The critics don’t always get it right. Whether it’s film, literature or our beloved interactive entertainment; sometimes the critics are wrong. When Golden Axe: Beast Rider was released in late 2008, I initially wanted to believe they might be wrong. However, with the overwhelmingly negative reviews, I was put off gambling money on this unlikely possibility. Years later, with the Xbox One now in it’s fourth year and my Xbox 360 all but packed away, this is one game that I still wanted to try for myself. After finding a copy for around $10 delivered, I decided this was a small enough amount to risk on finally trying the game.
The reason for my lingering curiosity about this title stemmed from my love of the series. Golden Axe is one of the earliest games I can remember playing in the arcades and one of the first, (and most beloved) games I owned on the Sega Mega Drive. Apart from the direct arcade sequel, The Revenge of Death Adder, the series never really surpassed the original. The two Mega Drive sequels were competent and the multiple ports released over the years varied wildly in quality. The series saw spin-offs released, one for the Master System and another for the Game Gear. The last major release before the subject of this review was another spin-off fighter in the arcade that was later ported to Saturn. Since then, the series was dormant for over a decade, unless one includes the apparently terrible Japan-only remake released in a compilation on PlayStation 2. Golden Axe: Beast Rider was a long time coming and naturally had high expectations.
From what can easily be gathered from playing it and confirmed here, the development for this game was troubled from the beginning. The first and most glaring problem is that Golden Axe: Beast Rider is a single-player only experience. For a series and genre that is best played co-op, this was more than a puzzling omission. Especially at a time when games featuring co-operative play were resurgent through online services like Xbox Live. It is beyond my understanding why this wasn’t demanded of the development team by Sega from the beginning. The game instead focuses on Tyris Flare, the female protagonist from the original. Ax-Battler and Gilius Thunderhead, the other two protagonists both make brief appearances and very optimistically seem to have been intended to be included in a sequel that will certainly (and happily) never be.
Other elements from the series are present including the antagonist Death=Adder, the irritating but useful little gnomes that carry health and magic items. The world of Yuria looks suitably dark and the art design certainly captures the aesthetics of the series. As is obvious from the title, the game also allows you to ride beasts that can be used to attack enemies. The lore of the original wasn’t very deep with the plot amounting to no more than a few paragraphs, so there was plenty to expand upon here.
The gameplay is similar to that found in spectacle fighters like DevilMayCry and God of War and Sega probably had the latter in mind when they decided to resurrect the franchise. Gameplay is generally simple to understand with a basic combo system using a quick and strong attack, as well as a magic system. There is also a counter mechanic that is telegraphed by enemies with either a blue or yellow glow which requires the player to press the correct bumper button in response. As well as this the game has a timing system that will increase player score (called tribute), and discourages button mashing. Interestingly, the game also runs at 60fps on the 360 and this along with a solid control scheme should make for quality gameplay.
When actually playing the game though, it is hard to believe that the game is really running that fast. Gameplay is extremely choppy and not because of the sharp weapons. There is also frequent screen tearing. The controls also aren’t nearly as responsive as they should be considering the speed the game runs at. Then there’s the camera which while fully rotatable can become a hindrance if you get stuck in certain parts of the map. These are relatively minor though as the games major problem isn’t difficulty or the controls but just how boring it is. There is very little variety in the environments and although there are seven different areas, they don’t differ significantly. Then there are bugs. When I first installed the game, I expected to have to update it but there was no update at all and this seems odd for a game released eight years ago. The issues with the game soon become apparent. From early on I experienced enemies getting stuck in geometry and had my progress blocked because of scripting issues. The most hilarious (and annoying), happened during the final boss when he changed forms but the first form remained. That part was funny, but not actually being able to damage him and being forced to restart the whole fight certainly was not. Then there are lots of little annoying things like the way Tyris is occasionally knocked off ledges resulting in instant death or a few times when I got stuck in the scenery.
The visuals are competent enough for the time though don’t compare favourably with the bigger releases of the time. There are a few great pre-rendered cutscenes but most are done in the game engine. The music is ambient most of the time and often barely noticeable. This is unfortunate since the original had a very prominent and memorable soundtrack. It is also disappointing that the magic system is nowhere near as impressive as that found in the original. The same is true of the beast riding which despite being in the subtitle, adds little to the gameplay. It is a shame as both of these aspects really could have made this game stand out while being consistent with the franchise roots.
After playing it all the way through, I think some critics were certainly over the top and a bit too harsh on the game. I wouldn’t say the criticism was off though, just exaggerated. Golden Axe: Beast Rider is mostly just a mediocre game with the Golden Axe name bringing high expectations that have definitely not been fulfilled. The worst thing about Beast Rider is that it brought back the series only to send it back into obscurity. It has now close to a decade since this game came out and it now seems unlikely the series will ever be brought back, though I hope I’m wrong. I do hold some sympathy with the developers and the tall task they had, but the end result is what it is and ultimately what will be remembered. Golden Axe: Beast Rider is a frustrating, sluggish, buggy but above all boring. That’s what it was in 2008 and that’s what it is now.