Even as we’re hyped about a new console generation of ever more detailed graphical fidelity, pixel art remains a timeless aesthetic. Yet while plenty of indies love to use that style, the real veterans from the 8-bit and 16-bit days are much rarer, which is why retro fans should feel privileged to be able to play a new game from legendary pixel artist Henk Nieborg.
Having previously worked with Bitmap Bureau on the crowdfunded Mega Drive/Genesis sci-fi arena shooter Xeno Crisis, it seemed apt for the partnership to continue with Nieborg’s own passion project. Battle Axe is a fantasy top-down brawler very much in the vein of Gauntlet or Golden Axe. With a bare-bones plot of defeating the evil sorceress Etheldred, you simply pick from a line-up of three heroes – Rooney the Viking warrior, Fae the dark elf, and Iolo the elderly druid – before hacking and slashing your way to the end.
As straightforward as that sounds, this isn’t just a mindless button masher, as Battle Axe will properly kick your ass if you don’t take the time to learn its combat, not least that some buttons have cooldowns to prevent you from spamming (indeed, that will likely leave you open to a hit). It’s nonetheless accessible to pick up, with each character having essentially the same functions – a melee attack, a ranged attack and a charging attack – but there’s enough variation between characters to make them feel distinct. For instance, Rooney starts off with one health point more than the other two, Fae’s movement as well as her cooldown for her charge are slightly faster, while Iolo’s magic staff makes him ideal for ranged attacks.
Of course, what makes each character stand out are the detailed sprite animations where every effect is entirely hand-drawn. That’s the kind of care and attention we haven’t really seen since Capcom and SNK were at their arcade peak in the 90s, especially when modern examples often cheat with filters and effects. Battle Axe is not just authentically retro from a visual standpoint but also with its chiptune soundtrack from legendary composer Manami Matsumae of Mega Man and Final Fight fame. Even the voice-over, a fine balance of boom and camp, announcing a new level or warning that you’re close to death is a neat addition.
Across the four main levels, there’s a good variety of enemies, from the cannon fodder mobs to others with charging attacks or projectiles you’ll have to watch out for, though the annoying tentacles that shoot out from the ground in the second stage did me in more times than I care to admit. What makes the riotous hack-and-slash gameplay more compelling is a chain combo system which can keep rising so long as you continue hitting enemies or even objects to keep the gauge active, so experts can finish a level with a combo in the hundreds. It’s actually more generous than Streets of Rage 4’s similar combo system as it won’t break if you’re hit during it. That said, it’s very important not to get hit as it ultimately affects your grading – there’s times I’ve breezed through the first level and thought I racked up a decent combo only to still get an E grade because of the times I got hit.
On the other hand, you might opt not to care about high scores. You might be more compelled to take your time and scoop up items in treasure chests or save villagers dotted around the maps (who don’t count towards your combo), just make sure you pick up the dropped gold coins you can use on upgrades in between levels. The upgrades, some unfortunately not very explicit about what they actually do, may only offer an incremental boost – the most important arguably the potions for increasing your max health, which also subsequently increase in price – but you’ll want to take whatever you can get if you’re going to survive.
Battle Axe is definitely tough to the point you won’t likely get through it on the first playthrough, which is intentional since otherwise the campaign technically only takes about 25 minutes to beat if you don’t die. It wants you to learn its layout and boss patterns so that you can get better on subsequent attempts. Even with that in mind, it does feel awfully stingy that you’re only given three lives to beat the game. While you might pick up a chicken or potion that can restore health, I don’t think it would have hurt if there had been an option for additional credits either in the options or a way to earn more lives based on your score, as with Streets of Rage 4.
The only concession you have is to adjust from the default ‘hard’ difficulty to ‘easy’, which as far as I can tell only differs by fully restoring your health at the end of a level. While you think playing with a friend in local co-op might make things easier, that also comes at the cost of each player having one life less. Obviously, I get the whole ‘git gud’ philosophy, and with each subsequent attempt, I genuinely was improving and getting further to the end each time. But just a little more flexibility and leeway wouldn’t have hurt either, not least because completing the campaign unlocks an even more brutal mirrored New Game+ mode for the most hardcore players anyway.
Also available from the start is Infinite mode, a sort of Gauntlet-esque randomised dungeon crawler as you traverse maze-like maps, where this time rescuing villagers is imperative to be able to warp to the next level. Even though you start with fewer lives than in arcade mode, the fact you can also encounter the mysterious merchant lady in each map to buy upgrades as well as top up your health makes it significantly easier to survive for longer. After getting my ass handed to me multiple times in arcade mode, this felt like a refreshing palate cleanser you can take your time with.
That’s essentially your lot with the game, which might pale in comparison to modern offerings, though considering the art has been all the work of one man, you really are admiring the quality over quantity here. For retro lovers however, this is a solid and faithfully 90s-soaked arcade brawler that’s every bit as good as the classics you remember.