The original Actraiser was a truly seminal release. Launched alongside the Super Famicom at the close of 1990, Quintet's skilful blend of platforming action and Populous-style world-building was immediately lauded as a stone-cold classic, and it's striking that in the 30 years that have passed since, it has never been bettered. Direct sequel Actraiser 2 unwisely ditched the 'God Sim' sections, and the recent 'spiritual successor' SolSeraph tried and failed to capture the same magic. Then, out of the blue in September 2021, Square Enix shadow-dropped Actraiser Renaissance, a full remake of the original game developed not by Quintet (that studio has long since been disbanded), but by Sonic Powered, a Japanese outfit best known for its Boku wa Koukuu Kanseikan: Airport Hero series.

Actraiser Renaissance retains the unique two-genre setup of the 1990 version, with the player assuming the role of a benevolent deity who seeks to liberate the world from the evil clutches of the Dark Lord Tanzra, who has cruelly subjugated several regions via his dutiful sub-lieutenants. Each area offers two distinct gameplay styles; first, you must take the form of a warrior character – your physical embodiment on earth, essentially – and tackle a side-scrolling action section that culminates in a boss fight. When you've done this, the game switches to a top-down view of the region, where you directly control your talkative angel helper. Here, you can guide the direction in which your settlement grows while using your angel to take down respawning aerial monsters with holy arrows. The aim is to locate and tackle a second side-scrolling section and defeat Tanzra's champion for that region, bringing lasting peace and prosperity before you move onto the next location to repeat the process.

Sonic Powered has drastically enhanced the scope of both gameplay styles in Actraiser Renaissance. In the action sequences, your character's moveset has been expanded to make things feel less tight and restrictive. You can back-dash using the 'L' button, for example – which is perfect for dodging the blows of bosses – and your basic attacks have been upgraded, too. Pushing forwards while repeatedly pressing attack will see your character perform a lunging strike at the end of a combo, while pressing down and attack during a jump executes a powerful downward slash. Pressing up and attack triggers an aerial strike which is perfect for dealing with enemies on platforms directly above you. This all contributes to a level of control that is much more flexible and less 'stiff' than that seen in the 1990 original.

Also new to the action sections is the ability to collect gems from fallen foes and boxes located around each level. These buff your attack and magical ability, eventually boosting both to 100% of the base level as well as earning you an extra 'resurrection' on that particular level. This creates a system where the longer you spend in each level seeking out enemies, the more powerful you become – and you therefore stand a much better chance of downing the boss at the end. You can, of course, simply dash to the boss and ignore the gems, but the fight will ultimately be tougher for you.

The side-scrolling stages themselves have been completely altered and are now more expansive than before, and come complete with optional branching pathways which hide collectables that boost your stats. The bosses, too, boast different attack patterns which call for entirely new tactics when compared to their counterparts in the SNES version. It means that fans of the original will still find a fresh challenge here, even if some of the bosses are slightly easier to defeat this time around thanks to your wider repertoire of moves (on the topic of difficulty, the default setting provides a stern challenge, but you can switch between difficulty levels at will).

The meaningful changes implemented in the side-scrolling sections pale in comparison to the overhaul that Sonic Powered has engineered in the strategy portion of the game. While the core mechanics are the same as they were back in 1990 – you still rely heavily on 'miracles' like lightning and sunshine to change the terrain and make it habitable for your people, for example – the scope of these segments has been expanded dramatically, so much so that each region offers at least two hours of gameplay, which is a massive step up from the SNES version.

In Actraiser Renaissance, each location has its own cast of characters, which include townsfolk and a special 'champion' who is integral to the game's overall plot and can be levelled up as you complete objectives – of which there are many, even ones which present themselves after you've 'finished' a region. Your angel also has a more powerful charge shot, and you can boost miracles at the expense of SP to improve their potency. Another neat wrinkle is that the HP, SP and materials generated by your people must be physically collected by the angel to add them to your stock.

