Sega's Golden Axe series was once one of the company's crown jewels; a fantasy side-scroller that not only helped establish the Mega Drive's credentials but also spawned a series which would branch out into genres such as one-on-one fighting, action RPG and even into full 3D, God of War territory.
In more recent years, however, Sega has largely forgotten about the series, outside of rare merchandising opportunities or micro-consoles, like the Astro City Mini. It has fallen, as is so often the case, to fans to keep its memory alive – and prolific 'fan game' developer ZVitor has created a Golden Axe 'sequel' that's so good, we honestly doubt Sega itself could better it.
Built using the OpenBOR ("Beats of Rage") game engine, Golden Axe Returns is a glorious tribute to everything that makes this series so special, and is set after the events of the often divisive Mega Drive outing Golden Axe III but prior to the arcade exclusive Revenge of Death Adder. On the surface, it's an updated take on the traditional Golden Axe entries; belt-scrolling action involving swords and sorcery set across a wide range of fantasy locations. Tyris Flare, Ax Battler and Gilius Thunderhead all return, as do cast members from the likes of Revenge of Death Adder, Golden Axe: The Duel and Golden Axe III.
While the action might feel familiar, ZVitor has done much to augment the experience and bring the concept up to date. For example, weapons can be dropped, thrown or lost (one enemy casts a rust spell which destroys your current weapon), which adds a welcome wrinkle to proceedings; without a weapon, your attacks are weaker – but your move set is subtly changed, allowing you to sometimes pull off faster combos than you would with your default weapon.
You'll also find that, in certain situations, it's beneficial to drop your current armament and pick up another; spears, for example, are great for keeping enemies at a distance. Oh, and you can't ride one of the game's many monsters without dropping your current weapon – another unique change which makes the game feel fresh and challenging.
As well as the magic system, you can now pull off Final Fight-style special attacks, which are perfect for crowd control but come at a cost – using them depletes your health a little. The ability to juggle enemies when they're in the air is also included and is most welcome indeed.
Visually, Golden Axe Returns looks fantastic, taking assets from several previous entries in the franchise (as well as some outside of it – enemies from Capcom's Knights of the Round appear at one point, for example) while adding in some new locations to spice things up. The soundtrack is also suitably epic, comprising of classic tunes that have been skillfully rearranged using modern tools. Oh, and the fact the game supports four players means it's just as much fun as a social game as the original was on the Mega Drive all those years ago (the option to turn off 'friendly fire' should be ignored, it's more fun that way).
Sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming, like too many elements are being thrown together at once, but this is a fault that can be levelled at a lot of fan games – and it's important to remember that ZVitor doesn't have the resources available to him that a studio like, say, DotEmu would have when producing the likes of Streets of Rage 4, so balancing problems are to be expected. And, we should point out, this is simply Version 1.0 – we dare say the game will be improved and refined as time goes on.
We'll try not to spoil any of the other secrets in Golden Axe Returns; suffice to say, if you're a fan of the series and have access to a PC, you should download it as soon as possible. Let us know what you think of it by posting a comment below.