch to longtime devotees by finally giving them something they’d long looked forward to. A new, quality game would go a long way towards bringing Sega back to the front of gamers’ minds, as well as help continue to move the software giant’s back catalogue into the modern era.
Unfortunately, perceptions began to sour as soon as the first press release made the Internet rounds, and despite the unflinching optimism of many diehard loyalists (toss me in there if you’d like), what finally made its way onto store shelves bears little to no resemblance to anything that ever made Golden Axe such a classic. Sega-16 was always hot on the trail of any news regarding Beast Rider’s impending release, and needless to say, we were hoping for something great. What we got was… decidedly less than that.
Quite An Axe to Grind
Initially, things looked promising. The story featured Tyris Flare and Gilius Thunderhead (whom you can’t use) fighting Death Adder’s attempts to capture and manipulate the Dragon Titan. As Gilius pursues the dragon’s captors, Tyris must avenge her tribe’s slaughter and reassemble the parts of the shattered Golden Axe to use against Death Adder’s approaching hoards. Sounds great, right? Yes, well, one had to hang up one’s expectations at this point, as it was all downhill from there.
The first signs of trouble came when it was announced that the game would be developed by Secret Level, of Iron Man and Final Fight Streetwise fame. Anyone who has played either of those two titles knows that they’re not exactly the pedigree to assure that justice would be done to the mighty Golden Axe. It wasn’t the fact that Sega had chosen a western studio to develop the new game, as in all fairness, many previous games in the franchise, such as Golden Axe III and The Duel, were developed in Japan and weren’t exactly stellar. It was that Sega chose a studio which had already stumbled with another classic franchise, coupled with the glaring lack of anyone from the original game being involved. It might seem like much to ask for, but Sega somehow managed to find a way to make it happen for Panzer Dragoon Orta on the original Xbox, a game which turned out brilliantly.
To their credit, the developers at Secret Level seem to have a genuine love for everything Golden Axe, as they fondly reminisced in the initial developer trailer that appeared on Game Trailers before the game launched. Hints of this were seen in tiny bits, such as the fact that Tyris Flare would be the game’s protagonist, and that those wretched little gnomes would once again taunt us with their wares. What happened during development is unknown, but the resulting game has little to love. A combination of bland level design, poor camera work, and repetitive gameplay leave little to enjoy, and even as a rental, Beast Rider still leaves one wondering what happened.
Let’s start with the dynamic so readily touted in the game’s name itself. As suggested, Beast Rider concentrates on claiming any of the mighty steeds that appear in each level and using them against their former masters. The original Golden Axe made great use of these creatures by making them easy to use and strategically important. How many of us remember try desperately to keep that dragon from being hit by those annoying skeletons in order to use it against the level boss? Losing the animal meant that one had to face the rest of Death Adder’s minions on foot and without any tactical advantage.
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Beast Rider, on the other hand, sprinkles a mixture of five creatures and uses them to seemingly no meaningful end. Yes, it’s advantageous to use them when they’re available, but since one spend so much of each level without them, losing whatever beast the game decides to toss out means little. Couple this with the horrendous control each has (not proportionate to its size. Can someone tell me why the limber Ambrax turns as slowly as the lumbering Krommath?), and it becomes unclear just what purpose they had to begin with. Tyris can be knocked off her ride with a well placed hit or two, which is much better than the single chop needed in earlier titles, but the one thing I truly don’t understand is why using a beast’s power depletes its life force. If the game centers around their use, why am I punished for using them?
Just as Bad on Foot
Fighting without the aid of one of the beasts isn’t much better. Again, the camera here is horrendous, sometimes zooming in right to Tyris’ face or standing still as the battle moves offscreen to either side. Secret Level obviously suspected that gamers would take issue with this and included a few camera options to play with. None of them can fix what is fundamentally broken though, and it’s increasingly frustrating to keep the camera centered on Tyris while in combat. Having to constantly spin and move it just to keep her in view makes fighting a chore and adds needlessly to the game’s challenge, especially when many magic-wielding foes choose to remain offscreen and pelt her from afar.
