Golden Axe: Beast Rider
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: 10/14/08
Golden Axe has managed to maintain a surprisingly decent level of popularity for a franchise that’s really only produced one game most people can remember (well, for GOOD reasons, at least). Despite all of the sequels and odd Zelda knock-offs and weird 2D fighting games and whatever else comes from the series, most gamers tend to look back on the original game, in both arcade and Genesis forms, and smile. This isn’t surprising; barbarian fiction, when done well, is awesome stuff (just look at the first Conan film), and Golden Axe was pretty awesome for the time it came out… it just has yet to inspire an awesome sequel. So, this brings us to Golden Axe: Beast Rider, yet another kick at the can in an attempt to do SOMETHING interesting with the franchise. Like many of the games after the first, it’s a dramatic departure from the origins of the series, yes still maintains the core aesthetics of what made the franchise what it is. Like ALL of the games after the first, however, it is lacking in far too many of the elements that made the first game good to be considered worthwhile, while retaining the elements that, frankly, probably should have been excised.
The gist of Beast Rider is that you play as Tyris Flare, the female member of the original trio, as you play through what is essentially a re-imagining of the story of the first game. Death Adder (or Death=Adder, depending on where the name is displayed) has locked the world in an iron grip, and after attacking the sisterhood Tyris belongs to, she ventures out into the world to reassemble the one weapon that can stop Death Adder: the Golden Axe. So, right off the bat, we’re completely junking the original story; instead of Gillius Thunderhead, Ax Battler, and Tyris Flare going on a quest to defeat Death Adder, who wields the legendary Golden Axe, instead we see Tyris Flare go after the Golden Axe so that she may face down Death Adder alone, with some small cameos from Gillius Thunderhead and Tarik the Axe Battler (because, apparently, dude needed a first name) so as to remind old-school fans that they weren’t forgotten. The story is generally very minimalist, in that you’ll maybe get a cutscene at the beginning or end of most stages, which isn’t a bad thing; the game simply focuses on its action and tells what small amount of story it feels it needs to in order to get by. The story is tolerable, but it isn’t particularly interesting or anything; it simply does what it needs to and then steps out of the way.
Visually, Beast Rider is decent, but flawed. The character models, Tyris and the giant bosses especially, are well-detailed and nicely animated, and many of the various enemies are modeled after old Golden Axe foes, which gives the game a fairly authentic touch. The environments are more hit-and-miss, however; while they’re detailed and expansive, they’re also often fifteen different shades of brown, and while that might be reasonable given the circumstances, it’s also fairly boring. There are also odd visual glitches here and there, like floating dead bodies and debris, that further hurt the visual quality of the game notably. Aurally, the music is your expected “heroic classical score”Â, featuring various orchestrated tunes of reasonable quality, along with the occasional track that’s reminiscent of the old Golden Axe tunes, which is nice to hear. There’s a decent amount of voice acting in the game, most of which is solid across the board, and the various sound effects are well done and fit the game nicely. There’s nothing memorable or spectacular in the audio presentation, but what is in the game is good and works well, which is often good enough.
If you’ve played Devil May Cry or God of War, or any games that are similar to these, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Beast Rider plays. Tyris has at her disposal two melee attacks (one weak, one strong), which can be chained together into combos in various ways, as well as a knockback attack that can be done by pressing both attack buttons together simultaneously. She also has magic at her disposal, all of which is fire-based, which can be used for projectile attacks, area of effect damage, and other fun stuff, all of which upgrades over time. She can also jump and dash around as needed, which can be useful either for closing the distance to enemies, moving around the environment, or for varying up combat somewhat, depending on your needs. Beyond the basics, there are also a few other neat tricks Tyris has at her disposal. For one, she can parry and dodge attacks, depending on what sort of attack is coming. When enemies attack, their attacks generally flash one of three colors: orange attacks (usually vertical attacks) can be dodged, allowing you a strike on the opponent’s backside; blue attacks (usually horizontal attacks) can be parried, allowing you to deflect the attack and counter with one of your own; and green attacks (thrust attacks and grapples, mainly) can be defended against by either method. If you press the appropriate button at the right time, Tyris will block or dodge the opponent, allowing you to counter-attack, which can either be as simple as swinging and striking the foe with a flaming strike or as complicated as an auto-combo that kills the opponent instantly, depending on your timing; in either case, this is fairly useful in later stages where foes often gang up on you, as one good counter-attack can take out two or three foes at once.
