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The popularity and demand for retro inspired games is still as strong as ever. Both Cyber Shadow, and more recently, Narita Boy, were a massive success upon launch earlier this year, delivering highly on all aspects of a gaming era that still maintains a heavy following to this day. Battle Axe, the most recent project from developers Bitmap Bureau and publishers Numskull Games, follows suit. attempting to capture that ”old school” experience. Being a retro gamer at heart, the game really caught my attention when first hearing of it just a few weeks ago. What I didn’t anticipate, was to be thrown into an all-around near perfect, and genuine arcade-era fantasy adventure.
For ages, the land of Mercia has unwillingly bowed a knee to an evil sorceress by the name of Etheldred. Every seven years, her armies descend from the frozen wastelands of the north, capturing individuals from villages who will then live out their remaining days in torment and slavery. A peculiar trio of fighters have decided to take a stand, defending their homeland from the forthcoming onslaught with hopes of bringing Etheldreds tyrannical reign to an end once and for all.
The moment the title screen loaded, I was immediately struck with a sense of nostalgia that very few other arcade inspired titles have been successful in delivering. The artistic talents of Henk Nieborg once again excel in crafting a colorful and very lively pixelated world, throwing players back to an era when the likes of Golden Axe and Gauntlet were in their prime. This top down view has an impressive amount of finer details painted throughout as well. From the ruffling of tree leaves, to the exaggerated pools of blood flooding the screen during larger combat engagements, each environment was quite active visually. Whether I was venturing across mountain tops connected by rope-tied bridges, or claustrophobic and poorly lit caverns, each area boasted its own personality, regardless if the general stage layouts were more or less the same.
Battle Axe’s overall gameplay is a well executed mimic of numerous other games residing within its genre, focusing primarily on combat and a few other back-burner mechanics. Upon beginning, players are greeted with a hero selection screen which introduces the heroes willing to task themselves with the dangerous and challenging quest that awaits. The Marauder is more or less the tank of the group, heavily built and effortlessly hauling a small cannon around on his shoulder. The Druid presents himself as the common wizard, relying on a magic staff and trusty beard (yes, the beard is his choice of melee) to clear out enemies. The Dark Elf, which I used for my successful playthroughs, is an agile, dual wielding cloaked individual, playing much like a rogue class familiarized in other adventure games. Each hero is equipped with a melee, ranged, and a special ability for their attacks.
A basic HUD is present, consisting of the players health, lives, item bars and an addictive high score tracker. Players then embark through various stages, smashing their way through hordes of monsters and other minions blocking the heroes path, while racking up points in the process. The reflex-testing combat encounters are managed by fluid, and extremely responsive controls which even when you fail, result in enjoyable, yet gruesome death animations. In typical arcade fashion, a moderate challenge was present throughout, but I never felt a disadvantage either. Be warned though, game overs are almost a guarantee and will prompt players right back to the very start of the adventure, losing all progress. Surely it’s a mechanic that will be frustrating to some, but in all honesty, this sticks to the inspired roots of most arcade games, where save points were pretty much non-existent aside racing to sink another coin into the slot.
If successful in clearing a stage, players are given the option to purchase a variety of items that aid them during their journey, from magic spells to extra health bars. Unfortunately, the majority of these items were of little use to me, other than the health boosts. The bombs for example, just didn’t really seem to flow well with the already frantic bursts of combat. To buy these items you’ll gather coins which are the in-game currency earned from defeating enemies or found within scattered treasure chests. Colored gems and distressed villagers can be found throughout as well, adding to the players high score.
Another welcoming feature that I’m always pleased to see, was co-op for 2 players. Having kids of my own who share a passion for gaming like myself, I’m always on board with couch coop titles, and feel there should be more on the market. A catchy, upbeat soundtrack assists in delivering to the overall retro atmosphere as well.
Each stage is populated with an array of distinct enemies, traps, and a larger scaled boss battle at the end. Ranging from hideous purple orcs, to armed and aggressive skeletons, the overabundance of relentless foes constantly flood each frame, leaving little time to slow down. Fortunately, the rhythmic approach to the fast paced combat has a way of challenging players to see how high of a combo they can land with kills. The boss encounters each differed from one another, and required a little more finesse than than other enemies. It took me a good few attempts to down each of them, having to learn patterns that would eventually work to my advantage.
Had Battle Axe initially released as a playable arcade cabinet title during my younger years, it’s a safe assumption that I would’ve blown through my allowance like there was no tomorrow. The team behind this project excelled with creating and delivering a familiar, yet fresh experience that both new and seasoned gamers alike will applaud. My only real gripe was the short duration of the story itself, finding that I could conclude a successful playthrough around the hour mark which left me wanting more. I still found myself competing with a previous high score, and kept returning for multiple runs for a good 10+ hours. The Infinite Mode as well as New Game+ do add to the replayability, but a few extra stages would’ve substantially added longevity to it.
Regardless, this charming experience shouldn’t be avoided, especially for arcade game lovers. Not once did I experience a single performance issue either, even as congested as my screen would be during larger battles. Battle Axe is a polished and perfected nostalgic experience that retro fans will fall in love with immediately. It’s currently available across all major gaming platforms.