There is absolutely nothing new about Battle Axe. It takes everything from other games and gives nothing back, and you suspect that it’s completely fine with that. It wants to deliver an immediately fun, bombastic arcade brawler, and that means stealing from some of the greats. Even the name ‘Battle Axe’ was a discarded working title for Golden Axe.
The characters look like they’ve just arrived by longboat from the Blizzard classic The Lost Vikings, while the top-down-ish viewpoint, civilians to find, and open-ish levels feel ripped from Zombies Ate My Neighbours! There’s Chaos Engine in the run-and-gunning options, and the fighting could have come from any number of hack-and-slashers. Let’s plump for Golden Axe.
For the first thirty minutes or so it works well and it’s good fun, as there’s zero subtlety. You chug through the levels, enemies appear, and – with a single touch of a sword or blast from a projectile – they fly to the other end of the screen and explode. Enemies need a maximum of two hits to dispatch (bosses and some enemy towers don’t count), and that remains true for the entirety of the game. Battle Axe largely dispenses with offering you power-ups, because why bother? You’re a medieval superhero who can clear a screen with a single swing of an axe.
You get to choose from three characters who each have a melee attack, a ranged attack and some kind of crowd-control that’ll get them out of a tight scrape. Fae, the Dark Elf, has a noticeably faster hacking attack, but her arrows fire at about half the speed of other characters. Lalo, the Druid, likes to attack with his beard, which is about as powerful as it sounds, but his fireball spell is plenty powerful and rapid. Weirdly, his crowd-control is a dodge move, when the other characters have a damaging surge attack, so he’s doubly limited as a character. Meanwhile, Rooney the Marauder is a plain all-rounder. Regardless, each of the three characters feel near-identical, just with some attacks being more powerful than others. Some character variety would have been massively welcome.
As you move through levels, you occasionally come across hostages that you have to rescue, and they’re the main thing stopping you from completing levels. You’ve got to find them all to complete the level, which might mean a bit of back-and-forthing, which leaves you exposed to infinitely-respawning enemies. By the third or fourth playthrough (more on that in a moment), it’ll become moot, as their location doesn’t change, so finding them is second nature.
Once you’ve found the hostages, you’re free to take on a boss. These are as simple as they come, usually moving around in a set path while firing stuff at you. Once you’ve learned their patterns, you’re just lobbing things at them till they die. A dragon, airship and giant crab (bizarrely easy) are all variations on this theme. What makes them odd is that they’re hard (or impossible) to melee, so the best plan is to stay at a distance. But when some of the characters are less good at ranged attacks than others, it feels like a weird punishment for picking them.
Battle Axe is not difficult. It’s aiming more for fun than challenge. Some enemies make it a wee bit more difficult, with a blob exploding after death, and a knight needing two hits but charging at you before you can connect with the second. They’re not much more than buffed versions of the very first enemies you see, though. Again, a bit more variety than ‘thing that walks at you’ would have made a real difference.
Perhaps the biggest (and only) surprise with Battle Axe is that it grabs the bad stuff from coin-op arcade games, too. When you die, you’re chucked right back to the start of the entire game. You half-expect to see the old ‘Add a credit to continue’ text when you pop your clogs. Hades and other rogue games have shown us that a full restart isn’t always a bad thing, but they are able to make you feel like you’ve achieved and progressed, and playing for the hundredth time still feels varied. Battle Axe has none of that, so you’re simply replaying in an attempt to get better. Enemies appear from the same places, hostages are in the same nooks, and there’s no XP or rewards to speak of.
Again, that’s not necessarily the worst, as there are plenty of people who like to speedrun and beat personal bests. But, while Battle Axe has a high score table, it’s purely local. Plus, Battle Axe doesn’t offer a challenge, and instead offers attrition. The only way you’ll get hurt is through silly mistakes, so there’s no real chance for a speedrunner to show their chops. Battle Axe can only offer four levels that take no more than thirty minutes in total to wade through, and you’ll soon grow bored of them as their layout becomes muscle memory. A cynical person would say that the sharp-resets hide an otherwise short game.
Battle Axe offers an Infinite Mode, which could have been a redemption. There’s the opportunity to randomise and change things up, and it sorely needs it. So, you’re given a randomly generated maze with the usual hostages, and a portal to the next level once you’ve got them all. Enemies escalate in difficulty and a shop pops up periodically to offer power-ups. While it’s inoffensive, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. It’s a slow, easy trudge through levels that don’t escalate enough in difficulty and variety, so you’re going through the motions in an effort to get to your previous best. That personal best can be dozens of levels and half an hour into the experience. Coming off the back of Hades, all Battle Axe needed was some random power-ups and it would have felt so much better.
Saving graces come in the form of a local co-op mode, an ability to lower the difficulty, and some detailed pixel environments. Local co-op locks you both to the same screen (which is limiting), but catapulting orcs at each other makes the repetition more bearable. Being able to dial down the difficulty means you can treat Battle Axe as a one-and-done action game, so you can complete it and toss it to the side if you’d like. And the environments are genuinely cracking: rich and dense with detail, and vibrant to boot.
In the context of the price, which is £24.99 at launch, buying Battle Axe is a difficult case to make. Four levels with little variety, topping out at thirty minutes, and a gentle nudge to please, please, keep playing with only a high score table as a temptation is not enough.
Battle Axe on the Xbox is fast-food in an action-brawler wrapper. It tastes and looks good in the short-term, full of E numbers and shots of adrenaline. But it leaves you unsatisfied in the long term, leaving you hungry for something more than thirty minutes of easy hacking and slashing. When you’re £25 lighter after the experience, you’d be forgiven for expecting a heartier meal with more courses.