I was not fortunate enough to experience arcade gaming at its zenith from the late 70’s to the mid-80’s. Instead, I witnessed its slow decline. It was still a fun time, and it left a big impression on me, helping to shape my tastes in video games. I wish I could remember the first arcade game I played, but what I do remember is how I was always on the lookout for arcade machines. Every mall we went to, every hotel we stayed at on vacation, and in any restaurant or carry out joint we ended up in, I’d play almost any game. I had my favorites obviously, but I just loved how for a brief period I would be completely mesmerized by an interactive audio-visual experience, and if I was playing with friends we would get completely caught up in the game and play until we ran out of quarters. Looking back, I spent a lot of my parents’ quarters. Most of the games were pretty hard, and it’s common knowledge now that they were designed that way to get people to spend more money to keep playing. There is a whole slew of new games that try to emulate the arcade games of the past, but most of them include modern conveniences since they don’t need to be designed around the continuous consumption of quarters. Battle Axe, designed by Henk Nieborg and Bitmap Bureau after a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a love letter to some well-loved arcade classics. They cite the original Gauntlet and Beat ‘em Up classics such as Golden Axe, and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadows over Mystara as some of their inspirations. How does Battle Axe compare to those legends?
There is no actual narrative plot given at any point in the game. A mini cut scene with no text plays at the main menu when left idle with an evil sorceress lady looking very menacing, and it’s easy to assume she is the main antagonist of the game. After reading the Kickstarter page I learned that every seven years the evil sorceress Etheldred sends her armies out to enslave anyone they come across. The people of the land want this to end so they put out a call for any heroes to come to their aid. Apparently, only three heeded the call: Rooney the marauder, Fae the dark elf, and Iolo the druid. I didn’t play arcade games for their intricate storylines so I won’t hold this against them, but this might be one of the weakest, simplest plots I’ve seen in a game. If they would have made a short intro scene explaining the situation I think that would have made a big difference.
The games that inspired Battle Axe are either top-down (Gauntlet) or 2.5D sidescrollers. The view in Battle Axe is sort of a combination of the two, not quite isometric but the levels have an open layout instead of the typical left-to-right design of the Beat ‘em Up genre. You’re still going from point A to point B, but because of the open feel of the layout and the freedom of movement this game has more of a Hack and Slash feel to it. One of the biggest issues I have with the game is that it only contains four levels; however, they do have some variety to them. The adventure starts out in the grassy hamlet of Hamwic, which would be very tranquil if not for the swarms of orcs and other baddies strewn about. Each area gets a little more dangerous looking as you go – until you end up at Etheldred’s castle that’s surrounded by molten lava. Getting to see what the next level looked like was a nice reward for beating each of the previous levels, especially considering the magnificent pixel art style in which they are presented.
Some levels have a limited number of enemies in them whereas others (like the second level) have enemies randomly spawning into the level in addition to a number of set enemies. The basic Orc enemies make an appearance in all the levels but as you progress through the levels the game introduces tougher, more difficult enemies. One of the most annoying is the knights in the third level who do a charging dash attack towards you once you get within their reach and are invincible while in their dash. Each of the four levels has its own boss encounter at the end. Most of them are pretty tough because they have projectile attacks that are hard to dodge since the playable characters are sort of slow. Besides getting through each level and beating the boss, you can rescue villagers that have been trapped under Etheldred’s spell, most are out in the open but a few are somewhat hidden. In the end, four levels are not enough, especially at its current price point of $30. I think if they would have included at least one or two more levels it would have made a big difference.
The game does have an extra mode that was included because it reached one of its Kickstarter stretch goals: Infinite mode. This mode allows you to play small random levels where the objective is to save all the villagers in each level. At first, I found this enjoyable, but it gets very difficult and tedious after level fifteen or so. All the levels are rectangular in shape with maze-like layouts, and they use assets from the levels in the regular game.
The core combat gameplay of Battle Axe is solid and seems to be what Bitmap Bureau promised in the Kickstarter. All of the characters have a melee attack, a ranged attack, and a special attack that doubles as a sort of dash for quick movement. The ranged attacks feel almost like a twin-stick shooter, but with only one stick, and it can only be shot in one of eight directions (up, down, left, right, and the diagonals between).
Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses. Rooney is good all around and has an extra health point, but he’s the slowest of the three. Fae has the fastest melee attacks thanks to her dual wield dagger technique, but her ranged attack is very slow, if you miss a shot there’s a cooldown that isn’t present for the other two characters. Iolo has the strongest ranged attack by far, some sort of magical staff-based blue projectile, and they shoot in quick succession, as fast as you can press the button. Iolo’s melee attack is the weakest, which isn’t that surprising since it consists of him using his beard as a whip. His special attack, a teleport, is also not as good as the other two characters’ specials at clearing out groups of enemies but it’s very good for quick getaways.
I enjoyed experimenting with each character to find out which one fit my playstyle best. I ended up playing as Iolo the most because his ranged attack is very strong, it’s like a magic missile machine gun. He also pairs really well with Fae since she’s good with melee. The game is much more enjoyable in two-player local co-op. Some games increase the number of enemies when two people are playing to balance the difficulty, but Battle Axe seems to have the same number of enemies in co-op as it does in solo. The only balance adjustment that I noticed for co-op is that each player starts with one less life.
The highlights of the game are the art and the sound design. Henk Nieborg is a top-tier pixel artist, who has been perfecting his craft in the game industry since the 90’s. Some of his more recent work includes Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, and Xeno Crisis. He has a distinct style, and Battle Axe reminds me a bit of a Neo-Geo game, seeing as the graphics look nicer than a 16-bit game, and more like what you might see in an arcade game at that time, which makes sense since that’s what they were going for. The background art for the menus is amazing, the parallax scrolling looks really good. I just wish there was some sort of animated intro cutscene or something.
The soundtrack was designed by the famed Manami Matsumae, who also happened to contribute music to the last game I reviewed (Smelter). She has also been working in the industry since the 90’s and helped to create some of the most iconic Mega Man tracks. It seems like she’s had sort of a resurgence in the indie gaming scene, and based on the work she did here it’s no wonder she’s being asked to work on so many games. The intro track is super catchy, upbeat and intense. The rest of the music in the game is also fantastic. The sound effects are also well done, although the music kind of drowns them out and you miss some of their nice details. The game features an announcer in what seems like a nod to Gauntlet, and just like in Gauntlet if you are low on health the announcer will say something like “Iolo needs food”.
Battle Axe is a difficult game, especially when playing on Hard and New Game+. I was expecting this coming in, but I was also expecting the typical design choices common in most games in this genre. Battle Axe has no level select, no continue option, and no way to earn extra lives. I can understand the level select choice since there are only four levels – seeing only four levels listed on-screen would really highlight the lack of content. Not having continues, on the other hand, is just cruel; some people won’t be able to beat the game because of the difficulty, but if there were continues like literally every other arcade game in history then they would have a much better shot. Leaving all those things out really just seems like a way to pad the playtime, making the players start from the beginning each time they fail, it just feels cheap and lazy.
In game development, you often hear of the term “feature creep”, where the designers want to keep adding more and more ideas and mechanics to the game they are working on but end up making the game feel bloated and prolonging its development. Some scope is a good thing, however there needs to be a balance, and you have to know when to stop. The Battle Axe team seemed like they went with the no-scope approach. There are a few ideas presented on the Kickstarter page that they planned on implementing into the game but never did. They were going to have a very basic levelling system where your character improved a bit as you hit certain score milestones. This could have added some much-needed depth to the game. Instead, there are three purchasable upgrades in the store but there’s no explanation as to what they do, just buy whichever one you think looks the coolest. The Kickstarter page also lists the consumable items they had designed for the game up to that point… all four of them. Guess how many more they added? Zero.
In their Kickstarter campaign, they stated that their goal was to “revitalize the genre with new gameplay elements”; unfortunately, it can’t really be called a successor to any of the games from which it took inspiration. It has decent gameplay at its core but is severely lacking in content for its current price of $30, and it tries to make up for that by cranking the difficulty way up. This is magnified by the designers’ decision to forego almost all of the modern conveniences players have grown accustomed to in the past twenty-plus years, which really makes you question what was going through their heads. If you love arcadey Hack and Slash games and/or enjoy challenging yourself with devilishly difficult games then this might be worth checking out once it’s on sale.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.