"At the best of times, Axe II's atmosphere is a hypnotic, quiet storm, like a side-scrolling, medieval Silent Hill; but at the worst of times it is just a morose mission of tedium."
Legendary Axe II is a thoroughly horrible sequel. It's a good game - not great - but if a sequel's aim is to follow up its predecessor by continuing to develop its characters and/or themes, and more intangibly, its feel, then Axe II fails in all respects.
A message for those who were touched by the magic of Victor Musical Industries' side-scrolling, hack-and-slash perfection, The Legendary Axe: if you sought out this game for more of the same, please play Axe II with the understanding that it is a totally different animal. Where Axe was bright and beautiful, Axe II is somber and oppressively dark. Where Axe featured a brave, red-headed barbarian on a noble mission to rescue his girlfriend Flare, Axe II features a dark-haired former prince, out to assassinate his evil, scheming, usurping brother. But most importantly perhaps, where Axe introduced to us the all-powerful namesake of the game itself, Axe II relegates the axe weapon to a mere option among three, and it's not even the best weapon choice in most situations.
This game might well have been dubbed, 'The Prince and the Darkness', or something along those lines for its North American showing (it wasn't intended to be the sequel to Axe for its Japanese release). However, NEC or VMI decided to try to milk the success of their bonafide classic. Instead, they only managed to disgust many faithful players by failing to show the proper respect for what might have been a relevant, lasting franchise. To be blunt: what could have been a classic series ended up being one classic game and an intractable, bastard child.
But can Axe II stand on its own? Yes. This cannot be denied. The game manages to weave its own dark tapestry, where back flipping, clawed savages; self-destructing robots; and winged fairies with control of localized rain and wind - all hang on its sentient black threads. Immense, fully animated bosses greet you at the end of every level, and the boss tune is as fearful and aggressive as I've heard in any game.
The first level guardian bears more than a passing resemblance to Jagu, the last boss of the first game. Naturally he is much more sinister here, and surprisingly quick for such a large sprite. The screen flashes with self-importance when he or any other guardian arrives on the scene (the blood red serpent is particularly menacing). Truly these encounters are one of Axe II's strong points.
Unfortunately, if you've got a powered up axe (it's the ideal boss killer, if nothing more), you will make short work of any of them without much effort put into dodging or pattern work on your behalf. This kamikaze approach will serve you in good stead, with the very notable exception of the incredibly difficult last boss. It fills the screen and looks like the visual realization of something out of an H.P. Lovecraft novel. It is truly an amalgamation of science fiction and horror. The problem here is that it is far too troublesome to defeat, especially in the context of the other bosses in the game.
And while the graphics and sound are impressively crisp and clean, they are so dark and foreboding that the game is sometimes a real strain to play. Running into the overpowering final boss just turns the depressing into despair.
Even without comparing this game to its far superior older brother, it is not the game I had hoped it would be. The seven black, thick backdrops, and often plodding, melancholy music, lull you into a state of sadness and boredom broken only by the excellence of the enemy design. At the best of times, Axe II's atmosphere is a hypnotic, quiet storm, like a side-scrolling, medieval Silent Hill; but at the worst of times it is just a morose mission of tedium.
I enjoyed the precise jumping, wicked foes, and challenging gameplay enough to consider giving the game a higher score, but the general lack of intensity quickly negated that possibility - it's simply too hard to build intensity when kamikaze techniques work so well, and when the mood is so static. If you found The Legendary Axe to be a slow build, you might find Legendary Axe II to be just... slow.
Staff review by Marc Golding (December 06, 2003)
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