Golden Axe was never a very good game series. In the hack n’ slash and beat ‘em up world, the first three Golden Axe games on the Genesis lacked the variety of Battletoads and The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, the sense of adventure in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, the charm of River City Ransom, and the polished fighting system of Streets of Rage II. Still, it was a blast to beat up gnomes for power ups, obliterate enemies with screen-filling magic, and, of course, ride dinosaur-like beasts.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider emphasized the latter pleasure and brought the series into 3-D on the 360 and PS3. But the game was poorly received, achieving a 45 out of 100 rating on Metacritic. Dave Halverson, founder of game publications like GameFan and Play, stated that the overwhelming negative reception of Beast Rider was a disgrace to video game journalism. Now that Beast Rider is cheap, we have the perfect opportunity to see who, if anyone, was full of shit about the game’s quality.
Video game journalists usually go ga-ga over nice polygons, so it’s a bit surprising Beast Rider has impressive visuals given its reputation. OK, I’ll admit the environments are not bursting with creativity, and the color palette is rather limited. But the game’s heroine, Tyris, boasts some of the most interesting character design for any modern female video game character. Although she shows skin, Tyris comes across as a barbarian instead of a sexual object. On the other hand, her female friends are always naked or dead (usually both). The enemies are visually the proper sort for the hack n’ slash genre. The sight of some enemies is a pleasure because you know you can kill them easily, while the appearance of others might enrage or annoy you because of their cheap and unrelenting tactics. Overall, the game’s graphical strength is focused on the beasts that you ride. Some of these creatures recall the design of past Golden Axe beasts, and they’ve never looked better. The larger beasts are particularly well done. They don’t have the grandeur of the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus but rather an effective simplicity that doesn’t leave much room for criticism. Topping this off is the blood and body parts flying everywhere. Now, I’m not living in the 1990s when the fatalities in Mortal Kombat made everyone masturbate, but the graphic violence is another reason Beast Rider is more eye-catching than its 2-D predecessors. Even the loading screen bleeds.
Although fans will recognize a remix of the track from the classic gnome-bashing bonus stages, the music in Beast Rider is not as memorable as that of the older games. Having said that, it’s strangely compelling to hear booming drums and that typical whiny and dramatic female vocal as I run around searching for bad guys to slaughter. The sound effects are good, but Beast Rider shines with the voice acting, and I’m not even talking about what you hear during cinemas. I remember being taken aback when I was first called a bitch by a large, armored douchebag. This dude actually sounds like he hates women, and I hated him for that. Another douchebag simply yells, “You’ll die! You’ll diiiiiiieeee!” I hate that fucker, too. Beast Rider is the only game that has provoked a genuine feminist reaction from me.
So you have weak but quick attacks, slow but strong attacks, and knockback attacks, and you can perform different combos with these attacks. That part is familiar. The part that isn’t familiar is the attention to defense. There’s nothing inherently original about evading or blocking an attack, but in this game you have to recognize when a dodge or block is the correct thing to do, and you have to do so in the middle of combinations to be truly effective. You’ll notice enemy attacks are accompanied by colors: green means you can evade or block, orange means you have to evade, and blue means you have to block. This system might sound easy, but it’s not. The enemies alternate these colors enough to drive you insane, and once you get out of a rhythm, it’s difficult not to get chopped like onions, especially when the camera is out of position. The flip side is that your sense of accomplishment is great when you react the way you’re supposed to and deliver fatal counters. Thankfully, you also have magic, but you have to use the d-pad to select magic in real time, which is annoying compared to, say, The Witcher 2’s slowdown selection system.
Of course, you can ride beasts and make your life easier, provided that you get the hang of controlling the wild bastards. Riding isn’t as simple as it was in the older games, but it’s far more rewarding once you get the feel of each beast. Annoyingly, however, the beasts take damage if you perform certain attacks with them. (What the hell? Does a tiger start dying when it uses its powerful jaws to rip out the throat of a deer? Or does it start dying when it uses its claws?) I guess the developers didn’t want anyone to spam their way to victory, but the game is called Beast Rider, not Beast Caretaker.
Then there are the environmental hazards and puzzles. The hazards can be pretty cheap. For example: spiky posts that pop out of the ground unexpectedly and kill your beast before you’ve even ridden the damn thing for that long. The puzzles are super easy, but they conflict with the flow of the game, as well as the purpose: killing dudes who call you bitch. You don’t want to waste time doing brainless puzzles.
It takes patience to get deeper into this game. The challenge of the game is a double-edged sword in terms of replayability. It either turns you off or keeps you going. Many critics have lamented the lack of multiplayer, but this criticism is rooted in nostalgia for the old Golden Axe games if anything. Most hack n’ slash standouts of the last 15 years (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, etc.) have been about a single-player experience.
The reason this game got low reviews is that it folded many gamers like tables with the difficulty. By and large, hack n’ slash games are about offense. Beast Rider bucked this trend and paid a price: bad press. The learning curve certainly lowers the game’s potential replayability, as does annoyances such as the camera and environmental hazards. Dave Halverson claimed it was irresponsible for anyone to give this game lower than a 7, but this statement illustrated the sad state of video game journalism as much as any negative review of this game. Since when should the numerical rating we give a game mean more than what we actually say about it? Mainstream reviewers and Halverson were both wrong. Beast Rider is simply a decent hack n’ slash game that offers a different experience than Devil May Cry or God of War. Nothing more or less.