Over the last year or so, it seems as if many publishers have finally got a handle on the retro revival. Namco gave us Pac-Man Championship Edition and Galaga Legions, both classic in style yet undeniably modern in construction. Capcom brought back a slew of their 1980s classics, with Commando, 1942, Bionic Commando and Mega Man all receiving good to great retro-styled modern sequels. And here comes SEGA - having got it so right with After Burner on the PSP - once again flailing around and looking hopelessly out of touch.
Golden Axe: Beast Rider is the sort of lazy, depressing remake that used to be the norm. It takes its name from a classic arcade game but everything else is generic and bland, a bargain basement facsimile of, for some reason, Heavenly Sword.
As in Sony's decent but forgettable romp, our heroine is a buxom flame-haired warrior, set loose in a button-mashing hackandslash environment to carve her way through hordes of enemies with a fabled magical weapon. You can summon up magical attacks, which are a pain to aim. You can throw the Golden Axe to hit switches and other items, but it's slow to aim. You can ride on a variety of beasts, but they're sluggish to control. In fact, it's hard to find a single aspect of the gameplay that hasn't been grossly mishandled in some vital way. Nothing here feels intuitive, inviting or even fun.
The beasts, for example, are not only a nightmare to control but they're apparently made from tissue paper and plasticine. Their health is pathetically low, and they're even more vulnerable to damage than the lithe and nearly naked young woman riding on their backs. They also have special attacks that reduce their health whenever you use them. Ride them into battle and you'll likely be knocked off instantly, only for an enemy to jump on board, when suddenly the beast becomes almost impervious to injury. Rather than being majestic mounts that allow you to crush everything in your path, these poor dumb animals prove to be a hindrance to progress whenever you're required to use them. It's actually best to jump on, use them to smash whatever predictable barrier has appeared in your way, and then jump off again.
The core combat isn't much better. As well as the expected fast/strong attack choices, you also have a horribly compromised combo and defence system with which to contend. Different enemy attacks require different responses - parry or evade - and you have to press the correct shoulder button when the attack starts, helpfully flashing either blue or orange as it begins. Trouble is, the button response is fussy and it's entirely possible to be blocking one attack and have no chance to respond to another coming from a different direction. It doesn't even make sense - why would you be unable to evade only one kind of attack, or block another?
The game claims to have a fluid combo system, so that attack patterns can be broken at any time and chained into something else should the situation demand it, but it never really works that way. More often than not you're simply pummelled from all sides and resort to button-mashing to clear your way out. There's absolutely no style, grace or depth to the fighting - just a bunch of concepts half-borrowed from far better games. Judged purely as a melee fighter, this new Golden Axe is demonstrably worse than pretty much all its rivals.
Enemies are dim-witted, and inhabit some of the most drearily designed levels it's been my misfortune to explore. They're linear to a fault, and so repetitive that it's easy to get turned around in combat and find yourself backtracking to the start while thinking you're pressing ahead. The animation on Tyris is hilariously bad, her movements stiff and laughably doll-like as she stumbles around. Remember in The Muppet Movie, when they'd cut away to Kermit's legs being moved around on sticks to show him moving? That's how Tyris runs.
For these reasons alone, Beast Rider is an execrable experience, and without the title to tip you off you wouldn't even identify Beast Rider as part of the Golden Axe lineage. It's single-player only, with no online or offline co-op, which flies in the face of what Golden Axe was all about. You also have no choice of character. The big-boobed warrior chick looks best on the box, so she's the star of the show.
It would have been far better to follow Namco and Capcom and resurrect the series as a modernised sequel in a downloadable retro style. Castle Crashers has already shown that there's a market for well-produced 2D hackandslash, but instead we get this utterly charmless and shamelessly derivative 3D shrug of a game. SEGA might as well have released this as The Adventures of Fiery Boob Lady, and left their mothballed franchise with at least modicum of dignity.