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Golden Axe: Beast Rider (Xbox 360) artwork

Golden Axe: Beast Rider (Xbox 360) review

"Revisonist Review: Is Golden Axe Beast Rider Gold or Pyrite shite?"

Golden Axe. That name is instantly recognized by so many gamers that to not know what it is would mean you are very young or naïve when it comes to classic gaming. I absolutely loved the original game, both the Arcade and Genesis versions. It was simple to pick up, hard as nails to master and an absolute blast to play through with a friend. It came out in a time when the Conan movies were still popular and fresh and the Frazetta inspired art style was the norm for anything Sword and Sorcery. The Genesis version caught the eye of many and proved that, at least with Golden Axe, the catchy marketing slogan "Genesis does what Nintendon't" rang true. It certainly was not a revolutionary game by any standard, not even in its hack `n slash genre, but it remains one of my most treasured games ever and to this day provides me with great joy. It just nailed the presentation perfectly and always felt like an epic adventure with a perfect combination of great art direction, catchy music and accessible but challenging game play you could enjoy with a friend.

When I first heard Sega was bringing back their Golden Axe franchise I immediately looked for news on it. I am always skeptical about classic 2D franchises being brought back to life in a 3D world, but I was hopeful that maybe Sega could do this series justice. When I looked into Golden Axe: Beast Rider after first hearing about it, I was extremely disappointed that it did not have coop, which was one of the main draws of the original game twenty years ago. Not only was there no coop, but you could only play as the Amazon, Tyris. No Dwarf? I think it's safe to say that the Dwarf was most people's favorite character, so not including him as a playable character was a serious omission. As for Tyris herself, to me she looked nothing like an Amazon warrior but like most other cliché female protagonists found in Video Games. Tyris looks like she moonlights as a cage dancer in a Vegas night club, not the tall and spry warrior she is supposed to be. I was so turned off by these odd design choices that I just stopped paying attention to its upcoming release and was not the least bit surprised when I noticed all the terrible reviews it was getting. No coop, no Dwarf, a short little club girl with a Vidal Sassoon hairstyle posing as Tyris and according to the reviews, bad game play to boot. I never picked the game up and completely forgot about it until recently.

A couple months ago I downloaded the classic arcade version of Golden Axe for 200 points during a sale on XBLA. It is worth the normal 400 points, but since I have multiple versions of this game on my Genesis and PC, I never bothered looking for it on XBLA. I thought it would be fun to experience the Arcade version on my Xbox and on my HDTV with leader boards and a graphics filter which smoothened out the pixilated visuals. I was hooked all over again, I absolutely love this game, and I suddenly found myself taking a second look at Beast Rider. I heard it was terrible and just assumed it was considering how harsh so many reviewers were on the game. I knew that it lacked coop and the Dwarf as a playable character yet I had Golden Axe on the brain and felt a growing urge to pick up Beast Rider. I checked out many game play videos on youtube and though I didn't see much redeeming quality in these videos, a good number of the people playing did insist that although the game may not be great, the reviews were too harsh. I also noticed something when watching these videos that I had ignored before, the art style. In a day and age when so many Fantasy games seem to be going for a Korean influenced look in their art design with bright pastel colors and ridiculously disproportionate armor and weapons, it was nice to see Beast Rider stay true to the Conan/ Frank Frazetta art style the original game used to have. The game dropped to a very cheap price on Amazon and I decided to pull the trigger and give it a try. What the hell, if anything I could write my first one star review for a truly bad game which would make me appreciate the better games out there all the more. After a slow start and a feeling I was just wasting my time (I'm not in the habit of buying bad games and writing reviews since I don't get paid to do it), something funny happened, the game started to pick up the pace and actually be quite enjoyable at times. After having completed the game I have to say that though there are plenty of flaws to be found, it really isn't that bad of a game and many of the professional reviews I have read seem to unfairly trash it. Golden Axe: Beast Rider is an underrated title, though underrated doesn't mean it's great.

