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Actraiser Renaissance – Review

It’s December in 1991, and a young boy sits in his living room. It’s his birthday, and he’s just gotten a copy of a game he’d been asking after for months, ever since the first previews he read for it in Nintendo Power. It checked so many boxes for him.

Awesome platforming with tight controls through a great variety of environments, from lush forests to volcanos to pyramids.  A simulation that felt robust, but required no micromanagement. Some rad mode greatness in an overworld map where you could glide around and see all the towns you’d been nurturing and helping grow. The music was great, the boss battles were challenging and rewarding, and the young boy did little more for the week following his birthday than play this game.

It was a game where you played the part of a forgotten god, The Lord of Light, awakening to find the world more or less abandoned and ruled over by the Lord of Darkness, Tanzra. You must control an avatar to defeat hack and slash action stages and powerful bosses, and then guide your followers to build sprawling, thriving cities in the reclaimed realms in a simulation stage. And, as a child, he was absolutely captivated.

Fast forward just shy of thirty years, and imagine his surprise when he hops on his computer one day and sees that, while he’d been busy doing very important adult work things, like business, and driving, and taxes, Square Enix had snuck in a fairly major press release with information on a bunch of games.

Time to put on the nostalgia glasses.

The one that immediately drew the attention of the eight-year-old deep inside, who’d binged this particular game for a week straight, was the one on Actraiser Renaissance. And not only had they featured it, it was already out! And on PC too! He had Steam loaded up within minutes, nearly screaming “Take my money!” at the screen like he was in one of Fox’s many missed, unmissed, and then remissed opportunities.

And over the next few days, in between business, and driving, and taxes, he binged this new incarnation like he was eight years old again, instead of damn near forty.

And now that it’s done, he has opinions

Should you get it?

Let’s get this part out of the way early.  If you are picky in regards to your games, and don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the original, you can probably safely skip this one. Despite my little intro, and the very true fact that I binged the heck out of it, it’s pretty rough. If I was coming at this fresh, without my nostalgia, I probably wouldn’t have made it past the first realm.

That’s not to say it’s bad, because it honestly isn’t. What it is, is incredibly rough, as I’ll explain as we go into greater detail.

The Music

I’m going to start with something I adore. Much like the original, it has an excellent soundtrack. Sure, Quintet had a history of adapting, or in some cases straight re-using music tracks across multiple titles, but hell, when it’s good, what’s the harm? Each realm has its own soundtrack, with some exceptions. The platforming stages have one, and then the sim section has its own as well.

The original composer, Yuzo Koshiro, returned to score this remake and for the most part knocked it out of the park.  I’d argue a few changes are weaker than the original, such as the Harmonious Music you get in the game’s third realm and take back to the second, but all in all, every track is on mark and an improvement from the original.

In short, I count the music as a big win and a point in this remake’s favor.

The Sound

And now we’re going to move on to the rest of it…  The sound design falls fairly flat in my personal opinion. The sound when you swing the sword, the movements of enemies, attacks from bosses, magic, even sounds in the sim section, are all muted and uninspired.

Look at those sprites. Just look at them.

The original had excellent sound design, and it breaks my heart that it was more or less left by the wayside in this remake. I can recollect a great many sound effects from the original title years after having last played it. I cannot, however, remember a single sound effect from this new iteration despite having beaten it just last night before I started to write this review.

In short, the sound design in both the simulation and platforming stages is a major missed opportunity and a point against.

The Graphics

Hoo boy, now we’re gettin’ into the rough. Actraiser Renaissance feels like a very appropriate title, considering that word tends to inspire thoughts of history rather than an active, ongoing thing.

Graphically, it didn’t feel like I was playing through a game released in 2021 for modern gaming PCs or even the Switch. It felt like I was playing something originally designed for the PS2, or even the PS1.

There is effectively zero actual 3D in the game. It’s instead more or less entirely 2D sprites, most of which are created from pre-rendered 3D in both the platforming and simulation portions of the game. Add that to the fact that they all seemed to be rendered out at very low resolutions and it starts to get very chunky.

For reference, I was playing through this on a 4k TV, although I was playing in a window. The sprites all looked absolutely abysmal. The animations were incredibly rough, and for many of the sprites, it looked as though no real effort had been made. The sad truth is, this game is incredibly ugly to behold.

Now, for the character designs. You do get some rather nice full-body art for the town leaders and the new champion characters that were added in this reimagining, but even that falls fairly flat. Few of them seem to have any real character, they all seem like “generic anime fighter”, or “generic anime magician”.