Beast Rider, as the name implies, also offers up the ability to ride large monsters into battle, which can deal significant damage to foes in a number of ways. Each monster you ride has different positives and negatives; some are slow but powerful, others are fast but weak, some are in-between, you get the point. Being on a beast is often better than NOT being on a beast, as beasts are often deal more damage than you, take attack damage in lieu of you, and also increase your Titan Gauge by killing foes. Your Titan Gauge can basically be considered a bonus modifier; as you kill enemies, you will often earn Tribute (cash, in essence) which is used to unlock new abilities, weapons and such, and by having a higher Titan Gauge modifier, you will earn more cash for this. The Titan Gauge primarily seems to charge while on beast-back and when deflecting attacks, and is instantly depleted when you take damage in battle, so keeping it charged is a matter of dodging and blocking constantly, to keep the Tribute rolling in.
Aside from the various combat and combat modifiers, there are also puzzles of various sorts to solve throughout the game, though they’re often not too complex (set this torch on fire with your magic to open this door, or use your beast to turn invisible to get past these flaming pillars, etc). In many cases, they’re simply meant, it seems, to break up the occasional monotony of combat; as the game is about eight to ten hours long, mindlessly hacking at enemies all of that time would, presumably get annoying without some sort of break in-between. For those who WANT to do nothing but slaughter monsters, of course, the game caters to you as well; aside from being able to go back to the stages over again to earn more Tribute (called Challenges, in that case), you can also take on the Trials of Tyris, which are essentially large battle arenas that task you to kill multiple waves of enemies, again, for Tribute rewards. You can also unlock new costumes for Tyris by completing the different chapters, as well as new weapons by earning certain Tribute amounts, leaving you with plenty to unlock as you progress through the game, if you’re so inclined.
Unfortunately, many players won’t be so inclined, simply because, despite the visceral nature of battle and the breaks in-between battles to do other things, the core combat is exceptionally boring. In other games in the genre, your characters will often have different combos they can use and massively different weapons to choose from, allowing them massively varied and different attack combos, which keep things interesting. In Beast Rider, Tyris basically uses the same few attack animations forever, and even the upgraded magic spells don’t really make the game any more interesting or varied; it’s really just the same thing, over and over, for hours on end. Further, the puzzles, which were obviously inserted to keep the game fresh by way of breaking up combat, often have the opposite effect; most of the puzzles are either blatantly easy to solve and annoying because of this, or blatantly easy to solve and incredibly tedious because they take forever to get through (a few of the sections where you have to trot your invisible beast through traps that attack on sight come to mind). Frankly, had they been excised entirely, the game would probably be better for it, both because they’re often annoying and because the game feels entirely too long due to the fact that combat is as repetitive as it is.