In addition to the basic goal of expanding the town and shutting down the lairs that spawn monsters (in a neat touch, you now get to tackle a short action segment to achieve the latter, rather than it being done automatically by your people), you have to build forts around the town to withstand enemy assault during what could prove to be the most contentious element of Actraiser Renaissance – its 'Tower Defence' sections. During these portions of the game, your angel is powerless and instead you must rely on your aforementioned upgradable forts (which range from gatehouses to magical towers that shoot fireballs) and a series of palisades that can temporarily block the advance of your foe. You can use your miracle powers to smite enemies, but the most potent tool at your disposal is your 'champion' character, who can be guided around the map to tackle the most pressing matters.

If there's any part of Actraiser Renaissance which is likely to annoy hardcore fans of the original, it's these sections. They're enjoyable enough and don't last for ages, but it feels like they're too large a part of the gameplay; in each location, you'll find yourself playing them several times over to advance the plot, which does get increasingly repetitive. However, the introduction of different fort types and palisades goes some way to alleviating this problem – as does the ability to call in up to two additional champions from other regions you've liberated. There's also a lot of strategy involved here; you can use gatehouses and palisades to halt the advance of ground-based foes, and when they bunch up, you can unleash a bolt of lightning to dispatch them in one go. Likewise, these structures can be used to occupy enemies while your champion is assigned combat duty elsewhere on the map. It's much deeper than it at first appears, and is very enjoyable once you get into the swing of things.

Actraiser Renaissance's presentation is likely to cause just as much discussion amongst fans as its bolstered gameplay. For the most part, it's a massive improvement; the new anime-style character artwork is excellent, with every cast member getting a highly detailed portrait – including the townspeople who are constantly engaging you in surprisingly well-written conversation. In the SNES original, these were simply tiny sprites, so it's great to see them given more personality here. Your champions are also interesting individuals, each with their own backstory and motivation for coming to your aid (although the design of some of these, such as the cowboy Alonso, feels very out of place against the rest of the 'high fantasy' cast). It's also nice to see the wide range of visual variety between the game's regions, with buildings being largely unique to each location.

Unfortunately, the side-scrolling action sections don't fare as well when it comes to the overall presentation. While they appear to be 2.5D in nature, everything is actually pre-rendered. This means that many of the enemies and bosses exhibit impressively smooth animation, but they look quite rough at the same time – the main character, for example, has a rather pixelated, low-resolution look. The stage designs are equally inconsistent; while there are some impressive lighting effects in the opening forest level of Fillmore, with sunlight streaming through the trees in the background, the stage has an ugly, pre-rendered appearance which makes it look a lot like a cheaply-made smartphone game (we should add at this juncture that Actraiser Renaissance is also available on iOS and Android).

To make matters worse, the action segments suffer from some disappointingly jerky scrolling. It's never enough to actually impede your enjoyment, but there's really no excuse for this kind of performance when all we're looking at here is 2D sprites on flat backgrounds. It's worth noting that the scrolling is equally patchy on other formats, so this isn't an issue that's exclusive to Switch. While we're on the topic of technical quirks, the load times when moving between regions and the overall world map can be a little egregious.

One part of the package which is totally and utterly beyond rebuke is the soundtrack. Video game music legend Yuzo Koshiro returns to offer a rearranged version of his original music, as well as some all-new compositions. In a neat touch, the SNES music is still included and can be toggled on and off during gameplay – there are even 16-bit renditions of the new tracks. Both versions of the soundtrack are utterly amazing, so much so that it's genuinely hard to pick between them when you're playing the game.

With the expanded scope of the world-building sections, Actraiser Renaissance provides over 15 hours of gameplay, and there's a brand-new bonus region to explore once you've destroyed Tanzra. While it's not as lengthy as your typical RPG and there's little reason to return once you've finished it, Actraiser Renaissance is nonetheless larger and more involving than the original game.

Conclusion

While the updated graphical style and jerky scrolling don't make a great first impression and there may be some who feel the 'Tower Defence' sections are given too much screen time, Actraiser Renaissance is ultimately a successful attempt at updating a solid-gold classic from yesteryear. Rarely are two totally different gameplay styles fused this effectively, and the enhancements introduced by developer Sonic Powered really do improve things; combat in the action sections is more fun, while the 'God Sim' portions of the game are lent increased depth thanks to thoughtful gameplay upgrades. To cap it all off, Yuzo Koshiro's music – available in both its SNES and rearranged forms – is masterful. While it's not perfect, Actraiser Renaissance will nonetheless find favour with fans of the original, as well as pick up plenty of new fans along the way.