In the sixth realm, they even have a boss that shows up for some dialog, and that was…well, it wasn’t well-drawn and I’ll just leave it at that.

Now, there did seem to be a single exception to the pre-rendered sprites, one character that actually did seem to be rendered out in real-time, and that was the sixth realm boss. I can’t imagine why he, and he alone, actually got a 3D model when nothing else did, and it’s especially frustrating when that actually managed to somehow look worse. He was barely even animated and mostly just flapped his wings and glided around the stage, occasionally flipping direction.

Not even the final boss or secret new boss got their own actual 3D models. Or much animation.

In short, the graphics are somehow weaker than the music, and a point against.

The Gameplay part the first: Platforming

Okay, time for something else good! The platforming, despite being kind of ugly sprite-wise and lacking decent sound design, is still pretty brilliant. All the original stages are recreated with fairly decent, though not stand-out, background art and recreated pretty faithfully too.

There are some changes, such as gaps to add in checkpoints, or changes to the layout that just make sense with the newer technology, but I’d argue they add rather than detract.

There are some weird little oddities in collision detection, though. For example, if you backstep into an enemy, they won’t actually damage you until you move. You can abuse this to great effect on some bosses, such as the act one boss. He has a few long attacks that hit right in front of him. You can just backstep into him, and wail away while he just stands there and takes it. You can also backstep right through spikes without taking any damage.  It stands to reason that this was probably just an oversight and minor enough that, even if it was noticed, wasn’t deemed worth the trouble to change.

Behold my backstepping prowess.

I’m also befuddled that they didn’t include the platforming mainstay of being able to crouch and jump to drop through platforms you can jump on. It wasn’t common at the time of the original, but it’s more or less a hallmark of modern platformers. Considering the things they did change or add, such as being able to backstep and have immunity frames while doing so, as well as adding the ability to change direction during a jump, I’m surprised they didn’t include this mechanic.

This is also where we start to see actual, genuine, changes. For one, a sort of charge-up system has been added in the form of crystals, new enemies, and some destructible objects. The charge-up has five levels, and as you fill the gauge at the top left, you get progressively more powerful. First level, you get an extra 20% attack damage. Second, 20% magic damage. Then 50% attack, then magic. And at the fifth, 100% extra attack and magic damage, plus a free revive if you get downed, letting you keep the damage bonuses.

This is a pretty satisfying system, and it feels very good to be one or two-shotting enemies at the end of the stage that you had to really work at when you start. It’s accompanied by a sort of glowing aura for your character that changes color as you climb the charge levels. Granted, this aura doesn’t look fantastic and is clearly just a hue-shifted version of your sprite getting cloned upwards a pixel at a time, like a mouse trail kicked to highest speed and longest lifespan, but it’s still kind of neat.

The bosses, on the other hand, are significantly less satisfying. The first boss is actually pretty great and a very faithful recreation, but every boss after that didn’t get nearly the same love. For one thing, their attack patterns are completely different. In many cases, their actual attacks are completely different and it was clear that they didn’t have a ton of thought put into them.

The boss of the second realm’s first act, the mighty Manticore, is completely unpredictable. He hops all over the place, does a ton of damage, and you just can’t lock him down. I had to beat him by just spamming my fireball whenever I managed to look in his direction. And this is the third boss you fight. Sure, it’s ramping up at this point, but there are fifteen bosses in this game if you count both the final bosses’ forms and the secret boss. Twenty-one if you count the refight boss-rush. The third boss doesn’t feel like a good place to suddenly toss in an unpredictable enemy, with fireballs, that crosses the entire arena in less than a second. Especially when many of the bosses that follow are far, far easier fare. Granted, the arena in the original had instant death pits you could get knocked into pretty easily, whereas the new ones just damage you, but still!

The boss rush at the end even feels…well, rushed, for lack of a better term. It leads in by saying they’re all back and stronger, but most of them actually felt far weaker than when you originally fought them. The second one even skips his entire first phase. I was able to beat him before he could even make a second attack, and that was without using magic. The final boss was a cakewalk and almost felt like I was just going through the motions. Hell, even the secret boss wasn’t that much of a challenge.

Come to think of it, very little of the game was challenging. Each stage gives you three, five, or infinite lives based on your difficulty. I believe I died only a single time through the entire playthrough, and that was just because I wasn’t paying attention and had botched some platforming several times. I used my free 100% resurrection exactly one time during that Manticore fight I mentioned above.

