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Golden Axe: Beast Rider (Xbox 360) artwork

Golden Axe: Beast Rider (Xbox 360) review

"Even though Golden Axe doesn't reign supreme over its action-adventure brethren, and even though the scenery can be a bit creepy, it's obvious that the designers truly respect the Golden Axe name. It's all too common these days for developers to design their own world and just slap a familiar name on it, but that's not what happened here."

Breaking news: Golden Axe: Beast Rider doesn't have the cocky stylishness of Devil May Cry, the deep combat system of Ninja Gaiden, or the outlandishly epic trappings of God of War.

I doubt anyone is surprised; despite the developers' declarations of love for the original series, many gamers had Beast Rider pegged as "crap" before it even hit storeshelves, and the generic cover art didn't help. To Sega's credit, it's actually a competent and enjoyable adventure. Key word: adventure. This isn't a 3D Golden Axe. This is an adventure set in the Golden Axe world, similar in spirit to the Game Gear's Ax Battler, but this time, the star is Tyris Flare. I could slam this game for not being a brawler. I could slam it for not being two-player simultaneous, and I could slam it for not including a slew of selectable characters.

I could also slam Panzer Dragoon Saga for not being a shooter.

Empowered by legions of grubbers, skeletons, and dark knights, the iron-fisted Death=Adder has squeezed all hope from the land of Yuria. Only one group opposes him, but that won't last for long -- the very first chapter depicts the destruction of Tyris Flare's amazonian tribe and the abduction of their guardian deity. Tyris is the last survivor of her clan, and she vows to rescue the sacred dragon, last survivor of the legendary Titans.

It's a pretty flashy opening, but flashy openings have become a dime a dozen. To be honest, I was a bit frightened by the game's first few minutes. According to the instruction manual, I had to actually earn my magical abilities. Tyris had doffed her skimpy outfit and chopped her long hair in favor of becoming the "tough warrior chick who's too cool to act sexy". There was an in-game tutorial. I feared that Beast Rider was going to be a generic fantasy adventure feeding on fond Golden Axe memories.

Then the gnomes showed up.

I've never been so happy to see those damned little buggers. The familiar music, the familiar squeals, the familiar feeling of beating their indestructible behinds -- that's when I knew this really was Golden Axe. Gnomes pop up throughout the adventure, just like they did in the original game, delivering health and magical restoration potions after difficult encounters. As a cool and politically incorrect twist, Death=Adder eventually employs suicide bomber gnomes. They deliver death.


Only the ultra-masculine dwarven warrior Gilius Thunderhead, with his true viking spirit (and super long beard), could deliver a line like that and not sound stupid. When I heard those ridiculous words, I tried to laugh, but he seriously sounded... cool.

That's one of the nice things about this game. Long-time fans of the franchise will notice that Golden Axe: Beast Rider incorporates a LOT of characters and backdrops from the original game, and none from any of the sequels or other incarnations. That's fine with me: Death=Adder always was a cooler villain than Dark Guld, and the final battle was well worth the time spent traveling through ugly landscapes. This is not the technical ugliness of "bland graphics" or "poor clipping", but the atmospheric ugliness that accompanies a diabolical despot's total conquest. Villages have been ransacked and ravaged; decomposing bodies lie strewn about the desert wastes; bitter knights prowl empty castle courtyards amidst the pouring rain. They've no one left to fight. No one but you.

The dismal atmosphere separates Golden Axe from other fantasy games like Conan. Even though they're both fantasy adventures, Conan enjoyed the thrill of adventure and sought pleasure in a world full of life. Tyris is fighting to survive in a world on the brink of destruction. This is obvious just by looking at the naked women. In Conan, you rescue naked women from certain death. In Golden Axe, the naked women are already dead. They're not just dead -- they're lying in pools of blood, they're decapitated and dismembered, they're speared through their nether regions and hoisted up to rot in the baking sun.

That's one of the creepy things about this game. Dead female bodies keep popping up everywhere. Not male bodies. Yes, you chop your male enemies to pieces, but you don't find naked men lying dead on the ground. Just women. Lots of dead, topless women. And unlike other female gaming protagonists, Tyris doesn't die with dignity -- lose all your health and you'll see Tyris get decapitated, cleaved in twain, or ground into a bloody pile of flesh.

The game even goes so far as to hint that it will take a man to truly set things right in this world. I don't know if Sega is thumbing their nose at "hot female heroine" games like Heavenly Sword, or if Sega really just hates women.

Either way, Tyris is the only person seriously trying to stop Death=Adder. To this end, she uses her blade, her magic, and the world's many beasts. Melee combat is limited, but it's not shallow. Tyris doesn't learn new attacks, and she doesn't find new weapons. Hell, Tyris doesn't "level up" in any way whatsoever (aside from finding her magic spells, which actually happens very early in the adventure). This game goes back to the old school style: to become stronger, you have to get better. You have to practice and perfect your parries, counterstrikes, and positioning. It may sound simple, but beating the game -- knowing that Tyris was no stronger at the end than she was at the beginning, knowing that my success was all because of ME -- was a tremendously satisfying feeling. I'm not suggesting that every game should abandon character growth, but it was handled well here.