When I first fired up the game I was shown a cutscene explaining the origins of the Golden Axe. Nothing special here, I could tell the story was not going to be much. After this intro I arrived at the title screen where I could select to play the main Campaign, Challenge Mode or Trials of Tyris mode. The challenge mode is basically the same as selecting individual chapters from the campaign to replay in an attempt to get a higher ranking (your ranking is a letter grade you are awarded for how well you did) and the Trials of Tyris take place in six arenas which you unlock as you progress further in the campaign. In these arenas you face 10 waves of enemies and it reminded me a little of the Duel mode from the Genesis version of Golden Axe. As you play the game and collect more and more loot, referred to as tribute in Beast Rider, new weapons are unlocked for you to use in the challenge or trials. You cannot upgrade weapons during the campaign. Different outfits will be unlocked for Tyris to wear as you progress in campaign, you can choose which to wear in challenge or trials mode, but the game selects them for you while playing the campaign. Once you beat the campaign the first time through to unlock most of the weapons and the outfits, there is no reason to play campaign mode again, just go to challenge mode and select each chapter manually so you can choose which weapons and outfits you want.

When starting the campaign the game sets up what little story there is, Tyris is part of some Dragon worshipping cult of hot babes and she is late for a ceremony. She isn't doing anything in particular, just wandering in the woods and suddenly realizes she is late, oops. She gets to her ceremony and her Dragon God is attacked by the armies of the evil Death Adder (bad guy from the original games) and the priestesses she knows as sisters are slaughtered. Tyris survives the ambush, runs into the Dwarf from the classic games (who we can't play as) and he tells her about the Golden Axe and how she must put the pieces together to defeat the evil Death Adder. So our journey begins.

As mentioned before, the game starts off very slow. I really had to force myself through the first few challenges as the pacing was just dreadful. There is a quick tutorial at the beginning of the game, but it doesn't teach you much beyond the basics and in my opinion, could have explained some of the intricacies of the combat system better. The entire game is actually one long continuous journey which is divided up into "challenges". These challenges have no clear end to them, there is no real boss or anything at the end of them, you just cross an invisible line and then a "challenge complete" screen pops up and shows you your stats. It's an awkward design decision as it intrudes on the pacing of the game. The beginning of each challenge serves as a checkpoint so when you die, it's back to the beginning of a challenge unless you have a Dragon Statue which you can use to resurrect yourself on the spot (it is best to conserve these). During the early challenges I wasted quite a few of these dragon statues since I was struggling with the combat and was still trying to figure the game out. The early level design of the game isn't all that inspired either and it all just felt like a long hard slog I had to force myself through. Some enemies would pop up, I would kill them, run for a while until some random wooden spikes popped out of the ground or another pack of enemies would come after me. These early challenges in the game are excruciatingly boring and frustrating, but sometime shortly after challenge 4 the game did start to come together for me and I started to have fun.

The fun started when I got used to the evade and parry system. Golden Axe: Beast Rider has a heavy focus on defense and if you try and play this game like your usual offensive based hack and slash, or a button masher, then you are screwed. An orange flash on the enemy's weapon means an evadable attack is coming (left bumper to evade) and a blue flash means you parry (right bumper). A green flash means the attack can be either evaded or parried. In addition to evading or parrying, you can also counter if your timing is right and you press the right button for the enemy you are facing. After parrying/evading an attack you want to press the A button (quick strike), X button (Heavy strike) or A and X simultaneously (knock back attack) to perform a counterattack (which has its own animation) which devastates a foe's health and can also damage those around you in a certain radius. Small enemies are countered with the X button, medium sized enemies with X and A at the same time while Large and undead enemies are countered with the A button. You will face bosses in this game as well and they too can be countered using one of these three inputs, you'll just have to experiment to find out which. You can also parry and evade ranged magic attacks. The only way to really get used to this system is to play the game until it clicks. Once everything starts to come together the game does get progressively more fun and I can appreciate what the developers were trying to do here. They wanted to create some real intense sword fights which relied on real strategy instead of flailing about in a flashy blaze of glory. They succeeded to a degree, many of the battles are quite intense and force you to size up the battlefield and who you have to face before you go running in. They fell short in many areas as well and though I appreciate what they were trying to do, the final execution is lacking.

