Considering that Makoto Uchida’s work on Golden Axe was inspired by combining a fantasy backdrop with Double Dragon’s gameplay — alongside the fact that Golden Axe was originally going to be named as Battle Axe or Broad Axe instead — the greatest compliment we can give Numskull Games’ PS4 Battle Axe is that it successfully captures the spirit of its inspirations. From its origins as a Kickstarter project, Battle Axe was pitched by developers Henk Nieborg and Bitmap Bureau as a top-down game that draws its vision not just from Gauntlet, but also the settings of Golden Axe and Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara.
Nieborg’s delightfully detailed pixel art presents Battle Axe like a CP System era arcade game, and the Capcom references extend to Manami Matsumae’s fantastic fantasy soundtrack, which is boosted from her experience of composing beat-’em-up music for Final Fight, and particularly her tunes in Magic Sword.
Gameplay mixes brawling with shooting, so while Fae the Dark Elf’s attacks are melee focussed, the contrast between the three selectable characters is what separates Battle Axe as being closer to a top-down run-and-gun game, rather than just hacking-and-slashing. Rooney’s cannon blasts play like a shooter, and making the most of Iolo’s Gunstar Heroes-esque fixed shot fireballs makes progressing as the Balin the Hobbit lookalike feel like a retro modern take on The Chaos Engine.
The difficulty curve is well balanced, where avoiding fire traps and hidden spikes takes precedence in Stage 3, and the challenge ramps up with aggressive enemies returning projectiles in the final Stage 4. Two player local co-op makes the game easier at first — although you both must press forward in unison, as players who rush ahead of a lagging friend are punished with cheap hits. Arcade Mode’s tough challenge and action-packed boss battles are rigidly old school in that losing three lives results in game over, and you have to restart the entire game without any checkpoints, or save states, and not even any credits to continue.
There’s replay value to be found in the Hard difficulty setting, or chasing 29 Trophies for a Platinum, as well as an unlockable New Game+ challenge. Yet, even the inclusion of an extra Infinite Mode highlights how the core gameplay becomes repetitive, plus the four main areas of Arcade Mode can be beaten in less than an hour. If the idea of exploring to save villagers reminds you fondly of Zombies Ate My Neighbors, or perhaps you remember isometric arcade brawlers like Dungeon Magic and Wizard Fire, then the nostalgia conjured up from Battle Axe mixing together two formidable old genres may still hack-and-slash its way into your heart.