Genre: Action Role-Playing
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: October 14, 2008
Upon the revealing of Golden Axe: Beast Rider, many gamers were quick to begin the assault of criticism because of the fact that this new hack-and-slash lacked the cooperative play that made the original 1989 title so famous. Now that we've acknowledged the lack of co-op, I'd like to bury the issue and move on because Beast Rider shouldn't be dismissed outright for not supplying the function, as it's clear the designers had a different kind of game in mind. But even when providing the game with a fresh perspective, it's still quite difficult to find very many positive things. The campaign is a lengthily one, but it also feels painfully dated compared to what else is being done with the genre; it does little to bring the franchise into the present or steer it in a new direction.
The game puts the player in the shoes of one of the original Golden Axe's main protagonists, Tyris the voluptuous Amazon warrior. During a sacred ceremony, the series' classic villain, the Death Adder, steals the Last Titan dragon from the warriors, and it's up to Tyris to get it back. In order to do that, she'll have to reassemble the Golden Axe along the way. Getting right into the action, I found Tyris quite easy to control. The A button will unleash a light attack, X a heavy attack, and pressing both simultaneously will enable a deadly knockback attack to clear away enemies who are getting a little too close for comfort. Tyris can break out a couple of magical attacks with the B button, such as Dragon's Fire (a concentrated fireball) and Dragon's Blast (a shockwave of fire). The Golden Axe, once acquired, can be thrown also with the B button, but more on that later.
Beast Rider attempts to toss a bit more complexity into its hack-and-slash mechanic and still manages to keep things accessible with a color-coded counter system. When an enemy gets ready to take a swing and his weapon glows orange, the attack can be dodged (left bumper), and when it glows blue, the attack can be countered (right bumper). Timed exactly right, a successful counter will allow Tyris to let loose a cinematic Brutal counter, tearing an opponent apart in one swift animation. During the first few levels, I was actually having a good deal of fun with the combat, as it was easy to pick up and start pulling off sick counters, but as time went on, the system's flaws became apparent.
A variety of enemies gets tossed into the mix during Beast Rider, eventually becoming heavily armored, but aside from shamans who summon magic and boulders, the strategies remain largely the same. Things get to be incredibly monotonous when the game begins sticking the player in small areas and forcing them to fight wave after wave of enemies, all which require the same tactics. The countering system seems to falter a bit when larger amounts of baddies are present, as Tyris must be directly facing an opponent to pull off a counter or dodge, so when surrounded, attacks coming from any other direction cannot be blocked. The occasional boss fight is a nice change, and the ones faced are of an imposing scale, but their patterns of attack get to be repetitive, just like the rest of the combat.
Of course, we can't leave out the title's namesake when talking about the gameplay, so how does Golden Axe fare when you saddle up an oversized lizard? While riding a giant monster sounds like a good time, even if it's not into battle, the beast-riding doesn't exactly make for loads of excitement over the course of the campaign. Pressing the right trigger will make Tyris hop onto animals such as the Abrax, which can breathe fire, or the Lynth, which is capable of cloaking.
As the game progresses, the size and power of the beasts increases, making for some truly gargantuan pets later on. In the unfortunate scenario of heading in on foot, it's good for the dude riding the hulking mammoth first, as the beasts can deal out massive damage. But just as I described the on-foot combat, the beast-riding presents a very narrow set of gameplay possibilities that won't stay entertaining for long, offering little more than trampling enemies and knocking down barriers.
Some puzzle-solving is worked into the game, but it never goes beyond taking the Golden Axe, which cannot be used in combat, and tossing it at a few statues in order to open a gate to a new area. Running through the environments isn't all that fun either, since nearly all levels are set within narrow, linear canyons with few branching paths. Visually, the surroundings of the world are quite bland as well. It's worth mentioning that the sacred presence that breathes life into the land has been taken, eviscerating all things good and apparently colorful, but a story line is still no excuse for boring environments.
So Beast Rider can get dull at times and extremely frustrating at other times, since there is no real checkpoint system among each of Golden Axe's levels. Collected dragon statues can be used to resurrect Tyris, but if none are available, it's back to square one. This is not a severe issue on every stage, especially in the earlier ones, but those waves of enemies keep on increasing, so it can be quite a hassle to have to go through an entire area with no checkpoints (or gnomes to beat on for extra health). There's little beyond the campaign besides the ability to revisit older levels with newly unlocked items and outfits, or taking part in the Trials of Tyris, an arena game where players are tested on how many groups of enemies they can decimate before dying.
I'll set up Golden Axe's visuals with a quick anecdote. When I first booted up the game, I immediately checked online to see if it was a budget title. That's bad. Besides the bland environments already mentioned, the poly counts on the characters seem exceedingly low and textureless. Although the surroundings might not have a very dense pallet once the fighting starts up, the color red is gratuitously flung on-screen. If dismemberment and fountains of blood are your thing, Golden Axe delivers in the gallons, earning its "M" rating. The cinematics are thankfully much more pleasing to the eye, although the voice acting and dialogue don't give the plot much weight.
As said earlier, when looking at Golden Axe: Beast Rider, we should mainly take into account what it offers, instead of what it doesn't (co-op). If the gameplay appeals to you, then congratulations are in order because there are over 30 levels of it. The only problem is that I can see many people having a hard time getting through every single level, given the stagnated combat, uninspired level design and terrible graphics. I don't believe that there's anything inherently wrong with Sega trying to do something different with the series, but by taking away a feature that many fans wanted and offering nothing compelling in exchange, Beast Rider will have a hard time appealing to both series fans and those who are just looking for a decent action game.
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