Not to say that combat is any better. I was quite amused when I read Dave Halverson’s thoughts on why no one but him understands and appreciates Beast Rider’s gameplay, and I’m sorry to say that after playing the game through to completion, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that Dave is just… nuts. The timing and execution of the combos isn’t a problem, and it’s quite possible to whip the stuffing out of a foe with several cool-looking hits in rapid succession, leaving him a bloody and dismembered mess. No, the problem is that nothing ever changes throughout the game. The same combos and moves Tyris masters in the initial tutorial are the same ones she performs in each and every battle from there on out. There are no new moves to be learned, no combo upgrades, nothing. It’s ironic that this should come from Sega, the same company that released another action slasher this year called Viking: Battle for Asgard which offered ample opportunity to upgrade one’s combat arsenal in a myriad of ways, even including stealth kills. In comparison, Beast Rider’s attack schemes are just limited, dull and repetitive. This might have been acceptable back in 1989, but it’s one aspect of the classic gameplay that should have been left in the arcades.
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The dodge and parry system further complicates things. Enemies’ charged attacks are color coded -orange means dodge and blue means parry – and when countered successfully, the result is a flaming strike that usually leaves Tyris as the only one standing. Lamentably, enemies often attack in groups with one or two charging blue while others charge orange. This leads to one successfully parrying one attack only to be nailed by another that was meant to be dodged. Moreover, there’s a bit of a delay when executing a parry, which means that it has to be timed PERFECTLY or Tyris will be hit.
Even the magic is a mixed bag. Gone are the impressive and devastating effects from the original. Since Beast Rider is a prequel, I’m betting that young Tyris has yet to learn mastery over the powerful dragon magic, which is why her powers are relegated to merely opening doors and knocking down crowding enemies. The famous gnomes return to replenish her magic and energy, but they too seem on the way to obsolescence as many levels have areas that do this automatically and completely.
Scenery as Drab as the Gameplay
Hacking one’s way through the countryside with a limited amount of moves wouldn’t be so bad if locations weren’t as sparse in detail and design as the combat. Each of Beast Rider’s massive levels are divided into smaller areas, and movement through them consists of having the gate to the next one close until all enemies in the vicinity are killed or a few unimaginatively placed plates are pressed to open it. Pass through, and it closes behind you, beginning the process anew. Once in a rare while there will be a door that can only be opened with a beast, but the basic premise remains the same – enter area, kill enemies to open gate – wash, rinse, repeat. Now, doing this through half a dozen huge levels is more tedium than anyone should be meant to suffer, and it was what made me want to put down my controller more than any other problem with the game.
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It’s not that the levels are only bland in design; they’re not too appealing to look at either. Nothing here really taxes the 360 hardware, and the continuous use of dull earth tones everywhere doesn’t help. I know Death Adder just tore through here with a major mad-on. Does that mean that there can’t be some detail in his destruction? How about some fog or other visual effects? And why can I plow through a door but not climb a small hill? Eh, who cares. What’s on the other side probably looks as bad as everything else.
Seriously, earlier Golden Axe games had you riding the back of an eagle, heading underground, and even fighting on a moving cart. Beast Rider’s levels lack any of the imaginative spark that made those earlier outings so much fun to play. There are houses Tyris can’t enter and archways she can’t pass through, and all these invisible walls make the play area’s limitations all too visible. None of the environments are interactive either, save for the pots and chests that can be broken open for goodies such as energy, magic, and money.
Nothing Golden about This Axe
Despite such enormous shortcomings, Beast Rider had some potential for greatness. Secret Level included the option to replay each stage to improve the score attained in each area (usually a “B” or “C” the first time through), and there’s the occasional glimpse of the game’s heritage. The quiet remix of the gnomes classic theme playing whenever they appear is one, but it sadly ranks as one of the few music tracks in the game. The Trials of Tyris, a survival mode that is unlocked further as you progress in the game, is fun for a while, but I really would have preferred that Secret Level had dedicated its time and resources to making the main game better. Incredibly, this is the first Golden Axe game outside of the Master System and Game Gear releases that doesn’t have cooperative gameplay. That’s right, this is a single-player affair only. Secret Level promises that the next installment will have “full co-op,” but I’m doubting that a sequel will even be greenlighted after this fiasco. Even the achievement distribution is horrible. One achievement for completing the main game? For suffering through this much tedium, I should have gotten the whole thousand.
In the end, Beast Rider not only disappoints for being a generic slasher with a big license; it also shows just how out of touch Sega is with its own catalogue of games. The company seems to be taking a greater interest in reviving its franchises, but after seeing Project: Altered Beast on the Playstation 2, Revenge of Shinobi on the GBA and now this, I’m left wondering if it would be better to leave the past alone. Still, Sega seems determined to keep the Golden Axe name alive, despite the bitter taste Beast Rider leaves. Hey Sega, how about just releasing Revenge of Death Adder for download on the current consoles, and we’ll call it even, ok?