What with the current trend in retro remakes actually being pretty good, we had high hopes for SEGA's Xbox 360 and PS3 Golden Axe: Beast Riders. All we really wanted was a good two-player hack 'n' slash that had lots of brutal combat, great graphics and some beasts to ride. We got one of the three, and sadly the beasts aren't even that much fun to ride. If you've got fond memories of the classic arcade and Mega Drive game and thought this would spark a franchise revival, we've got bad news. It won't.
THQ's Conan proved that a game needn't be God of War quality to be good fun, but Level 7's Golden Axe falls some way short of even that. You play as Tyris, the last surviving member of the Axirian Sisterhood. It's quite tricky to follow exactly what's going on at the start of the game as the focus is clearly on teaching you the controls, but it seems there's been a massacre of sorts, a special dragon has been enslaved and you're given the powerful Golden Axe to help you gain revenge.
Initially there's hope that the combat system is going to be good enough to deliver an entertaining experience, but that hope soon dissipates. You have a strong and quick attack, as well as an attack that pushes enemies back (performed by pressing both attack buttons together). You can get surprisingly far by simply hammering these buttons and slicing up enemies, but we hoped the use of block and evade buttons would take the combat to another level. Sadly they don't.
Attacks in the game are colour coded, with orange indicating that the strike can be dodged, and blue meaning it can be parried. Early on you can parry or dodge, and follow up with a strike with relative ease, but soon enemies will swarm you in large numbers, making any fluidity almost impossible. In these cases it's almost always easier to revert to mashing attack buttons as timing parries and dodges is practically impossible with so many attackers in close proximity.
Other attacking options come from magic and the Golden Axe itself. Magic is fairly useful, although it's hard to target enemies with it, and the axe is powerful when flung at enemies, but it's often easier to ignore both methods of attack unless you need it to activate a switch that has to be flicked to progress. You can also deflect or dodge magic attacks, which again works reasonably well until numerous enemies all start spamming you with attacks at the same time.
The beast riding mentioned in the game's title should have been good fun, but it too is seriously flawed. The main problem is that the beasts are too easy to kill, despite their size and ferocious appearance. While you can take a fair beating as a barely clothed (certainly not well dressed for battle), slender woman, this beast will hit the dirt after only a few blows, and it'll lose health if you use its most powerful attack. Strangely, enemies seem to be able to get more health out of them than you can, which is both bizarre and incredibly annoying.
Given that Beast Rider was developed for only Xbox 360 and PS3 we expected strong production values, at least on par with Conan, if not Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden II. This sadly isn't the case, with incredibly linear, dull looking levels, ugly character models and blurry textures. Somehow it still doesn't look that bad (although we imagine anyone playing on an standard definition TV will think otherwise), but the overall quality simply isn't high enough. Voice work is acceptable, and the computer generated cut scenes are well made, but we expected much better.
SEGA has some of the best gaming properties around, but it just doesn't seem to be able to give them modern updates that do them justice (see Altered Beast and After Burner: Black Falcon). Golden Axe is the latest classic franchise to disappoint on new hardware, and we can't help but think it's a huge wasted opportunity. Beast Rider even fails to include multiplayer support, something that was core to the original game, confirming its fate as a sub-par hack 'n' slash.