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Golden Axe: Beast Rider Review

Jesse_Costantino By:
GENRE Action 
DEVELOPER Secret Level 
M Contains Blood and Gore, Language, Partial Nudity, Violence

What do these ratings mean?

Don’t call it a comeback.

First order of business: disregard the first part of this game’s title. Golden Axe: Beast Rider has almost nothing to do with the classic arcade brawler from 1989.

click to enlargeAfter playing through Beast Rider, I got the strong sense that this game might have begun life as a generic barbarian-themed beat-'em-up, but one day somebody was suddenly struck with inspiration: “Hey, why don’t we turn this into a revival of Golden Axe?!” Shocked and not knowing how to respond to what seemed like an utterly ludicrous idea, the development team must have been caught off guard and said “yes” before they knew what they were committing to. (This is the part where the audience watching at home "tsks" in unison.) That single moment of blind acquiescence to a very stupid suggestion was the game-design equivalent of jumping in front of a moving train.

And it’s a genuine shame they made that decision because as a generic barbarian-themed beat-'em-up, Beast Rider excels in many ways, but as a Golden Axe game, it fails miserably in nearly every possible way. Other than character names and a few other allusions, it has absolutely nothing to do with the original. For those who remember dropping pockets full of quarters into the arcade classic, there’s nothing about Beast Rider that will summon those fond old memories.

Despite a total lack of resemblance to its source material, however, the barbarian fantasy world of Beast Rider is so well-conceived and so believably imagined that it’s hard not to fall for it. If you’re at all a fan of classic barbarian fantasy fiction, this game was made with you in mind. Each enemy, creature, landscape, building, and weapon conveys such a strong flavor of this under-appreciated genre that I almost instantly became enamored with it. It’s far from a perfect game, but the barbarian genre prides itself on its hollow characters, cheap plot devices, and barren landscapes - and this imperfection is a major part of Beast Rider’s appeal.

Beast Rider may not have the epic sensibility and fast reflexes of the God of War series or the dramatic excesses of Heavenly Sword, but it has more than enough bare skin, skull helmets, and bloody steel to make Frazetta and Vallejo glisten with sweaty pride. Character models look fantastic both up close and from a distance. Enemies dress in ragged furs and wear bone necklaces, and some even top their duds off with fancy skull-and-horn caps. Skin and fabric textures look great, and undead baddies glow with a beautifully eerie luminescence.

Environments are barren and tend toward the repetitive end of the spectrum, but they all fit well into the expected desert wastelands of the barbarian genre. Dust devils whorl around you, particles of sand blow in the wind, and dead scrub brush rustles underfoot. Textures are crisp, but since most every surface is of sand, dirt, or stone, it isn’t much to look at. It isn’t the prettiest game around, but it isn’t trying to be.

click to enlargeAs the subtitle implies, much of your time is spent riding beasts. There are four main beasts available, each with its own unique abilities. One beast can turn invisible; one beast stomps; one beast brawls; and the other beast, well, I’m not sure what it does. It appears early in the game but never again in the later levels. It doesn't really matter, though, since its spin attack is so totally useless that the developers apparently decided it wasn’t worth returning to later on. Each of the other three has its particular advantage in combat and its own peculiar driving quirks. Putting these critters through the motions is more fun than you might expect.

Where Beast Rider begins to hit some substantial snags, though, is in the combat mechanics. It tries to borrow combat ideas from both Heavenly Sword and God of War but comes off feeling like an incomplete hybrid of the two. Like God of War, you develop special moves as you progress, but unlike God of War, combos are almost non-existent. Instead, you learn to rely on your counterattacks almost exclusively.

Similar to Heavenly Sword, you need to defend attacks by matching a color that flashes during an enemy’s attack to a particular defensive action - blue means parry, orange means evade, and green means either one or the other. If you attack immediately after a successful defense, you perform a powerful counterattack. This works great against single foes, but once you get to about the third stage, you’ll start facing off against multiple enemies at once.

Since they don’t wait for you to parry or evade one of their allies before attacking, you’ll constantly be hit mid-defense. The tutorial claims that you can interrupt a combo mid-action in order to parry or evade, but this is simply not true. About halfway through, I realized that it was all but impossible to defend many of the attacks coming my way. And by the end, I discovered that the best tactic was to run away and pick off one enemy at a time. Needless to say, this can become frustrating.

In addition, two puzzle sequences were so poorly explained that I’m amazed they made it through the play-testing process. In both cases, the “solution” was a special move that I hadn’t been taught yet; however, I was expected to know those moves in order to pass certain barriers. The first required a button sequence on a particular beast. The second required a movement combination so esoteric that other games would consider it an exploit.

click to enlargeTo call these two sequences “puzzles” would give undue credit to Beast Rider’s design team and do serious injustice to real puzzles that operate according to the rules of fairness and intelligibility. If not for these two major “hiccups”, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to every brawler and beat-'em-up fan out there. Unfortunately, these sections very nearly ruined the game completely. While the game’s other strengths keep these missteps from completely killing the game, I can’t recommend it without some reservation.

The Golden Axe name is liable to do Beast Rider more harm than good. Fans of the original will criticize this title for the liberties it takes with the arcade classic—particularly the lack of co-op—and younger gamers will dismiss it as a forgettable nostalgia piece. That Beast Rider is neither of those speaks well to its content and poorly to its packaging. Ditch the “Golden Axe” moniker and just call this baby “Beast Rider”. Like those old ‘80s barbarian fantasy flicks that also had their share of serious faults, Beast Rider is blunt, exploitative, and plenty of fun when no one else is watching.
C+ Revolution report card
  • Believable barbarian fantasy world
  • Brilliant character design
  • Fighting mechanics work great
  • . . .against only one opponent
  • Two very poorly designed puzzles
  • Golden Axe this is not
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