Golden Axe: Beast Rider
Released 2008
Secret Level / Sega
Platform: XBox360 & PS3 Genre: Action/Adventure Single Player Rated: M
Playable Character: Tyris Flare
Health is in the upper left corner, spells and magic in the lower left, and Tribute for unlocking powered up spells and weapons is in the upper right.
Notice the visual glitch disrupting the arc of Tyris’ attack as if someone cut the top part from one frame of animation and the bottom part from another. That’s called Screen Tearing, and Golden Axe: Beast Rider is plagued with it.

Review by Jay Wilson

The very first time I returned to Golden Axe: Beast Rider after starting story mode, I noticed that Continue Game was not the default option on the main menu. Instead the cursor hovered ominously over New Game, and I said to myself, “I’m going to erase my progress. I’m going to die a stupid death. I’m going to mash the buttons furiously, and I’m going to accidentally start a new game, wiping out the old one.” And that, dear reader, is precisely what happened.

But believe it or not, starting over was actually a good thing. Replaying the early levels and breezing through areas that previously gave me problems, I started genuinely having fun and realized one of the big faults with Golden Axe: Beast Rider is not that the mechanics are unplayable, rather that it wants you to play its way and doesn’t really give you a chance to get comfortable with the combat system. It gives Tyris standard light and heavy attacks plus a knockback attack, all of which are woefully underpowered and even on the backs of the underwhelming, titular beasts the enemies seem to stick around too long. In later levels, I frequently became bored because even the lowest level grunts would not die, and it actually got to the point where I was convinced any enemy with armor could not be damaged at all unless it was a fiery counter strike. You wail on them and wail on them, and once you finish this one guy you think, “Okay, I’ll have four or five left” but guess what? A new enemy spawns, and that will happen four or five more times before the end of this encounter (or triple that if you just broke a Power Crystal.)

You see, you’re not supposed to use standard combos. Instead of mashing buttons, you can time your inputs to coincide with Tyris ending her previous attack to get a powered up version complete with flaming sword effect, and with this you can kill enemies in slightly fewer hits. But, you’re not supposed to do that either. You can also counter attack after a dodge or parry for a powered up pyro-repost, but yet again, that’s not how you’re supposed to play. Do you want to hear what you’re supposed to do? No, not ride the beasts like the title implies. You’re supposed to time your counter-attacks perfectly so that Tyris will perform a cinematic Brutal Counter which does maximum damage and can even take out a group of lesser enemies standing nearby.

Generally, the bigger the enemy, the more attack options he has and the more precise you have to be in your reactions. By contrast, you can deal with low-level grunts exclusively with dodge.
A white spark on a pointy bit of background means an enemy can be one-shotted if launched vaguely in its direction, and sometimes that bit of scenery is a sacrifice lever where an enemy will respawn until one is impaled, unlocking further progress.
The Axirian Healing Relic (green platform) regenerates life. You’ll also encounter blue Mana Relics that regenerate mana potions, red Summoning Relics that spawn beasts, and yellow presure plates that open doors.
The giant tuning forks/Jacob’s ladders are summoning beacons that perpetually spawn enemies until destroyed. Tyris is actually taking out a barrier so she can get to them.

But the weird thing is that as Godlike as the Brutal Counters are, they don’t feel like they’re worth it at first because they’re so unnecessarily complicated. First, there’s a separate dodge and parry button, and enemy attacks are color coded either orange or blue to indicate which to use; orange means dodge, and blue means parry. Naturally, since you have to decide between the two, that dulls your reaction time, and that’s fine. That actually makes battles with the armored Guard Captains the best part of the game because their attacks are so relentless it feels like a genuine test of dexterity and skill. The problem is there’s more. Green attacks can be countered by either parry or dodge, but they still hit an embarrassing number of times because they make you second guess yourself. I often go to dodge or parry but pull back at the last second because it’s not orange or blue, and by the time I do hit a button it’s too late. Even that is still acceptable though. Kind of clunky because it would be much better to do away with green altogether and just have more enemies exclusively orange or exclusively blue, but whatever. The system doesn’t have to be perfect. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t’ stop there either. There’s also red attacks which beat both dodge and parry and require jumping, some attacks don’t light up at all, the timing varies from individual enemy attack to individual enemy attack, and some attacks cannot be dodged or parried, period.