I remember the first Actraiser being pretty dang difficult at times. This was still the case when I was replaying it as an adult, just a couple of years ago. In comparison, this new one is surprisingly easy with the only exceptions being boss fights that weren’t particularly well-designed for where they occur in the game.

All that to say that the platforming still felt pretty good if dated, given the poor graphics. Chunky, but still good.

A point tentatively for. But only just.

The Gameplay part the second: Simulation

This is probably the biggest disappointment of the entire thing for me, personally. I thoroughly enjoyed the simulation gameplay in the original and it just falls flat on its face here.

For one, in the original, every monster in the simulation had its own behaviors. They’d all target a different thing and had a different reaction to you, the player. Each had its own movement patterns and attacks and targets. Every single one felt unique.

The Napper Bat would fly to a hut, kidnap four villagers out of it and try to take them back to their lair, though you could kill the bat and save them. A feat accomplished with a single arrow. The Blue Dragon would fly around and use lightning to torch houses and instantly kill villagers, could easily dodge shots if you were too close, and it took three to kill! The Red Demon targeted fields specifically, drying them out with heat, and took four hits to take down. And the most fearsome monster, the Skull Head, could summon earthquakes that would destroy any and all un-upgraded houses on the map, took a ludicrous eight shots to kill, and did huge damage if it hit you with its rush attack.

In Renaissance, however, they’re all just kind of boring. The only real difference between any of them is how many hits it takes to beat them. It adds a couple of new monsters, although they’re really just recolors of the Blue Dragon and Red Demon, in the form of the Gold Dragon and Blue demon. They no longer seem to have special targets, no longer have special reactions to the player character, and don’t have any have unique attacks. Every one of them will just destroy a single house, workshop, or field at a time, and they all take between one and five hits to kill. In short, they lack any real character.

One of the new monsters, the Gold Dragon, doesn’t even seem to have been programmed properly. Unlike all the other monsters, it never attacks the town. It really doesn’t do much of anything; it just flies aimlessly around the map, occasionally veering towards your character like a drunken uncle in a family get-together. I ended up mostly just ignoring them when I came across them and avoided their very rare attempts to run into me, again exactly like your drunk uncle.

Additionally, in the original, you could see how many monsters were still in a lair, and you could destroy a lair by just killing all the monsters as they spawned from it. In Renaissance, you can’t do that anymore. The only way to destroy a lair is to guide the town’s construction to it and then play a mini-platforming stage to destroy the spawner. And you have to wait until you finish certain quests and dialog options to do so. It doesn’t matter if your town’s already there if you haven’t built four forts, one of which is a gatehouse, and handled the horde yet.

Which brings us to one of the weakest additions: hordes. If I could play the game without this at all, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

To be clear, this wasn’t in the original. Now, either as part of quests littered through the game or at random intervals, you’ll have to defend the settlement from monster invasions. But you can’t shoot the monsters with the Angel like you do in the regular simulation. Oh, no. You have to do it with forts, champions, and occasionally miracles (that, exclusively in this mode, only hit monsters), turning the simulation into a kind of crappy tower defense game. And a very weak one at that.

Where you can place your three types of forts, namely gatehouses, blockhouses (archers’ towers), and magehouses, seems almost entirely random and you have to deprive your town of land in order to do so. You also get a champion you can use, gaining a new one per realm, that fit into obvious archetypes. You’ve got two attack speeds, slow and fast, and three attack types, melee, ranged, and magic. Each hero also has a sort of passive bonus, such as increasing the ranges of all towers and champions, or increasing the attack speed of all towers and champions. At the start, you can only have one, but by the end of the game, you’ll be able to summon up to two additional champions as the fight goes on.

But, ultimately, it’s boring. The missions occasionally add arbitrary loss conditions like losing all your workshops or fields or losing 50% of your gatehouses.

And that adds another monkey wrench to the gears. In my playthrough, I preferred archer and mage towers, since they can hit a wide area and gatehouses only affect monsters that actually walk into it; a task that’s hard to make happen on a road that’s a grid where monsters can just take a different road to your temple. Many missions will force you to have a gatehouse, meaning I had multiple instances where I had to demolish one of my towers to build a gatehouse somewhere, only for it to never do anything and be destroyed immediately after the fight so I could rebuild my tower.

You can also place palisades to slow monsters. But once again, you can only place them at pre-determined points and those points seem random and arbitrary; I could almost never put one where I actually wanted it. Often, building one further from my main towers actually hurt things more than helped them. They do no damage, so they just make an entire wave of monsters bunch up, letting ten monsters get to my towers and champions all at the same time instead of in a nice, manageable queue of one at a time.