The combat can just get overwhelming and counter-intuitive. I played through the game on Expert my first time through, I replayed many of the challenges since I tried to preserve Dragon Statues for boss fights and chose to restart a challenge instead of using my statue, so I felt I got pretty decent at the game. There is just a lot to keep track of. Sometimes everything works perfectly, but other times the combat system seems to fail me instead of me failing it. There is a heavy focus on defense with the evade and parry system, but you still have to unleash plenty of offense to weaken certain enemies and keep them back so they don't gang bang you. Playing Beast Rider really does feel like the original Golden Axe at times where enemies will constantly try to surround you, except in this game your camera can lose sight of them and you won't be able to see the colored flash before they attack. Yes, there are a number of times where the camera is your worst enemy, it is really frustrating. Even when the camera is working fine, you need to control the crowd with offense by using quick strike which hits multiple enemies at once to get them off your hide, or use the heavy attack to knock off the armor of armored enemies since you can't counter or kill them until that armor is off. You also have the knock back attack which is mostly used to kick enemies into nearby spikes or off ledges (or to counterattack medium sized enemies) and occasionally to knock down certain enemies to give yourself some space. The balance of offense and defense is often off in this game. I know what I have to do in my head, but the combat just isn't intuitive enough for it to become second nature. I find myself waiting for that orange or blue flash so I can play defense, while at the same time I have to control the crowd with offensive quick, heavy and knock back attacks, and pay close attention so I can time my counters correctly and wrestle with the camera. I literally found myself just freezing up at times, not sure whether to sit back and play defense or start off with the offense, and ended up getting gang banged as a result. On top of all this, you need to closely watch your enemies to try and anticipate whether they are going unleash an orange or blue attack, as there are animations they perform which can tip you off to what type of attack they are about to do while simply waiting for the flash leaves you with a much smaller window to react to. Some enemies make certain sounds or grunts as a tip off to what they are about to do, so you have to listen as well as watch, all the while worrying about crowd control, offense, defense, timing your counters and the camera all at once, and I haven't even mentioned magic yet. When it all comes together, Beast Rider is a ton of fun and shows signs of brilliance, but many times there is just too much going on and the camera issues are simply inexcusable.

I also didn't like the placement of the parry and evade button. The parry button especially caused me problems being on the right bumper as having to press the face buttons with my right thumb to keep my offense going, but then having to hit the right bumper with my right index finger when I saw a blue flash just felt awkward. I would have preferred the right trigger, which is used to mount/dismount beasts, had been the parry button and the left trigger, which is used to sprint, had been the evade button. Evade and Parry are integral to the game play and should have been mapped to the two most accessible buttons on the 360 controller. You can change the control layout to different preset profiles, and I did find one which had the evade and parry mapped to the triggers, but the beast controls were all off and the magic button was moved from the b button to the right bumper, which was no good because magic is just as essential in combat as any of the other attacks so moving it to the right bumper created a whole new problem. If I could have just switched Sprint and Beast mount/dismount with evade and parry, I would have been all set. That should have been the default setting.

Now on to magic: Knowing when to use magic is essential, it is usually best to save it for the big armored guys as they are a pain to take down without a beast, especially in a crowd. You have a direct fireball attack and an area of effect ring of fire attack; when combat gets overwhelming, as I just mentioned above, the ring of fire works wonders in getting people out of your personal space. The fireball attack works great on the large, armored and tough enemies. As you progress through the game and collect loot, your magic attacks are automatically upgraded. The fireball is upgraded from one fireball to three, and is deadly effective but at a greater mana cost. The ring of fire is intensified at its next level and the third and highest level for both types of magic attacks is a fire breathing spirit dragon which kills everything on the screen but wipes out all your mana (you need a full 6 bars of mana to use it). To put it simply, the magic is useful and is yet another tactic you need to keep track of during combat, but the effects are not very impressive. In the original Golden Axe the use of magic was a sight to behold, especially when Tyris unleashed her most powerful spell with the fire breathing dragon, but it's nothing special in Beast Rider. I found it difficult at times to aim the fireball when casting in haste, but it was less of a problem as I got used to it. You can also throw the Golden Axe as you pick up pieces of it but it is mostly used for light puzzle solving and actually interferes with combat since you can't click off of it once you select it, you have to throw it and wait until it hits the target which leaves you a sitting duck in the meantime (a gross oversight which leaves me convinced this game was rushed).

