Golden Axe: Beast Rider Review
Back in the day, you may have wandered into an arcade and immediately headed over to Golden Axe with a fistful of quarters. With a few friends, it was always a blast; the 2D action side-scroller featured plenty of non-stop combat, complete with those awesome beasts to ride and little gnomes to nab. Many years later, we can run around and participate in non-stop combat, ride beasts, and nab gnomes all over again…except this time, it’s in a 3D world and the experience is more irritating than anything else. Arnold said it yesterday and unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree: Sega simply can’t make a decent 3D action game. For whatever reason, the team just failed to succeed in their development of Golden Axe: Beast Rider, and that’s very unfortunate. We were hoping to relive those good ol’ days, only in a simple 3D format, and instead, we end up battling the wonky controls, loose camera, and brain-dead enemies. If you’re looking for something similar to the likes of God of War or Devil May Cry, you will find plenty of elements ripped straight from those excellent franchises, but the implementation is crucially flawed.
We really weren’t expecting anything too impressive in the way of graphics, but we would’ve liked to see something better than this. Plenty of technical issues mar a bland visual presentation that’s repetitive, boring, and basically devoid of inspiration and imagination. We really couldn’t run through yet another foggy, half-dead forest area without rolling our eyes, and the enemy and character design is generic at best. If they wanted to do this, they could’ve taken out a little refinement and put it on the PS2; it probably would’ve worked out just fine. The animations are okay and the cut-scenes are nice, but although they’re well worth mentioning, they’re the only positives. This simply isn’t a finely honed, professional graphical display, and it’s painfully obvious every step of the way. In some ways, we could consider this visual palette fitting, just because this is about what would happen if you turned the old Golden Axe 2D world into a 3D environment. But, unless we’re mistaken, this is a whole new generation, and this tact simply doesn’t pass muster. The design is limited, the atmosphere isn’t without glaring drawbacks, and there’s a definite lack of sharpness. Bleh.
However, the sound is even worse. The soundtrack is downright terrible, and even though the effects can be brutally effective, they often don’t match the action. For example, enemy screams will typically linger long after that enemy has been ripped limb from limb, and too many of your foes sound identical. Furthermore, we could’ve sworn that a lot of the “shhkk” sound that accompanies a deadly sword strike came a full second or two after we landed the blow. The voice acting ranges from poor to decent, which doesn’t do much for the storyline, and the music may be some of the worst we’ve heard so far this generation. It’s just some silly generic tribal crap that barely resonates at all during gameplay, and not only is it repetitive, it’s not even any good. The only good news is that it didn’t get in the way of the effects; this is one time where we actually welcomed the decided lack of balance between the soundtrack and combat effects. The latter certainly wasn’t great but so long as it drowned out that worthless soundtrack, we could live with it. Certainly the least appealing part of Beast Rider, this category falls well short of expectations.
The gameplay clearly takes cues from already established action franchises, but Sega can’t make them work. Obviously, Golden Axe is all about the combat, so we were happy to see that Secret Level doesn’t waste any time and tosses us straight into battle. But as soon as we completed the first challenge, our hopes were all but dashed and we resigned ourselves to struggling along for several more hours. Let’s get the basics out of the way: Tyris can attack quickly with the X button, perform a powerful attack with the Square button, use magic with the Circle button, and jump with the Triangle button. The L1 button is used to Evade and the R1 button is used to Parry, but here’s where everything starts to fall apart. The control itself is already too loose and the mere fact that you can’t do anything unless you’re facing an enemy is infuriating, but the defensive maneuvers cause added headaches. One would expect, just based on the simple description, that the concept of parrying and evading is straightforward and accessible, but…well, it ain’t. This is the first example of the developers biting off more than they can chew, but it sure isn’t the last.
We mentioned GoW and DMC, but Secret Level decided to use Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword as inspiration for the combat. If you’re familiar with the latter title, you’ll remember the idea of assigning certain colors to an enemy’s attack, thereby telling you to use a certain defensive style to fend off the onslaught. This same principle applies in Beast Rider, but without the stability and refinement. The problem is that because you have no way of automatically facing your attacker, and because you’re constantly surrounded, you typically can’t parry or evade much of anything. Sure, you can handle the one enemy you’re facing, but unless you’re directly in front of a foe, you can’t evade or block. The parry sucks anyway, primarily because there’s a delay to the animation, leaving you partially exposed. The evade works as it should, but unless you press either button at the exact moment you see the flash of color, you’re gonna get nailed. Then you add in the fact that you have to counter magic, swing the troublesome camera around, and deal with rampaging enemies on beasts, and you’ve got an overly complicated mess that is anything but cohesive.
That’s exactly the problem. Nothing flows. “Fluidity” is not a word we can apply to the combat. It’s not necessarily atrocious and the blood and screams kept us playing for a while, but the entire experience feels far too much like a chore. Everything just feels disjointed and even broken, and this becomes more apparent when riding on a beast. There are several to sample in your adventure, and none of them are the devastating war machines they should’ve been, mostly due to a mystifying lack of agility. While we understand the beasts are quite large, we can’t imagine any animal being quite so awkward when turning, and again, riding quickly becomes just as annoying as regular combat. It’s also far too easy for the beast to die, and far too easy for an enemy to knock you off. Then, when an enemy has your ride, the aforementioned brain-dead aspect kicks in; we once witnessed an enemy on what was once our beast, walking around in circles during a battle. It blew fire in our general direction, but hit a wall instead. One would think that being able to utilize a Stealth/Invisibility skill with a beast would be very cool, but instead, it’s just another feature that doesn’t blossom.
There’s plenty of brutality involved, with a whole lot of gushing blood that can even coat the camera, and dismemberment is a common occurrence. This is entertaining for a while, and the pacing is quite good, but unfortunately, the battle system is the focal point and it just doesn’t deliver. This is a huge drawback because the game would appeal primarily to action aficionados, and such gamers will spot about a dozen major flaws within the first ten minutes of play. We said it was “overly complicated,” but that’s just because of the disjointed nature of the combat mechanic; the combos you can actually perform are limited in number. And with the defense problem, you’ll end up trying to finishing encounters as quickly as humanly possible, and that’s never a good sign. The combat is supposed to be the highlight; it’s supposed to thrill and invigorate the gamer. Although Secret Level tries to accomplish this, all the shortcomings combine to detract from the overall enjoyment. We get a throwaway story, boring levels, immensely frustrating fighting, and only a few satisfying magic abilities. They get a little better with time, but that’s about it.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider isn’t a very good game. It’s not quite as bad as some critics have claimed – it can be fun for a little while, and the combat system is relatively ambitious – but it’s certainly not worth your $60. Those of you who were fans of the 2D arcade titles won’t enjoy it and the action fans will likely despise it. Even worse, the game released at a time when some of the best productions of 2008 were hitting store shelves, so there’s little doubt that Beast Rider will be a disappointment in more ways than one.
12/22/2008 Ben Dutka