And that’s just evading. Let’s talk about countering. Some enemies charge from far outside Tyris’ range, and when they finish they will actually end up beyond her reach so her standard counters will never hit. A Brutal Counter will always connect regardless of distance; however, the button required to trigger a brutal counter is different for each enemy, and on top of that you need to push the button at the perfect moment which, by the way, the timing is different for depending on whether you parry or dodge. Nevertheless, Brutal Counters really aren’t that hard to do once you know everything. The window is actually very generous, but trying to find the right button input and the right timing after a sidestep/repost which only has a, at best, 20% success rate? It’s too much for a beginner. You’re not going to see the benefits of the Brutal Counters because you so rarely get them. And who in their right mind is going to stick with a tactic that punishes them every four out of five times they try? Especially when you can run around the open battle field and pick off stragglers with standard combos then run around some more before the mob catches up? It may take fifty bajillion more hits and add scores of minutes to each and every encounter, but at least you’re making progress. At least you’re not dying.

But let me be clear: Golden Axe: Beast Rider is not hard. Even with the complexity overkill, it’s not very difficult. It just throws too much too fast, and it punishes too hard for not doing everything perfectly. And had I not accidentally overwrote my save, I might not have even tried to master it. But you know what? I did overwrite my save. I noticed how much easier those early stages were and, more importantly, I had a chance to practiced Brutal Counters on familiar enemies with familiar attack patterns in situations where I felt comfortable experimenting, and I noticed that Death Adder’s minions have unusually long wind up animations that actually precede the colored lights and, most importantly, I noticed the same wind ups always lead to the same colors. In plainer words: I discovered I could anticipate the appropriate response. My success rate shot to near perfection, and since I was finally dodging/parrying consistently, I found the Brutal Counters for each and every enemy, and from there even the unlockable Brutal difficulty where the glowing warnings go away wasn’t much of a jump since I’m reacting to the animation and not the colors anymore.

Dealing with mobs that mix multiple ranged spell casters with melee enemies is by far the most difficult aspect of the game, especially if the casters are on opposite sides so you can’t see them both.
The flames on Tyris’ sword indicate a successful counter attack. The blue glow on the Guard Captain’s sword indicates an incoming attack that requires a parry.

However, even with mastery over the dodges and parries, it still discourages plain vanilla attacks because even though you’re supposed to be able cancel normal attacks into evasive maneuvers, sometimes you can’t and I haven’t been able to 100% identify why. I do know that if the game doesn’t register an incoming attack as being within range, Tyris will take a goofy little step to the right, and sometimes Tyris’ combo, which advances her forward, will screw with the game’s perception of what is considered in range. You’ll hit the dodge button, she’ll stop her onslaught to take her pitiful little step, and eat a lance to the back of the head. Other times it seems like it only registers the first input after an enemy lights up, so if you’re in the middle of a combo and the bad guy glows green right as you push an attack button, it won’t accept any attempts to dodge/parry. And other times, if you’re trying to combo and get the powered up attacks by timing your inputs, you flat out can’t react in time. You’re too focused on watching Tyris for the visual cue, and even after you’ve committed the timing to muscle memory, you still also have to deal with the camera which no amount of practice or muscle memorization will help you with. And I haven’t even touched off screen enemies who can shoot into combat. There are audio cues in the form of battle cries and incantations, but unless you know the distance, it won’t do you any good.

