Veteran pixel artist Henk Nieborg's old-school throwback, Battle Axe, seeks to replicate the classic top-down hack and slash action of arcade classics such as Gauntlet, Knights of the Round and Golden Axe. With Nieborg himself on graphical duties and legendary composer Manami Matsumae (Mega Man, Final Fight, Shovel Knight) providing the soundtrack, this one certainly more than manages to nail the look and feel of its most obvious inspirations. However, a lack of content and modes, alongside tired gameplay that doesn't mix things up in any interesting or surprising ways across a fairly brief running time, leaves this feeling like a rather lacklustre effort.
In Battle Axe players choose from one of three warriors, Rooney, Fae or Iolo and - in either solo or two-player local co-op - set out across the land of Mercia in order to rescue innocent locals who've been snatched away by the dastardly sorceress Etheldred and her hordes of evil minions. Split over four short levels, the game sees you blast through foes using your chosen fighter's three unique combat abilities comprised of a weapon attack, ranged projectile and special move.
Rooney makes use of cannon balls for close quarters and ranged damage, for example, and can pull off a powerful charge dash that's capable of wiping out multiple opponents at once. Fae wields twin blades, flings deadly daggers from distance and can zip in and around arenas at speed, whilst Iolo - our own favourite of the trio - can teleport, fire off powerful blue energy balls and get up close and personal with his...well his beard, for vicious hairy melee attacks.
On paper there certainly seems to be plenty of diversity in the move sets you've got at your disposal but, in all honesty, the moment-to-moment action doesn't really pack in much variety. Regardless of warrior choice we found ourselves relying almost entirely on our ranged attacks in order to mill through the goblins, orcs and skeletons that stood in our way. On both hard mode - which the game defaults to when you first boot up - and easy difficulty setting, we just never found ourselves needing to mix up our tactics all that often, and this is mainly because the enemies don't provide much in the way of a strategic challenge beyond the occasional mass pile on.
Indeed, for the most part here the threat presented by your foes consists almost entirely of them mindlessly charging in your general direction - with the exception of Mandragores, a few flying bugs and a handful of tower-bound baddies who stand off to use ranged attacks - and as a result the rhythm of Battle Axe's combat feels seriously one-note. It's definitely solid enough in the little it chooses to do, weapons feel satisfying and it looks and sounds fantastic, but it's just not particularly interesting or exciting because it never steps out of its comfort zone. Of course you could argue it's remaining faithful to the golden oldies that inspired it, but it feels as though this one needed a few more modern flourishes or a bigger injection of creativity in order to give its action a lift. What you're doing here the minute the game kicks off is exactly what you'll be doing by the time it ends, and it's a shame.
There are the expected pick-ups to grab as you mill around levels - everybody loves a nice health-replenishing chicken dinner - but again this aspect feels somewhat undercooked, with just a health potion, a rather useless bomb and a spell scroll that blasts your surrounding area with fire to round out the available items. You can also gather gems and coins to shop at a merchant between stages, and this mechanic feels much more interesting as you decide whether to purchase a permanent health upgrade, extra shielding or maybe even a bomb or healing item to help propel you through the next area.
This weighing up of the pros and cons of picking between health items, upgrades or weapons - especially on hard mode where you need to complete an entire run without auto health refills between rounds - feels like the most interesting aspect of the game but, again, it doesn't reach its full potential because the whole thing is over before it feels like it's really gotten started; there just aren't enough levels here to make you feel as though you're properly up against it.
Yes, unfortunately, Battle Axe is a short experience, surprisingly short, in fact. For the rather hefty price tag involved here we really were fairly startled when we first came face to face with the final boss battle after around forty minutes of play (on easy mode), and once you've been through the four levels on offer here a few times there really isn't a great deal to warrant many, if any, return trips. Yes, there's a NG+ mode that switches things up a little, with mirrored level layouts, a few nasty surprises jumping out of chests and far more in the way of baddies making a beeline for the business end of Iolo's bushy beard, but it's just not enough to stop the whole thing feeling a little lacklustre and disappointing from a gameplay perspective.
Even switching things up to hard mode, once you've played through the handful of levels a few times and got a handle on where and when enemies appear, it doesn't make for much of a difference in the challenge you'll actually face beyond the game's bosses flinging a handful of minions at you in a desperate attempt to up the ante. Speaking of bosses, the end of stage face-offs aren't much to write home about either, requiring little more than spamming your ranged attack and moving out of the way of repetitive and easy to read projectiles. We had little to no trouble in getting past these encounters until we switched things up to NG+ where the game chooses to simply spawn an annoying number of bog-standard enemies into the mix, in a brute-force and rather slapdash effort to make things more difficult.
