Battle Axe Review: The More You Play It, The Better It Gets

The more I played Battle Axe, the better it got. Retro-inspired games have a tendency to come across as overly simplistic, but after a dozen hours with Battle Axe I’ve just kept finding more to love. Between the expressive characters and enemies, the chunky, dynamic pixel art, and the incredibly demanding gameplay, Battle Axe modernizes the hack-n-slash to deliver an immersive and addicting experience. It’s as difficult as any good retro game should be, but it rewards player progression in a way that definitely appeals to modern sensibilities.

By way of comparison, Battle Axe falls somewhere in between Gauntlet and Golden Axe, but with a style all of its own. After selecting a character, players fight their way through hordes of enemies and bosses across four visually distinct levels, collecting items and gold to buy power-ups along the way. Even though there are only three attacks — a melee, a ranged, and a dash/teleport — there’s a surprising amount of nuance and strategy to the combat. Like its predecessors, Battle Axe is definitely a game that requires quick reflexes and precise inputs, but more than that, it’s a game about learning how to navigate spaces and efficiently clear each level through practice and repetition. Battle Axe is a lot more rewarding than other games in the retro genre because the game is always testing both your muscle memory and your map knowledge.

Each level in Battle Axe is essentially static. The enemies, treasure chests, blockades, and villagers you need to rescue are all in fixed spots on the map. Every time you play Battle Axe you’ll get a little bit better at learning the paths and avoiding the traps. The first level is quite a bit shorter than the rest, and since you’ll obviously be playing it the most, it does a fantastic job of teaching you the language of Battle Axe’s level design. It has minimal branching paths, some dead ends, and some hidden villagers. By the fourth or fifth run, I felt like I had mastered my path through the level and could reliably finish it without taking a single hit. Of course, the rest of the game opens up in a big way, but throughout my entire time with Battle Axe I always felt like I was learning a little bit more with every run.

Speed is an important part of Battle Axe. Your score is based on your time to complete, but you also build a combo by rapidly killing enemies. As you learn which way to go and where enemies spawn, you’ll be able to make your way through the levels quicker and with a better combo. What’s more, some levels have enemies that continuously spawn and chase you, so the faster you’re able to complete them, the better your chance of surviving.

The only aspect of the game that changes with each run is the contents of the treasure chests, but even this small amount of randomization has a big impact on the variety and replayability of the game. I’ve had some golden runs where I’ve found multiple full health potions and chests full of coins that allowed me to buy the most expensive upgrades at the end of the level, like a powerup for projectile damage or a health increase, and I’ve had other runs where all I can seem to find are the relatively useless bombs. Some items, like the scroll, can make certain bosses completely trivial. You will always have to slightly adapt your strategy based on the items you find. It gives Battle Axe a bit of a Rougelike quality that adds so much to the replay value of the game.

Of course, the real star of Battle Axe is Henk Nieborg’s pixel art, which never ceased to amaze me even after a dozen hours playing the game. The characters and environments are incredible, but it’s the animations that really make Battle Axe stand out from the crowd. It’s impossible to see in screenshots, but Battle Axe feels like a living, breathing world and a feast for the eyes. The first level is a windy area high above the clouds. The way the trees and their shadows move and shake in the wind is immediately mesmerizing. When the monsters start exploding into puddles of orange goop, it’s clear that Battle Axe is not just another pixel game.

There’s some much happening on the screen at all times that it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of the action. In particular, the third level has wispy clouds that move across the sky, partially obstructing your vision while you try to dodge enemies that charge at you from off-screen. It gets overwhelming at times, but once you’ve truly mastered Battle Axe you won’t need to react to attacks because you’ll be able to predict them.

The only thing that disappoints me about Battle Axe is the character variety. All three are beautifully animated and full of personality, but the differences between their playstyles is incredibly subtle. For example, Fae the Elf can only throw out one knife at a time while Iolo the Druid can rapid-fire projectiles. They’re definitely different, but they all have a melee, a ranged attack, and a dash. I wish there was a bigger difference between the classes, but I do appreciate that the Druid is more of a beginner class (and the way he attacks with his beard).

Battle Axe is a hard game, but it never felt frustrating or unfair to play. I can appreciate a game that takes a lot of practice and technical skill, but my favorite thing about Battle Axe is the way that it engages your memory and map knowledge. Once I mastered a particular level’s layout, I felt like the hero of a time loop movie, casually advancing through each zone and deflecting attacks with ease. It’s a beautiful game created by developers that have a genuine love and talent for pixel art. Visually speaking, Battle Axe is pixel perfect. My biggest problem with the game is that I want more of it, and that’s never a bad problem to have.

A Switch review code was provided to TheGamer for this review. Battle Axe is available now on Switch and PS4.

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Eric Switzer is the Livestream News Editor for TheGamer as well as the lead for VR and Tech. He has written about comics and film for Bloody Disgusting and VFXwire. He is a graduate of University of Missouri – Columbia and Vancouver Film School. Eric loves board games, fan conventions, new technology, and his sweet sweet kitties Bruce and Babs. Favorite games include Destiny 2, Kingdom Hearts, Super Metroid, and Prey…but mostly Prey. His favorite Pokémon is Umbreon.

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