The best option, and the only one with any consistency, is to stand still and just counter—don’t even bother attacking. Maybe position the camera so you can see all enemies. But other than that, just let them come to you and Brutal Counter. As stated earlier, Brutal Counters deal exponentially more damage, ignores distances, and grant absolute invincibility until the animation finishes. And with the Brutal Counter being the most effective tactic by eighty-two astronomical units coupled with it being a mini-cutscene, it means you get to watch the same pre-animated take down over and over and over again so the thrill of mastering the game is soon overtaken by the boredom of repetition. The first round with Death Adder in particular is an irredeemable waste of time because he telegraphs his attack by snail mail before it actually comes out, and I swear the window of opportunity to Brutal Counter him is a few frames shy of forever. And it really doesn’t help that he favors blue attacks to the point you can do just fine forgetting about the dodge or jump buttons entirely, and since the titular Golden Axe heals you with every hit, I’m being 100% literal when I tell you that you will beat Death Adder’s first form with over 75% of your health holding the controller in one hand and using only parry and heavy attack.

The first two spells are acquired in Story Mode. The more powerful variants you earn with Tribute. And to actually cast the powered up version, you just hit the button two or three times.
At first you fight the ridiculously easy Firstborn and Secondborn separately, and they might have posed a challenge together in the penultimate level except there’s a secluded Axirian Healing Relic where you can recharge in complete safety.
It looks like I have no health, but it’s actually full. The Golden Axe heals Tyris with every hit on Death Adder, and when it heals the lifebar blinks. The climax of Tyris’ attack just happened to coincide with that blink, and I liked this frame’s composition too much to go with another screen capture.

Magic returns, and once again they require mana potions of which Tyris can only carry six which makes the more powerful spells not worth it because at most it will wipe out one full wave of enemies and two more will spawn meanwhile you can kill three full waves of enemies with Brutal Counters in the same amount of time without burning a finite resource. About midway through the game, there’s a long stretch with no means of recharging the potions which inspired me not to use them at all for the entire last half of the game out of fear I wouldn’t be able to restock before a scenario when I needed them which never materialized because the Brutal Counters are so good. And truthfully, the only spell worth casting is the first one you get: the fireball. It does good damage, only costs one potion, but even it is risky as it’s a little flaky to aim. The second spell, a flaming burst, hits all enemies near Tyris at the costs of two potions, and to give you an idea how utter crap this spell is there’s a Power Crystal bonus section where you get recharging mana for ninety seconds while numerous waves of enemies spawn. The weakest version of the fireball will consistently drop one of these enemies in two casting (four potions.) The burst, however, I’ve killed that very same enemy in as few as five castings (ten potions) and I have also gone the entire ninety seconds without killing him (God knows how many potions I burned.) Now, admittedly this enemy can heal himself, but I had infinite firepower—let me repeat that—infinite firepower, and I still could not finish him off. What the fuck is the point of having that option?

Now, believe it or not I do like Golden Axe: Beast Rider. After playing through Story Mode and dinking around with Trials of Tyris (survival arena), you earn enough in-game currency (Tribute) to get weapons that deal ten, twenty, and thirty percent more damage. Beyond that the weapons get miscellaneous effects and require prohibitive grinding, but that 130% blade, the Fiend Slayer, makes the regular attacks a viable alternative to Brutal Counters. I can finally go for the fiery combos that require perfect inputs and mix it up with dodges and parries because, sure, the game still has problems letting you evade/repel incoming attacks mid-combo, but now it’s worth the risk. And I like the challenge of trying to master strict inputs. That’s why I play fighting games and also why I play them so recklessly. And pausing a melee engagement to nail a spellcaster with his own blast in Golden Axe: Beast Rider is extraordinarily satisfying. I even don’t mind the mini-cutscene Brutal Counters when I can use them sparingly as a badass dramatic finish and not have to watch them over and over as a gameplay crutch.

But that’s not a defense because “Once you learn the game and unlock the cool content, it’s actually pretty good” is no argument. A good game makes you want to unlock additional content. It makes you want to learn. And it makes you want to master it. And had I not accidentally deleted my Story Mode progress, I probably would have given up and moved on to a more competent game, one that intuitively embeds its lessons in its challenges and paces those challenges into a natural progression the first time around because that is a game that actually invites me to continue playing.

But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with guilty pleasures.

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