Epic adventures can take several dozens of hours to complete. There might be long scenes of characters interacting, and every one of them has a journey or arc to go through. It used to be so much simpler: you dropped a quarter in an arcade cabinet, picked a hero, and you were off to save the kingdom by murdering everything in your path as you made your way to an evil sorcerer.
Gauntlet Legends was the premiere arcade RPG. It was possible to save your character’s stats by keeping track of a code if they died, or ran out of time or quarters. The satisfaction of battling huge waves of threats and trying to stay alive while exploring big environments that were festooned with secrets, was something that stuck in the minds of young gamers in the 90s.
Decades later, Battle Axe aims to deliver an experience that is closely inspired by these kinds of fantasy action arcade games. The impressive sprite art and animation will certainly make a powerful first impression, but how well does it play?
Developer: Henk Nieborg
Publisher: Numskull Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Linux, Mac, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: April 29, 2021
Price: $29.99 USD
Etheldred has been under a tyrannical rule of a sexy and diabolical sorceress and has enslaved the villagers. The sorceress’ rule was made possible from her industrial generators that endlessly spawn skeletons, living armor, and goblins to do her bidding. Her rule, erotic though it may be, has been unpopular with the people, and everyone would prefer it if she would go away.
The only way to overcome her dominion is to rescue all the villagers, and to smash her machinations into stains on the grassy knolls. Battle Axe is a delightfully simple and single-minded action game, where all one needs to do is avoid dying, and to kill everything that moves.
Fae the Dark Elf, Iolo the Druid, and Rooney the Cannoneer are the three playable heroes, and each one has their unique traits. All three have a standard melee, a ranged attack, and an evasive strike for closing gaps or avoiding threats. It is incredibly simple, but Battle Axe can easily overwhelm players who do not manage their cool-downs efficiently.
Fae is the fastest and most responsive of the three heroes, but most importantly; she is the sexiest. This dark elf wields two scimitars, and is a walking woodchipper to every goon that gets in her way. Even her throwing knives can make skeletons explode with a direct hit. Unfortunately, Fae isn’t one for rough stuff, and can only take four hits before she loses a life.
For anyone who wants to be able to take a bit more damage and doesn’t mind a slower movement speed, Rooney is your guy. This roided up, lumber-jack looking monstrosity carries a devastating canon that fires shells with a large hit box. He’s so macho, he makes goblins and orcs explode with his punches, like in Fist of the North Star.
Iolo the druid is the technical character, who can teleport and materialize where enemies stand, making them erupt into a gushing, gory sunder. It is tricky to aim teleporting, and players will have to get a feel for the general range it has to get skillful with it. Iolo’s ranged spells are his forte, making him one of the more versatile characters. Don’t try to rumble in close range- his beard is his only weapon.
The first thing that will stand out when playing Battle Axe is the impressive sprite art, and how much care and effort was put into the fluid animation. The highly expressive and bouncy characters nicely match the appealing and stylized backgrounds. Everything has a larger than life and illustrative quality to it.
Henk Nieborg was not just one of the main game designers for Battle Axe, he did a vast majority of it. He has a long history in the game industry, as far back as the Amiga, where he worked on Flink. Looking that far back, it is still very apparent that his talent as an artist and animator was far above the average developer.
There is an especially noticeable amount of care put into the colors. Everything is unified, and the backgrounds are very easy and pleasing to the eye; no garish or repetitive tile sets that stick out. The graphics are utterly inviting, and it is as if they beckon the user to play with its dazzling visuals.
Nieborg never misses a beat with his art. Every detail is perfect and dripping with personality. A lot of his art is also bolstered by sound design that is evocative of a roaring arcade cabinet, eager for a gamer’s attention in a vast hall that is wall to wall with arcade games.
Battle Axe definitely sounds the part with its deliberately metallic sound quality, and chunky low bit-rate chimes and voice clips. A more careless developer would have left everything sounding sharp and clear, but the developers of Battle Axe strive for authenticity.
The game may go a bit too far for authenticity in a few places. Much like classic co-op arcade games, the challenge can be harrowing. The difficulty rarely lets up, and the three heroes can’t get more than two extra lives. Lose them all and you are back at the start screen. No continues or retries, if you want to save Etheldred, expect to replay Battle Axe from the beginning often.
Enemies can rush into view, often sucker-punching the the protagonist with little or no time to react. Having to focus on a boss’ weak point, while also having to fend off oncoming hordes of Orcs, becomes a white-knuckle experience. It becomes an intense juggling match of trying to hit the target, while avoiding getting hit by multiple different threats at once.
Other ways where Battle Axe gets greedy is by its unusually steep price tag. If this game had more content, it could be forgivable, but there are only about four areas. The developers did at least try to make an effort by implementing a new game plus system where villagers, enemies, and items are rearranged. It is an amusing bonus, but there is no real reason to do it.
Where Battle Axe truly shines is with its Infinite mode, where the game takes on some rogue elements to create a potentially endless gameplay loop. Infinite levels are randomly generated, with villagers randomly places in what can be best described as a haphazard labyrinth.
Having to survive and collect villagers while frantically running around these mazes is legitimately exciting and tense. Players will only have two extra lives when trying to climb to the higher floors; and while there is no intrinsic reward for it, the feedback loop of simply making it further every time is in itself satisfying.
Battle Axe‘s gameplay is very simple but very challenging. Many gamers might be put off by how focused and basic the gameplay can be. This game aspires to be like a coin-op arcade game, and it succeeds while also bringing along its baggage. There is no leveling up or stats to manage; all you have is your wits and skill to crawl through these sprawling mazes.
Some aspects are so simplified that Battle Axe also fails to convey information that would be useful. There are several power-ups that can be purchased, but there are no descriptions for what they do, and their functions are not clear even after acquisition.
The spectacle of the incredible, painterly bosses, and the rousing retro soundtrack goes a long way at making Battle Axe feel like an authentic arcade experience. The cues from Gauntlet Legends and Metal Slug are natural choices for a game like this, and it is best seen on a big screen.
At times the visuals feel inspired by the likes of early 90s action figures and play-sets. The round, chunky, and colorful characters with over-sized weapons certainly evokes this nostalgic memory, as does the plastic-like glossiness of the environments. Battle Axe can often feel like a nostalgic trip, and it pulls this off without any shred of irony poisoning or modern subversions.
The philosophy of the game design is firmly rooted in old arcade sensibilities. Some may be turned off but this, but for those who grew up in arcades in the 1990s will undoubtedly feel Battle Axe is like coming home.
Battle Axe was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a review code provided by Numskull Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here.