Although the melee combat flows smoothly, the beast combat is a bit clunkier. That's pretty easy to forgive, for a couple reasons: first, beast riding has always been tricky. Second, the beasts are pretty damned powerful, capable of mauling hellhounds in two blows instead of twenty. Whether spewing fire, rending foes with spiky claws, or spearing hapless opponents with a spiked tail (then pressing a different button to eat them like a shish-ka-bob), these creatures rip through enemies with frightening speed. As a nice little perk, players who take the time to master each beast and consecutively kill a bunch of Death=Adder's minions will earn additional achievement points as well as additional "tribute". That's right -- slaughter all who oppose you and the gods pay tribute to your exalted gaming talent.

Even though Golden Axe doesn't reign supreme over its action-adventure brethren, and even though the scenery can be a bit creepy, it's obvious that the designers truly respect the Golden Axe name. It's all too common these days for developers to design their own world and just slap a familiar name on it, but that's not what happened here. It's especially nice to see the developers incorporate things that we all wanted to see in the original 16-bit adventures. When Tyris actually manages to assemble the Golden Axe, Sega does something very exciting that truly makes the legendary axe feel like the most powerful weapon in the world. Despite starting with the linear levels you'd expect from a generic third-person adventure, Golden Axe: Beast Rider eventually becomes a strong sword-and-sorcery tale.

...even if the abrupt ending is just an excuse for Gilius to say "BLOOD AND SHIT".


zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (October 29, 2008)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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Felix_Arabia posted October 29, 2008:

Nice review, Zig.
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bloomer posted October 30, 2008:

If my moratorium on Xboxes ever ends, and with Golden Axe being my favourite coin op, I would make a beeline for this.
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overdrive posted October 30, 2008:

Seems to be a pretty cool throwback to the old-school sort of game. Not constantly powering up your character, but having to master how to control it to get past tougher and tougher challenges. Seems intriguing.
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BladedEarth posted April 05, 2009:

When I rented this, I never suspected what could happen to the enemies could happen to Tyris (just due to many previous games where even a gargantuan spinning blade wouldn't rip your character in half).

This one line : "Tyris doesn't die with dignity — lose all your health and you'll see Tyris get decapitated, cleaved in twain, or ground into a bloody pile of flesh.", I wish I had found it before I played the game. Seeing what happened to Tyris leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth.

I was disgusted by Tyris's mutilation so badly that now I pose a question on any game I'm about to buy, "Can your character get decapitated/split in half/turned into a bloody mess of guts, boobs, and butts?

I liked the game okay before then though.
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honestgamer posted April 05, 2009:

That's an interesting comment! I never really thought about something like that with games, just movies. I remember seeing "Event Horizon" and I was pretty turned off by the excessive gore (rooms full of blood, just because?), even though it fit what the movie was trying to accomplish. Yet with games, I played something like the Super Nintendo port of Prince of Persia and it had the character sliced in half by guillotines or skewered by spikes and it was just kind of cool, even though it was pretty grisly. I wonder how many gamers actually look at something like what happens in Golden Axe: Beast Rider as a turn-off. Certainly, the games industry is quite happy to include excessive violence, but that doesn't mean every gamer loves it or even plays violent games for that aspect.
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zigfried posted April 05, 2009:

That kind of violence against women has been pretty rare in games -- aside from perhaps a Mortal Kombat character or two, it's usually the men who get sliced to bits (and gory male death has typically been considered a good thing by the gaming public). Golden Axe is notable for also having dismembered, nude female bodies. It's pretty grisly.

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bloomer posted April 05, 2009:

In terms of 'will this turn people off', the gaming world is still pretty skewed to people who play a lot of games and see a lot of this kind of thing. So at this point in time, I don't think it's going to hurt a game like this version of Golden Axe.

I watch lots of horror and so in a sense like gore, but obviously that doesn't mean I want it everywhere. I find its inclusion in a lot of non-horror games is still kind of dumb or gratuitous. In Golden Axe, well, if Tyris Flare chops down 100s of bad guys with her sword in a world of medieval violence, this to me sounds like a context that would suit me, if she is paid in kind. Of course it will have an effect, as Zigfried said we simply aren't as used to seeing this on women in games as we are on men.
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randxian posted April 06, 2009:

The game even goes so far as to hint that it will take a man to truly set things right in this world. I don't know if Sega is thumbing their nose at "hot female heroine" games like Heavenly Sword, or if Sega really just hates women.

Or maybe it's to give you, the player, an opportunity to prove these naysayers wrong? I haven't actually played a single Golden Axe game, including this one, so I could be off there.

Anyway, my favorite thing about this review is how you explain why it works as a straight up adventure game and why the RPG elements aren't really necessary. I think too many gamers get too fixated on genres instead of how good the game actually is.

Good job. Really like the angle you take here.
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zigfried posted April 06, 2009:

Thanks for the compliment.

I'll try not to spoil things too much, but the final message of the game is that Tyris totally bungled things and the male -- that would be Ax=Battler -- is the one who's going to fix everything (presumably in the sequel).

Even though that's still a vague statement, I didn't want to even get that explicit in the review for spoiler reasons, but since we're in a thread, that's a different story.

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randxian posted April 06, 2009:

So basically you go through what sounds like a difficult and grueling game only to find out it was all for nothing?

I really hate when games do that.

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