Golden Axe: Beast Rider Review
The holiday season notoriously hammers us with marketing hype promoting the onslaught of AAA titles (Mountain Dew’s Halo 3-themed Game Fuel, anyone?) they hope will land under our Christmas trees, so it’s surprising Sega’s remake of beloved arcade classic Golden Axe hasn’t seen more of the spotlight. But as new entries from the Fable, Fallout, and Far Cry franchises have been dueling for our dollars, Golden Axe: Beast Rider has been quietly unleashed onto retail shelves. Maybe Sega thought they couldn’t compete with the big guns, or maybe they assumed the absence of a co-op mode—the fun foundation of the original—would keep discerning buyers away (more on that in a sec, though.)
Regardless of the reason for the under-the-radar release, the Axe is back, and while it’s likely doomed to a bargain-bin-bottom destiny, it’s actually pretty good. I predict its failure not only because of the lack of marketing and the stiff competition, but also because of that aforementioned absence of the opportunity to swing axes and ride beasts with a buddy; any nostalgia-loving arcade rat will remember Golden Axe’s glory days, when two players could line the cabinet’s marquee with tokens and indulge in a couple hours of Medieval-era hacking, slashing and spell casting. It’s a crying shame, not to mention a missed opportunity in this current online-crazy marketplace, that Sega and developer Secret Level skimped on the cooperative goods.
While I’m guessing this major misstep will keep many old and new fans away, and spending their dollars on more content-rich offerings, Beast Rider still packs a satisfying solo campaign (as well as some skill-honing arena challenges) that fans of the genre shouldn’t miss. And by “genre”, I don’t mean hack-‘n-slash. On its surface it may look like a simplistic beat-em-up, but its combat is actually much more sophisticated—and interesting—than that. Controls start simple enough with quick and powerful attacks mapped to the A and Y buttons, respectively. Where things get more interesting, though, is with the precision-focused evade and parry system, requiring you to time each move (triggered by the shoulder buttons) based on the color of an enemy's attack. When a bad guy's blade flashes blue you’ll need to parry, but when it goes orange, an evasion is in order. Additionally, once either of these is pulled off successfully, you can counter with a special “brutal attack” which increases damage while also setting your weapon on fire.
This easy to learn, difficult to master combat mechanic is nicely complemented by a forceful kick move, and the ability to wield some fiery magic. It’s a pretty limited move-set, especially compared to combo-happy competitors like Ninja Gaiden II, but the streamlined system packs quite a punch, while never overwhelming you with impossible to recall combinations; you know the ones: “X, X, X, X, Y, Y, Y, LT, RT, X, X.” You can actually serve yourself pretty well by button mashing during the early levels, if you like. However, the difficulty spikes a few hours in, and if you haven’t perfected the finer points of combat you’ll be sorry when faced by a group of towering warriors armed with sharpened steel and plenty of bad attitude.
Of course, your best friend in battle is the titular beast-mounting mechanic; given access to a variety of snarling monsters, you’ll be able to ram, charge, tail-whip, tornado-swirl, and fire-breathe your way through many encounters. These thick-skinned behemoths are a blast to ride and wreak havoc with, especially when you knock an enemy off one and jack their four-legged ride. Later levels even include some fierce beast versus beast action. My only complaint, here, is that beast riding is often short-lived, as they die pretty easily. Still, their inclusion is the title’s highlight, and they look and sound damn good, too. I wasn’t just whistlin’ dixie when I mentioned “snarling and snorting”; these monsters sound like pent up bulls right before rodeo—I could’ve sworn I felt one sling snot my way during an especially taxing melee (maybe next generation.) They also move superbly, with realistic musculature and kick-ass attack animations.
The pretty polygons generally make their way through the rest of Beast Rider as well. Levels do sport a bit too much familiar Medieval fantasy fare, and I definitely would have liked more destructible items, but other touches, like the ability to kick baddies into spiked walls and off of cliffs, or the hard-to-catch gnomes that make finding health and mana more interesting than kicking open a treasure chest, stand out. Tyris, the title’s mega-hot heroine, also looks amazing. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a total living-in-mom’s-basement perv, I’d say watching her realistically bounce on a charging beast's back is one of the game’s finer visual achievements.
Beast Rider is far from perfect, and it won’t overthrow Kratos' Greek empire anytime soon. Another pass of polish might have done wonders, as clipping, collision, and invisible wall issues abound. Additionally, check points are few and far between, assuring you’ll be playing some later sections over and over. However, if you can get past these mostly minor issues—and let go of that no-co-op grudge—you’ll discover a balls-out, action infused romp that wears its Mature rating like a badge of honor; if you dig over-the-top blood flourishes, lopped limbs, decapitations, charred flesh and bosom-brimming heroines that grunt like Serena Williams every time they swing an oversized sword, then you’ll want to give this beast a ride. Or possibly a rental.