On a more positive note, as we've already mentioned, Battle Axe's action does at least look and feel great, with Nieborg's supreme pixel skills ensuring that every enemy you smack or thwack explodes in a satisfyingly violent manner, whilst characters are imbued with a really nice sense of weight and heft through the exquisitely detailed animations provided by the veteran artist.
It's just a shame, then, that the gameplay couldn't provide more in the way of surprises or thrills. Levels here feel quite underwhelming and pedestrian, a handful of simple short corridors and boxed off arenas with no set-piece moments, no mounts to ride around on à la Golden Axe, and no secrets, treasures or hidden paths to stumble upon. There are a handful of simple achievements to unlock for completionists and offline leaderboards to conquer but, besides this and that NG+ mode, you really aren't looking at a lot of content to blast through.
With regards to this Switch port, we also had a few framerate issues mar our experience, with some considerable wobbles on a few occasions, most noticeably during the game's one indoor section; that surprised us given the old-school nature of the graphics and gameplay here.
Overall then, Battle Axe is a very good-looking game, for sure, it's got a fantastic soundtrack and its hack and slash action certainly isn't the worst we've ever encountered, but it's all just far too one-note. It plays things much too safe and is over way too quickly, making for a game that, especially for that rather premium price tag, is pretty hard to recommend.
Battle Axe is a good-looking homage to the classic hack and slash arcade efforts of yesteryear that's dragged down by some fairly dull and repetitive action. It looks the part, sounds the part, nails the aesthetic and vibe that it's going for completely, but then it drops the ball with regards to level design, enemy AI and in providing any sense of strategy or surprise during a short campaign that gives you very little reason to return once its done and dusted. If only it had a few twists and turns and a handful more levels, this one could have been well worth a playthrough but, as things stand, it's pretty forgettable stuff.
I was looking forward to this game, but if it is that incredibly short, I may pass on my physical planned copy. Sounds like it is what it is: arcade style and it really looks beautiful. As much as I want to support indie developers, I would have loved to learn that the game was a little deeper.
Damn ... scrolling down and looking at those amazing pixel art pics ... then reading the score. The big boss monsters look incredible.
Is this on other platforms? I want to try it but not with the usual concessions made on the Switch like the frame rate.
Too bad... it looks beautiful! If it wasn't so short I'd give it a chance. Because patches.
Damn, this is disappointing to hear. I was really looking forward to this one. I'll likely still get it if I ever see it on sale, I'm just a sucker for this type of game.
I’m sad it falls into that category of amazing art but no brilliant gameplay backing it up. Henk Nieborg is among the greats for sure.
I has a question. The trailers showing the action make it look like a fantasy version of Zombies Ate My Neighbours, but you haven't made a single comparison to it throughout the review.
Is it because you've never actually played ZAMN or...?
A real pity as it looks great fun. Thought it was a excellent review as well
Great sub-heading btw!
I looked up Ethelred as I thought it was a masculine name. Wikipedia says it's unisex and also that there was a King Ethelred of Mercia
A hero called "Rooney" could we'll bring up some partisan views...
@BloodNinja It’s on Steam, PS4 and Xbox
@MrGrim Thanks, I’ll wait for the steam version
That is a shame. I think I will pass. Thank's for the review
Eek. Sounds like this game is just eye candy.
They got some gall to be charging that much for a $5 experience. Off the Wishlist it goes...
I would recommend watching or reading other people’s reviews before making a decision. A score of 5 is not exactly a bad game, but it can definitely persuade someone to not pick up the game. I played a couple of games that I personally liked that received 5s by NL.
40 minutes? This is obviously something I wouldn't spend more than a few quid on, especially if it doesn't add any meaningful replayability or extra modes.
I'm gonna get this game, but considering the game playing time it offers, it's got to be cheaper
To be fair, aren't Gauntlet and Golden Axe also incredibly repetitive and basic? Granted, I never finished either of them, so maybe they got a lot.more involved in the later levels, but at least one of the reasons I never finished them is that I found them both really repetitive. I don't deny that they're fun for a while, but I never said to myself "wow, these enemies are really advanced, I need to put my tactical beret on here" in either game. I'm not saying that's not a negative, because to me it is, but I feel like it maybe was an intentional choice here, so as not to go too far from the OG games..
The short play time is a bummer, too, but then again if the game doesn't evolve what good is more of it? 😎
Very harsh and frankly unfair review. Why did the reviewer play through it On Easy mode first? And as for the length, arcade games of the era were short, and that's exactly what this game is a lover letter to. I've been playing the Xbox version and it's great, a really authentic feeling early 90s arcade game, just as Capcom and Konami made. Look at the other reviews out there, this is a real outlier.
I’ll wait for a sale. I was excited for it though.
Pre-ordered as I’ve been stoked on this one for a LONG time now! BTW- it’s reviewing extremely well everywhere else and this review didn’t even mention the infinite mode which kinda turns it rogue-ish.