One of the best features of the original Golden Axe were the different exotic beasts you could ride that completely turned the tide in your favor when in battle. Beast Rider certainly lives up to its name in this department and there are a good number of equally exotic beasts to ride here that are quite fun to use in battle. The developers certainly tried to implement a deep combat system in this game, but if you can keep your beasts alive then you won't have to worry too much about parry, evade and counter as you are shredding Death Adder minions to pieces. Each beast has a regular attack, and two types of special attacks which drain the health of the beast, so use these attacks wisely. Doing battle with enemies on foot and with other beasts is an absolute blast when you have a beast of your own and knocking an enemy off a beast, or getting knocked off of your own, is frequent but just as fun as it was in the original game. I don't want to spoil anything by getting into too much detail about how many beasts and what types there are in this game, so I'll just say that you'll be pretty surprised at some of the creatures you can jump on here. It is definitely one of the brighter moments in the game.

The graphics in this game are decent, at times very nice, but there is plenty of room for improvement. There are invisible walls all over the place, you can't interact with the environment, there are some stiff animations which looked incomplete and there aren't any truly epic set pieces seen in other hack `n slash games such as the Titan peeking in at you in the early stages of God of War 2 or the ridiculously over the top and out of this world final encounter in Bayonetta. There are still some nice looking moments in this game though, especially as you work your way through it. In one desert stage I was in awe as a sand storm erupted while I walked under a massive rib cage of a long extinct Titan race, the shadows and lighting were quite impressive and the game looked quite beautiful. There are impressive moments to be seen as you advance further in the game, but it's the art style which truly redeems the visuals. Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo, and other Fantasy greats whose work used to grace the cover of Fantasy novels, comics and even heavy metal albums, are the clear inspiration here. No spiky haired lady boys, no candyland color scheme and absolutely no super large swords and shoulder pads will be seen in this game. Golden Axe: Beast Rider is dark, savage and sexy all in one and even the game loading screen which depicts Tyris on top of a mountain of enemies with her sword raised high is a direct nod to the iconic works of the late, great, Frank Frazetta. They could have done more, for sure, but it's nice to see a game steer away from the more modern Fantasy art styles which seem to have a heavy eastern influence. If Sega decides to continue with Golden Axe, be it a full retail release or a XBLA title, I hope to God they stick with this classic art style. The blood and gore in this game is definitely over the top, but I have to admit that hacking off limbs, heads and cleaving torsos in half never got old. Watching my beast tear apart or devour another was also a sight to behold.

The music in Beast rider is ok, but nothing as epic and catchy as we heard in the original. The title screen has a tribal sounding beat with ghostly whispers in the background while the in game music is fits the tone of the game, but doesn't really stand out. The sound effects are ok, the clanging sound you hear after a successful parry is definitely music to the ears but nothing truly stands out until you get on a beast and hear them come to life. The beasts sound great here, certainly better than the lame voice acting.

I expected Golden Axe: Beast Rider to be a terrible game. I was ready to give this game one star before I even played it and thought for sure it would get no more than two stars, but what can I say, I have played plenty of bad games in my time and I just don't see Beast Rider as a bad game. It's dated in its design, you have to play portions of it over and over in order to get any good and it focuses on this old school formula of re-playability over the more popular cinematic adventures we see today. The game looks and feels like it was under budgeted or rushed, perhaps both. The combat isn't fully realized, a couple of the bosses repeat themselves and there are invisible walls and incomplete animations throughout the game, it would have been nice to have seen more variety in the counter animations and combos instead of seeing the same ones over and over but I had fun in the end which is what counts, the beasts and art style are a huge plus, and the final boss is actually a lot of fun to do battle with. The game also avoids QTEs, which is great! They had some good ideas but faltered in the execution, overall I feel this was an unfairly underrated game. I give the game 3 stars, it's OK but full of unrealized potential. On a


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Community review by Daemonocracy (May 21, 2016)

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