A difficult game isn't for everyone, but when it's done right, it feels good. I hesitate to bring up Dark Souls—a series that comes up in reviews far too often—but it's appropriate for this occasion. Dark Souls is difficult but fair and respects the player's time by offering ways to improve your character without setting you back to the beginning of the game. Moreover, this series is polished, and is difficult to find a fault with it. Battle Axe is quite the opposite.
Battle Axe doesn't care for your time and relies on cheap tricks like out-of-view trap placement and an astonishingly small pool of lives. Not to mention that there is an incredible amount of accessibility options missing, all of which detract from the stellar pixel art. Battle Axe feels like a mess.
This Battle Axe Needs Refining
Problems with Battle Axe became apparent almost immediately. Because I played on PC, my first instinct was to check out the options menu and adjust volume levels, and tweak keybinding options. While you can indeed adjust the volume in Battle Axe, you only have the option to turn sound on or off. There are no volume levels, so if you play with a buddy, your choice is to have Battle Axe's music and sound effects clash with your friend's voice or deal with noise. It's a simple fix to add a volume slider, but having no sliders to start is a baffling exclusion.
Keybindings in Battle Axe fares even worse than volume. How worse can it get? There's no way to adjust controls in Battle Axe at all. You'll have to rely on the control scheme provided to you either on the controller or keyboard. I used a controller for the duration of my time with Battle Axe, and every moment I wished I could rebind a certain attack to a bumper or trigger; alas, with no option to change this, I found the gameplay to be unenjoyable. My co-op partner, using the mouse and keyboard, wasn't impressed by the control scheme either.
Yet another red flag presented itself before diving into the actual gameplay. There are three characters to choose from in Battle Axe: Rooney the Marauder, Fae the Dark Elf, and Iolo the Druid. The character select screen provides no indication as to how these characters play. There's no explanation of their abilities, so rather than giving players a brief rundown, they have to select a character and play the game to find out for themselves.
As it turns out, no matter who you choose, gameplay will feel relatively similar no matter what. Each character has a ranged and melee attack, as well as a special ability. Ranged attacks feel nearly identical to each other, as does melee. Special abilities are a tad more interesting since they add some mobility—like Rooney's charge or Iolo's teleport—as well as deals some damage. But overall, there is little difference between the three. As these are such similar characters, I question why anyone would choose Iolo since his health pool is lower than other characters, with Rooney's being the highest.
No matter who you choose, when your health runs out, you lose a life. You only have two lives in Battle Axe, with no option to find more in the four different levels. It's insulting to give such a paltry amount of lives with no option to get any extra. You rack up points like an arcade game and gather gold from enemies; it would be perfect to redeem either for an extra life.
Should you run out and die with zero lives remaining, players start the entirety of Battle Axe all over again. It's old-school to a fault.
It wouldn't be as frustrating to lose if Battle Axe didn't rely on cheaply-placed traps and enemies. Throughout the different levels of Battle Axe, you'll happen across certain hazards that are conveniently just out of view from the player, waiting to take a notch off your precious health. It's frustrating and adds insult to injury when there's no way to gain more lives. There are also hordes of enemies which are relatively easy to take out with a hit or two from melee or ranged, but some, like a knight with a lance, are also similar to traps in that they are just beyond your field of vision and lunge forward with an attack that is difficult to avoid.
Most puzzling of all, however, is the shop. After defeating the end-area boss in extremely bland, uncompelling battles, you'll get a chance to spend the money you've earned by defeating foes. The shop offers a variety of items, but for my first several playthroughs, I had no idea what any of these items did. Battle Axe offers no description for the shop items; rather, I had to look at Battle Axe's Steam store page, which conveniently had a rundown of the shop items and their descriptions. It's unacceptable to me that there is no way of knowing what these shop powerups did unless I looked at the game's store page. It's an incredibly strange oversight.
Battle Axe Takes Pixel Art to the Next Level
While I have nothing but complaints about the gameplay of Battle Axe, the visuals and sound design are a totally different story. What initially hooked me to Battle Axe was, in fact, the visual style. The pixel sprites are incredibly well-done by veteran artist Henk Nieborg, and he should be proud of the work he's put into Battle Axe. The character animations add a lot of life to each attack. Iolo uses his beard to attack enemies in melee range, and to see this long, flowing beard slap away at the numerous orcs, skeletons, and other beasts in Battle Axe is a treat.
While there are only four different levels in Battle Axe, each one is visually outstanding. The first level you begin on is a floating island with the ground below far underneath; by using parallax, it feels that you are, indeed, high up in the air and any wrong step could mean a very unpleasant fall. My favorite area is the one taking place within a castle complex, with crumbling walls and streams of clouds flowing by in the foreground.
If anything, Battle Axe nails it in its aesthetic.
The soundtrack is equally impressive, using the talent of Manami Matsumae. Her work can be heard as far back as the original Mega Man and as recent as Shovel Knight, so you know this is going to be one blast from the past. It does deliver on that front, so if anything, Battle Axe looks and sounds good. It's everything else that needs work.
Battle Axe | Final Thoughts
With an Arcade, New Game +, and Infinite mode, Battle Axe is also sparse on content. Spend around half an hour playing Battle Axe, and you've seen everything it has to offer. Infinite Mode would theoretically add a, well, infinite amount of gameplay, but it's a tacked-on feature. Infinite Mode has players go through an unlimited number of levels, reaching a portal, and moving on for no purpose other than attaining the highest score. This takes place on one tileset, so every portal takes you to the same-looking area. There really isn't a point to it.
On the surface, Battle Axe looks and sounds like an amazing retro throwback. When you dive into it, you'll find a lack of accessibility options and bland, uncompelling gameplay. Look, there's plenty of games that seek to emulate retro games of yesteryear, and many of them succeed—Battle Axe is one that requires far too much work to consider a success.
TechRaptor played Battle Axe on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
- Fantastic Pixel Art
- Authentic Throwback Soundtrack
- Lacking Keybindings, Audio Options
- Uninteresting Gameplay
- Small Lives Pool With No Way to Obtain More
- General Lack of Explanations Regarding Characters and Shop