May still pick it up during a sale eventually.
I would rather just get GB/GBC/GBA ports/emulations over these wannabes.
Too bad. Although it seems this is the kind of project that just needed more time in the owen/funding/playtesting.
If sales are decent, hopefully together with the remaining KS funds, and they (well mainly H.N.) are smart about it, this could propel from mediocre to great with a hefty free update (adding content, reworking the enemy logic and rebalancing the weapons seem to be the 3 big ones by reading the review) and some performance fixes and become a cult “newretro” darling for years to come. Fingers crossed.
...now what should I spend that money on?🤔
@MrGrim Not true regarding NL
Knights of the round and Golden Axe are odd comparisons. I would’ve compared it to say Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Gauntlet 3, Pocky & Rocky, Chaos Engine.....games like that, not side scrolling beat em ups.
So this looks like a clone of Data East’s Dark Seal or it’s sequel Wizard Fire or Konami’s Mysterious Stones (Not Golden Axe or Knights as the reviewer claims).
Dark Seal has 4 characters and the Wizard had a lot more magic, she could turn into a Medusa. IMO I prefer Wizard Fires Huge sprites and playable characters though l Imagine this plays a lot better not being a coin muncher. But the mummy lady looks class hopefully she is playable.
I will buy this depending on price game looks class and I think 40 minutes is an ideal length as I would try to 1cc and continue to come back. These longer story driven games lose all interest after I finish them
Was going to get this but noticed no 4 player option or online so it’s a hard pass!
3 characters to choose from but no 3 player mode...
They should add 3 player mode.
Oh boy. I was hoping for a 7/10 at least. I backed the Kickstarter project and paid over 60 € for the game, a couple of extras and mainly to name a villager in the game.
60 €! And the critics say that the normal price is already too high.
Thanks for the review. I'll wait for a deep discount.
I had doubts about this from day one, good pedigree behind it but it looked pretty average and the cast of characters are completely uninspiring.
@BloodNinja on all platforms
@MadmanMike Thank you!
The graphics look okay, but they aren't great by any means. They're way too pixelated in many places. I get that this is retro-inspired pixel art, but such art should still be done at a decent enough resolution to where you can't actually make out individual pixels to actually be done well.
Damn I had high hope for this one too. Maybe I'll pick it up if (when?) it hits a bargain basement price.
Guys, don't trust this bad review here, the reviewer is definitely too harsh on this game. I played Battle Axe on Switch and it's lots of fun. In my opinion it's an 8/10.
@Noelemahc think more like Gauntlet than ZAMN
@Lord there's only 3 characters... 4 player option wouldn't even be feasible
@Magrane It may be short, but it's fun! Also it's pretty hard, it will take a lot of time to finish the game of you are not a "pro"!
@MJ1200 yep, at least 7/10 for me. 7.5 probably. But giving 5/10 is an absolute shame!
@BulbasaurusRex the art is not great? It's probably among the best pixel art I have ever seen!
@Silly_G why not both??
@Whitestrider Only if it were in a 90s PC game. Otherwise, the resolution sucks compared to modern pixel art.
@BulbasaurusRex lol, no, not at all! Btw, what you call "modern pixel art" Is not even pixel art...
@Whitestrider ...which means it's a whole lot better than at least this pixel art, since it's not actually pixelated to the naked eye! When you can make out individual pixels like in this mess, the graphics are clearly lousy by modern standards.
All they needed to do to make these graphics good was to increase the resolution (by a lot) and (manually) fill in the newly available pixels in each sprite accordingly, but they didn't do that, so these graphics are ugly and lazy with their terrible resolution. The game might look decent in handheld mode, but it certainly doesn't on a modern TV.
@BulbasaurusRex what's wrong with pixels anyway? Do you hate pixels? Do you hate being able to count them one by one?
And no, these graphics aren't ugly or lazy, they look AMAZING like (and probably even a bit more) those of Metal Slug and other great NEO GEO titles.
There's nothing wrong with pixels themselves, but they have to have a good enough resolution so that they blend together to the naked eye. That kind of optical illusion is how digital graphics work in the first place! "Metal Slug" and most other Neo Geo games accomplish that, so their pixels graphics do look good and several times better than this mess (at least if not played on a tiny TV screen or the Neo Geo Mini). This game does not come even close to accomplishing such an effect, and therefore the graphics suck simply because they were too lazy to draw their pixel art at a decent resolution.
So of course I hate counting them one by one! Everyone does! That automatically makes them bad graphics by modern standards if you can make pixels out individually or even just notice how blocky all the lines are! Once we hit the current millennium, game screenshots should never look like we've zoomed in too far on a JPEG file in "Paint"!
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