Golden Axe: Beast Rider Preview

In my younger years, I had a thing against gnomes, and I blame it on Sega's arcade classic Golden Axe. After wasting a fair portion of my youth on the title, I realized that the very sight of gnomes in any game made me want to kick the little bastards repeatedly, in the hope that I would be rewarded with restorative medicines and magic urns.

That being said, I'm pleased to report that the loot-lugging munchkins have returned in Secret Level's overhaul of the classic arcade fighter Golden Axe: Beast Rider, inspiring the same violent urges I had felt so many years ago. But as we saw in publisher Sega's demonstration of an in-progress build of the game earlier this week, the new Golden Axe isn't just about wanton acts of aggression—well, not just against gnomes, at least.

Those familiar with the classic brawler might remember Golden Axe's beast mounts, and it's that feature—once simply another means of laying waste to the legions of foes in your path—which takes center stage in Beast Rider. As such, the creatures available for commandeering have been amped up in the typical next-gen fashion.

The demonstration kicked off with a Sega employee taking the reins as Tyris Flare, the sword-wielding amazon from previous Golden Axe titles, engaged in combat against a handful of enemies. The developers explained that where many similar action titles allow players to simply hold the block button to fend off attacks, Beast Rider employs a parry and evade system to invoke a more fluid combat experience that made more sense in the context of the action.

As advancing enemies ready an attack, they flash a particular color, indicating whether Tyris can parry or evade the strike. If successful, the player can launch a string of counterattacks to swiftly dispatch his or her foes. Throughout the brief demonstration we saw several instances of Tyris taking on groups of enemies large and small, making use of the parry and evasion system to handle multiple targets at once.

Unfortunately, no hands-on time with the game was allowed, so it's yet unclear how well this new system of combat controls. The game will include five new costumes and 10 weapons for Tyria to unlock by various means throughout the course of the game, including the titular golden axe.

Contrary to the traditions of its forebears, Beast Rider will not feature multiplayer. The developers said the aim was to focus on Tyris' reimagining first and foremost, moving onto cooperative multiplayer in successive titles in the series. Given how important co-op play was to the original series, this bit of news seemed to take some of the good cheer right out of the room.

Naturally, several of the game's beasts were showcased in the demonstration, including the series favorite Chicken Leg. Similar to its previous incarnations, the two-legged mounted bird creature could breathe fire as well as launch a massive 180-degree spin of its tail, knocking out groups of enemies along the way.

Also shown was a massive, ape-like creature which bounded across terrain at high speeds and crushed the skulls of its enemy-controlled brethren. The beasts, though powerful, are not invulnerable; Sega noted that the creatures could indeed die if they absorb enough damage.

"Think of them as disposable weapons of war," one employee added.

The game is definitely still in the early stages of development, but I can't help but think that Golden Axe may suffer from something of an identity crisis. Released among what some might describe as a glut of ridiculously violent action-adventure titles, Beast Rider seems cranked to eleven in almost every respect.

Even the magic-packin' gnomes, once made light of their coveted property with a swift kick in the ass, are now simply stabbed and slashed at, spewing blood as they're struck. Great for a laugh, but it begs a question: Did Golden Axe ever need to go "extreme?"

The return of Tyris Flare, several familiar faces and returning enemies certainly lends itself to an experience that looks a lot like Golden Axe, but the focus on beast mounts seemed a mere extension of the basic hack-and-slash combat formula, rather than an evolution. Part of the joy of Golden Axe's original Arcade and Sega Genesis incarnations was the simplicity of play combined with a solid two-player cooperative experience, neither of which make a return appearance in Beast Rider.

In its current state, the game seems desperate to attain the kind of street cred typically attributed to titles like God of War, while simultaneously carrying series traditions to maintain a coherency between classic and next-gen gaming. One promising feature of Beast Rider was not demonstrated, but explained: a gigantic tyrannosaur-like mount referred to as the "Raptor," a beast which must be constantly fed to keep it from turning on you.

At present, the beasts feel like mere combat gimmicks, as they had in previous Golden Axe titles. The game is due for release on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in the fall—let's hope it's enough time to whip the game into shape.

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