Anyway, enough griping about the weak mini-game and poor monster design, how about the actual simulation?

Well, it isn’t much better. Like in the original, you simply guide the town on where to build the roads. After a set period of time on a regular cycle, people will rush out from the temple to build houses, fields, and workshops around the map. However, where they originally used a very simple grid that made it all very easy to understand and set up, the new one doesn’t use any real grid I can discern. There’s no way to really tell if a given area has enough room for a workshop or field, or if it’s just going to be houses. Additionally, the population limits all feel very low.

In the original, population was largely controlled by the size and layout of the map, along with an engine limitation in the first two realms. But inevitably, you’d fill every open bit of land in every realm, and you could grow until you literally had no room left to grow. It was also controlled by a bunch of factors, including your score in platforming stages and killing monsters in the simulation.

In Renaissance, it’s instead controlled entirely by how many fields you have and what level they are. They come in three levels, based on the civ level, and do not automatically upgrade, meaning that you have to destroy them with miracles each civ level up in order for new ones that support higher populations to be built. Your score doesn’t affect population, nor does killing monsters, or anything else other than fields and, occasionally, how much land there is.

The latter rarely comes into the equation, though.  In almost every realm, I ended up with tons of real estate that had no structures at all. Nothing other than really poorly animated little villages going through a repeating three or four-frame animation loop in place. The result is that every realm has a very solidly set population cap. The fifth realm, for example, will only let you build three fields, so you end up with exactly 302 villagers. And this leaves nearly half the map completely empty. It’s also the smallest realm, which means the tiniest area also ends up being the emptiest when it should arguably be the most crowded.

The remake also does away with a lot of little animated story bits. In the above-mentioned fifth realm, there’s this little segment where you get to watch a guy walk out to the shore from the temple, get on a boat, and then go to the island north to find a treasure; that’s gone now. There’s another in the second where you get to watch a guy sneak into the castle, also gone. Considering how many animated villagers they added to make these towns feel alive, they seem awfully lifeless without all these charming little touches.

In short, the simulation is probably the weakest part of this whole endeavor, which makes it all the worse considering it’s also where you’ll be spending most of your time. It’s a huge point against.

Extra little odds and ends

Now, I do need to cover a few things that I don’t really feel fit into the sections above.

First, the champions. This is an entirely new addition for the remake, largely put in to help the tower defense thing work. Now, some of these characters are interesting, and many of them had really unique, well-written stories and motivations. But by the end, they’re all basically the same. Absolute zealots, all prior motivations more or less forgotten, driven entirely by the worship of your character, the Lord of Light.

Some of these feel like natural progressions, but others feel very forced. The fourth realm champion, for example, has a major moment involving her own religion, separate from you. She even prays, with some success, for the health of one of the town leaders. This results in him receiving prophetic visions, which one would think would bolster her faith.

But nope, it’s forgotten almost immediately, even as those visions reunite her with her body and make her whole again (don’t ask). She abandons that faith entirely, worshipping you completely instead without so much as a second thought.

The sixth champion isn’t even human. She’s some odd…Snow…Elf…Thing. They never really detail what she is, at all.  Just that she’s clearly not human. You never see any more of her people and she never discusses them. It is never addressed other than to say that she isn’t human, in a game where literally every other character other than you, your Angel, and the monsters, is human.

The game also adds a series of linear quests and CONSTANTLY interrupts the simulation with boring, uninspired dialog at the temple, delivered anime visual novel style. These have no real animation aside from the Angel floating up and down ever so slightly. It sometimes has these lens flare effects when something dramatic is happening, but these are pretty poorly executed as well.

Conclusion

The original Actraiser was a fantastic game and still holds up fairly well. If you want to play a game with this blend of genres, just play that one. It’s on virtual console. The remake, while not bad, is uninspired and represents a huge missed opportunity to revisit the game.

It’s also kind of telling that the sales department listed in the credits absolutely dwarfs the actual dev team…

I’ve seen a few people vocally defend this remake while acknowledging how weak it is, with cries of “by supporting this, we show Square Enix that we want more of this franchise!” Well, my logic says that by supporting this, we show Square Enix that we’re willing to accept this level of mediocrity, and that it’s alright to cash in on nostalgia with something that could barely be considered a real attempt for a publisher with the kind of money they can throw around.

Unless you’re just terribly nostalgic like me, and willing to overlook how rough Renaissance is around the edges, skip it.  Pray instead that someone else will be inspired by this to go out and give us a proper game in this unique, tragically underserved genre.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to business stuff and driving and taxes.

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