Developer: Henk Nieborg
Publisher: Numskull Games
Genre(s): Adventure, Arcade, Multiplayer
Platform: Switch (also available on PlayStation, Xbox and Steam)
Age Rating: PEGI 7
Release Date: 29/04/2021
A code was provided for review purposes
Battle Axe is a top-down hack and slash adventure developed by talented pixel artist Henk Nieborg. Having worked on many games in the past such as Wizard of Legend, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, and Xeno Crisis, there is no doubt that the development team has plenty of experience working in the field. Does this experience come through in Battle Axe? Find out in this Rapid Review.
Minimal Story Focus
The developers of Battle Axe do not boast about their story design, as there is not much on offer. The plot is never established officially. There is a cutscene that plays before entering the main menu that shows an abstract synopsis of what is going on. Despite the lack of story content, I was not disappointed, as the developers expressly stated that Battle Axe was a gameplay focused title.
However, while I did not mind the lack of story, the world-building was a bit strange. On my journey, I fought various enemies, each wielding dated weapons. There were never gunslinging enemies and there were no futuristic weapons. The closest thing to advanced technology was the orcs in the sniper towers that hurled rocks or bombs at me. To my surprise, one of the main objectives is destroying the variety of generators I encountered. It was strange seeing assets used from widely different time periods. Even though this was a bit silly, the story content and world building did not affect my view of the game whatsoever. If the gameplay is good, the game can score highly.
Thankfully, Battle Axe has a rewarding combat system. There are three playable characters to choose from. Though they are largely the same, they each have slight differences that encouraged me to find which one best suited my playstyle. They each have a melee attack, a ranged attack, and an attack that also serves as mobility. These options are basic, but I enjoyed learning when and how to use each option effectively. Another thing I appreciated about the character design is that the walking speed is fast. There was no run button needed. I could navigate the map at a comfortable pace and explore without it feeling tedious. While the speed varies by character, I found each one was sufficient. Battle Axe includes a significant amount of depth in the character abilities, and they are each fun to play.
In addition to the basic abilities, scattered throughout the levels I found additional one-time use items. There were bombs, magic scrolls, and healing items. These supplemented the existing move set of the characters nicely. I enjoyed figuring out the best time to use these items. Not only was I encouraged to use them strategically, but the developers only allowed me to carry one item. I liked this choice, as I was always looking for an opportunity to keep my inventory open while making good use of my item. Moreover, killing enemies and exploring the level had me finding coins. In between levels, these coins could be spent on upgrades, and I enjoyed experimenting with different items and purchasing more health or firepower. The additional pickups in this game make the combat deep and rewarding.
Unfortunately, one problem that arose, especially with these abilities, was the lack of explanation. Purchasing items at the shop is simple but figuring out what they do is somehow more challenging. I purchased a few items that increased my capabilities. One increased my strength (though I am not sure which one), one increased my health, and I had purchased two others that I did not even know what they did. Considering it is a shop, it would not be challenging to explain what each item is, especially on my first arrival. The base game did not need a tutorial, and the shop did not either, but explaining mechanics more effectively would have made the game better.
Even if I did not know what all my items did, I knew they were great at helping me kill my enemies. I found the enemy designs to be effective. Enemies telegraphed their attacks, showed clearly how much health remained, and kept me occupied on my journey. None of the enemies were particularly interesting or unique, but they all fulfilled their purpose with no issues. The bosses were also very enjoyable to fight against. They completely change the tide of gameplay, making things shift from moving about a large map to fighting on a small battlefield. They were refreshing, and I had fun fighting each one.
The level design in Battle Axe was also fine. There did not seem to be any major changes in each level apart from additional colour palates and new enemies being used. The backgrounds would change, but no key features or assets were used to differentiate the levels from one another. One thing I did enjoy about each level is the inclusion of civilians (like those from Zombies ate my Neighbors). These sprites were hidden along the level encouraging exploration and mastery. On subsequent playthroughs, these characters are in the same spots, so I needed to explore less the more I played. I liked that design, as if I already beat a level on a prior run, I do not want to spend additional time revisiting and exploring the level. Though the level design is basic, I had a great time destroying enemies and rescuing civilians throughout the levels.
With such simple enemies and level design, I was surprised that I was aptly challenged throughout my playthrough. The game is tough, but never overwhelmingly difficult. After I completed the game, I unlocked a new game plus. This had me revisiting the same levels reversed, with enemies gaining new abilities, attacking faster, and more challenging boss fights. If these modes are too challenging, in the options menu, there is a difficulty option. The player can change from the default hard mode to easy mode. It was a bit disappointing that there was only one accessibility option and that it was buried in the options menu. Sure, this makes it clear that the intended difficulty is the hard mode, but it may hide the option from those who need it most. I also think some additional options should have been included. Regardless, the game includes a good challenge spectrum.
Axe to the Max
Even with the new game plus, Battle Axe is incredibly short, especially at the price point. There are four levels in the main campaign. To supplement the main campaign, there is an endless mode. This endless mode is fun, but I had more fun with the structured levels from the campaign. The developers also added a scoring system so players can compete with themselves for the best score. This score increases by killing enemies and collecting gems but decreases when taking damage. I did not receive finite guidance about the scoring system, but I did feel I scored higher when I played better. If replaying an endless mode and score-chasing will keep you immersed in the title for enough time, Battle Axe is an excellent choice. However, for someone like me who enjoys structured level design, the game was too short, especially considering that there are few original ideas.
Not only does the short run time detract from the overall experience, but I also encountered some slight performance issues. Specifically, on level three, certain areas would drop frames. The issue was significant enough for me to realize without advanced technology or counting the frames. It was not a large issue, but again, considering the price point, there should not be issues with the performance.
Hear my Battle Cry
On the other hand, Battle Axe has an excellent soundtrack and visual design. The music kept me engaged in the combat, and each enemy and even the player look gorgeous in the visual style. Nieborg’s visual design talent truly shines in this title. I thought the presentation was great. There was also a voice actor who occasionally shouted out comments related to what ensued in battle. This did not strongly impact my opinion of the game, but I greatly appreciated the soundtrack and visual direction.
At such a high price point, Battle Axe disappoints with a short run time, minor performance issues, and a lack of unique level designs. Regardless, the gameplay loop is rewarding and there is plenty of fun to be had, especially if you enjoy mastering specific levels. Though I was let down by some features, I really enjoyed my time with Battle Axe.
Rapid Reviews Rating
3.5 out of 5
You can purchase Battle Axe on the Nintendo eShop here
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.