Beyond the combat, there are other issues that make the game less than pleasant to deal with. For one, the game goes out of its way to make the dodge and parry mechanics into a huge deal… and then, about halfway through the game, introduces monsters with attacks that cannot be dodged or parried. Sooo… the most interesting gameplay mechanic in the game is useless against certain monsters? This is stupid, sorry guys. Second, the unlockable weapons, aside from not being particularly interesting, take forever to unlock; the FIRST weapon you can unlock requires you to earn 150,000 Tribute to unlock it, and unless you’re a master of the parry and dodge functions, you’re not going to see that for a while. Third, while it’s great that Beast Rider put in the thieving gnomes from the earlier games, so as to allow the player the option to get health and magic back at various intervals, the actual way this was implemented leaves something to be desired. Why are there colorless gnomes that provide no items? Why is it often difficult to hit the gnomes in open areas, thus leaving you swinging at empty air and getting nothing for your efforts? Why are there gnomes who give up poison items? Wait, WHY ARE THERE POISON ITEMS AT ALL? This is, again, silly, and makes things more annoying than they need to be. Fourth, Golden Axe was generally pretty well regarded because of its multiplayer, so it seems stupid to present a game with NO multiplayer in it, at all, as a part of a franchise that was built on such a mechanic. The Trials of Tyris, at the very least, could have allowed for two-player co-op, just to give the game a little more replay value than it presently has.
The biggest problem for Beast Rider, unfortunately, is that it’s noticeably derivative, and there are better versions of the game available that simply do more than it does. Now, you can easily make comparisons between this and, say, Devil May Cry 4, Ninja Gaiden, God of War and whatever else you can think of, but as a comparable product, this is similar to the THQ game Conan. Both feature barbarians cleaving their way through war-torn lands, both feature tons of violent deaths, and both feature the ability to counter-attack opponents as one of their main mechanical innovations. Conan, however, offers a significantly larger amount of variety in combat, more interesting and prettier levels, and a more engaging story, and the one thing that Beast Rider does, the riding of beasts into battle, isn’t all that great (since your beasts control like giant, easily killable tanks), leaving Beast Rider as an inferior product to a game that, at this point, is more enjoyable and a whole lot cheaper.
It’s not that Golden Axe: Beast Rider is a BAD game so much as it’s a boring, repetitive game; if you’re okay with a game that’s mostly the same thing for hours and hours, you’ll be fine with this. The character models look and animate well, the story mostly stays out of your way, the aural presentation is solid across the board, the controls are generally easy to understand and work with yet complex to master, and there’s plenty to see and do in the game, so those who are looking for an action-oriented experience that’s relatively simple to understand and navigate should be able to have some fun. Anyone expecting an in-depth experience won’t find it here, however; the story is meager and not really exciting, the environments are all too similar and boring, the variety of enemies and combat maneuvers is limited, and there’s not much to see in the game beyond the first three hours, which is depressing considering that isn’t even half of the length of the game. There are also odd design choices, like the lack of multiplayer and the inclusion of puzzles and purposefully difficult changes and additions to the concept that make the game less enjoyable than a mindless button-masher really should be, while the game lacks enough depth to satisfy the Ninja Gaiden/God of War/Devil May Cry crowd. Basically, while the game is too annoying for the casual set and too basic and limited for the more committed gamers, there’s SOME fun to be had with Beast Rider; if you’re on the fence, a rental should give you all of the information you need, though if you’re not interested in the game, it’s safe to say that you can safely pass this by.
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score: MEDIOCRE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Golden Axe: Beast Rider, while not a particularly bad game, isn’t really anything you haven’t seen before, and isn’t really implemented in a way that’s novel or exciting. The character models and animations are pretty solid, the story is inoffensive and doesn’t interfere with destroying enemies, the audio is good, the gameplay is simple to learn while offering enough complexity to challenge good players, and there are plenty of things to unlock for those who wish to do so. However, the combat is generally shallow and relies on the dodge and parry system to make things interesting (which will put off unskilled players and won’t entertain players who have seen similar gameplay mechanics in better games), the game feels entirely too long without anything interesting to justify the length, multiplayer is curiously absent given the importance of such a thing to the franchise, and the game simply feels too derivative without really providing the player with anything, aside from the oft-clunky beasts, that they haven’t seen before. Beast Rider might be an amusing rental, as there’s some entertainment to be had here, but there are more than a few similar but better games on the market, and if you’re specifically looking for a gory, barbarian-themed action game, Conan is a lot cheaper and more entertaining.