Genre: Action Role-Playing
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: Q4 2008
Golden Axe: Beast Rider is an odd beast because it both does and does not feel like a Golden Axe game. Initially, it's difficult to spot the elements that are related to Golden Axe but noticeably easier to spot the omissions. A single playable character and no multiplayer component could make some Golden Axe faithful scream in rage, but while some of the series' iconic gameplay has changed, much of the world setting has remained the same. Familiar monsters, both friendly and hostile, populate the world, and while they're joined by additions to the cast, they bring a nice sense of déjà vu to the proceedings.
The main character, Tyris Flare, was actually one of the playable characters in the original Golden Axe, and while she's gotten a redesign, she's still fairly recognizable. Likewise, Tyris' magic is mostly a shinier version of the same magic that you saw in Golden Axe, and a few of her combos look quite familiar indeed. Golden Axe fans will be most pleased to hear that the tiny gnomes will return, and they are as annoying as ever — and just as fun to kick.
In the E3 demo, the controls for Golden Axe were fairly simple. The A button did a weak, fast horizontal slash, while the X button did a stronger, slower vertical slash. Press both buttons together for a fierce attack, such as a powerful kick or a dashing shoulder tackle. The Y button jumps, and the left trigger allows you to dash forward, doubling your speed. As with most games of the type, you can chain together A and X attacks to create powerful combo moves. As with the older Golden Axe games, you can also access a variety of magic spells with the B button, and they can do substantial amounts of damage. One allows you to shoot a powerful blast of fire magic forward, but if you press the B button rapidly, you'll actually summon a giant phoenix of flame that obliterates everyone on-screen but takes a lot more magic. Another kind of magic is the titular Golden Axe, which allows you to aim and toss the weapon at a distant enemy for major damage.
Combat in Golden Axe is built around the idea of parries. The left bumper lets you evade, and the right bumper lets you parry. However, unlike most 3-D action games, you can't use every move to evade or parry every attack. Instead, you've got to keep an eye on what the enemies do. If an enemy glows with an orange light just before he attacks, you can evade, and if he glows with a blue light, you can parry that attack. A green light means that you can do either. Evading and parrying is an important skill to learn because it is your primary method of offense as well as defense.
When you avoid an attack in either way, it opens up enemies to finishing moves. By pressing X, A or both buttons after you attack, you'll perform an instant-kill finishing move, which causes Tyris to brutally dispatch an enemy in a cinematic cut scene. Since most enemies are fairly durable, this is the best way to take out an enemy without resorting to magic or beasts. The twist is that each enemy has a different attack that he or she is susceptible to, so you'll have to experiment a bit to discover the location of the sweet spot for each enemy and remember it as you advance through the game. If you get mixed up, you'll waste your dodge chance on a noncinematic attack; it's not exactly a terrible thing, but it'll will slow you down and give the enemy swarms a chance to overwhelm you.
It may be obvious from the title, but Golden Axe: Beast Rider relies heavily on the idea of riding beasts. (Shocking, I know!) There are five different kinds of beasts that you can ride, each with its own unique set of abilities. The beasts have their own Beast meter, which functions as a combination health/magic bar. If the beast gets damaged or uses certain attacks, this bar drains; you lose your beast if the meter bottoms out.
During our demo session, I was able to see two of the beasts. The classic Golden Axe riding lizard used its spike tail as a close-range weapon and was able to breath fire, either immolating nearby enemies or shooting an explosive fireball at those in the distance. Although useful against regular foes, the lizard was worthless against enemy beasts, which promptly tore my poor creature asunder. That is where the anti-beast monster comes in. Resembling nothing so much as an escaped "Lord of the Rings" troll, the anti-beast monster is, unsurprisingly, an expert at fighting other beasts. Pressing A sends it into an enraged state, at which point it is capable of ripping any beast apart with a single attack. The enraged state quickly drains its Beast meter, so you'll want to be very cautious when using this. Furthermore, while it is a powerful tool against beasts, I found my troll monster being quickly overwhelmed by regular foes, who promptly beheaded it when given the chance.
While your primary goal is to defeat Death Adder and save the world from the forces of evil, skilled players will be far more interested in the idea of Tribute, which is your score in the game. Killing enemies skillfully and quickly earns you high amounts of Tribute, as will the quick and efficient completion of a level or the exploration of secret areas. Tribute is used to unlock bonuses in Beast Rider, and while we didn't see any of the bonuses during our brief time with the game, our presenter mentioned unlockable costumes, including some of the original Golden Axe outfits from the Genesis! There may be other unlockables available, but Sega was quite mum on Tribute's other uses.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider isn't the Golden Axe title that hardcore fans of the series have been awaiting. This is the elephant in the room that's impossible to avoid. It's based on more exploration and combos, it lacks a multiplayer component, and it contains a single playable character. However, if you can't tell Golden Axe from Golden Sun, or you're willing to accept a bit of change, then Golden Axe: Beast Rider is shaping up to be a pretty fun game. The early build contained some minor issues, but the overall combat system seemed solid, the beasts interesting, and the action brutal. It may not feel entirely like a Golden Axe game, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun.
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