Some two years ago Sega announced that it had acquired San Francisco based developer, Secret Level, for some $15 million. Many industry insiders suggested that this was a further sign that the Japanese giant had committed itself to westernising its development strategy as a way of conquering both the European and the North American territories. For the small development team, whose biggest success to that point had been the decidedly mediocre America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier, the acquisition represented a golden opportunity: not only would they benefit from a large cash investment which would finance bigger, more ambitious projects, but they would also have access to Sega’s considerable back catalogue.The first fruit of their labours in this direction is Golden Axe: Beast Rider, a reworking of Sega’s 1989 16-bit side scrolling arcade hit. Golden Axe: Beast Rider follows hard on the heels of successful resurrections of golden oldies such as Pac Man, Megaman and Bionic Commando.This reincarnation, however, does introduce some immediately noticeable changes. In earlier versions of the game, players were able to choose from three champions: a battle axe-wielding dwarf called Gilius Thunderhead, the more familiar male barbarian, Ax Battler, and of course the long-sword wielding Tyris Flare, an amazon, whose parents were killed by the game’s villain, Death Adder.Presumably after noting the success of Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword, Secret Level have opted to give gamers just Tyris Flare to control as you battle against the minions of Death Adder and attempt to free the world from evil. It’s an odd compromise but, unfortunately, one of many that you are faced with if you’re to persevere with this remake. Tyris’ noble quest is one that we’re all familiar with: vanquish the forces of evil, free the world, dance a jig to celebrate. However, Beast Rider’s execution leaves a great deal to be desired.The game borrows heavily from a number of other (and superior) titles and yet seems to fall short of all its aspirations. Minus the flowing red locks, Tyris bears a passing resemblance to Nariko, the already mentioned heroine of Heavenly Sword, while the beast she rides is a passing nod to Lair. Unlike Lair, however, riding the beast and using it in battle is a wholly unsatisfying experience. The mythical creatures are inexplicably slow and ponderous and using their special powers, such as fire breath to roast enemies, reduces their health gauge. This would be acceptable if there was some way of recharging the animals – like you would an electric car. But Secret Level eschewed this, perhaps too sensible an option. This, in effect, means that after a few minutes the dragons die from their own exertions and you are left to battle the countless hordes on foot. Worst still, a well placed blow from a minion can quickly unseat you from your ride. The beast is then captured by an enemy and subsequently becomes remarkably resilient to your attacks.As this is a remake of a hack and slash title, you would have expected some special attention to have been lavished on the combat system. Like us, you would be wrong. Combat here has been watered down to a point where you imagine the game has been developed for the toddlers market. You are equipped with a sword that can cleave an enemy in two as though they were made of Teflon and, later on, you are presented with a (rather small) golden axe that you throw at enemies and special hot spots to activate doors. When attacked, oncoming blows are conveniently colour coordinated as visual indicators of what action you should take: You hit the left bumper (or L1) to evade orange attacks, and hit the right bumper (or R1) to parry an incoming attack. Again, why you can only avoid some blows while parrying others is never quite explained.Further complications arise when you’re being swamped by the minions of Death Adder. While attempting to avoid one attack, you will invariably leave yourself wide open to an assault from one or more demons. The combat system of deflect and avoid is hit and miss to say the least and will quickly frustrate gamers weaned on the likes of Soul Caliber. A point worth mentioning is that, although the battle system seems to be aimed at the younger end of the market (did we mention, the bad guys are called ‘bogeymen’?) , the developers have curiously added a copious amount of blood to the proceedings. How much blood? Bucket loads. Tyris quite merrily cleaves her foes in two and is rewarded by a geyser of blood reminiscent of the old Mortal Kombat days. For their efforts Secret Level have earnt the game an M rating which will dent its commercial viability by cutting off a huge chunk of the game-buying public.The levels of Golden Axe are also a decidedly mediocre affair filled with uninspiring challenges and puzzles that are about as interesting as watching old people eat. Open the gate by lighting the torch placed on the wall. Oh, I’ve got a fire spell. I know what to do…You get the picture. Once through the gate you’ll find yourself fighting hordes of the same creatures time and time again. Think Ground hog Day with a sword and riding a dragon. In later levels the number of enemies thrown at you reaches a point where you will begin to wonder whether you’re actually supposed to throw your axe at the bad guys or hurl your controller at the screen.As a quick stress reliever, Golden Axe: Beast Rider is probably more fun than chewing your nails but anyone looking for long term satisfaction may be better off searching elsewhere. In Golden Axe’s defence, the game does boast some of the best art work that we’ve seen in a long time. Tyris is exquisitely drawn and is easily one of the most attractive lead characters in a game that we’ve ever seen. She’s full bosomed, tall and stately with the face of an empress. No wonder then that Girls of Gaming magazine recently featured her as their cover girl. We were also taken by the phenomenal art work used in between the loading sequences. Underlining the Golden Axe homage to Robert E. Howard’s Conan legacy, Secret Level have produced images that would have the great Frank Frazetta himself smiling in appreciation. In other areas, however, this title is a run of the mill re-hash that does nothing to innovate and little to inspire.
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