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One of my favourite games of 2021 so far is also a game that, on first impressions, looks like it's been locked in a time capsule since the mid-1990s, sealed away at the end of the 16-bit era. But Battle Axe, the new retro-styled release from celebrated pixel artist Henk Nieborg and British studio Bitmap Bureau, is very much a modern affair, releasing for Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on April 30, published by Numskull Games.
Unlike the previous collaboration between Nieborg - whose credits include 1990s games for the Amiga and Mega Drive, Harry Potter and Batman titles, and releases from the ever-excellent WayForward Technologies - and Bitmap Bureau, the fantastic Xeno Crisis of 2019, Battle Axe isn't explicitly made to play on old consoles. The top-down, alien-splatting action of Xeno Crisis (read our coverage of it, here) was produced for the Mega Drive, Dreamcast and Neo Geo, as well as for modern consoles, and was subsequently ported to the retro-centric handheld, the Evercade. But Battle Axe isn't targeting actual throwback systems - at least not just yet, as if it does well, the future is unwritten.
"We created Battle Axe for most modern consoles," Nieborg tells me, over email - do check out the game's trailer above. "Xeno Crisis was the other way around - it initially started as a SEGA Mega Drive project, but also has been ported to many other retro consoles in the meantime. But a Mega Drive version of Battle Axe is, sadly, impossible. But if we decide to do a retro port of Battle Axe, then the Evercade should be able to emulate that."
And that 16-bit impossibility kind of becomes apparent, when you move from looking at the game's beautiful pixel-art screenshots and get stuck into Battle Axe for yourself. From the sheer speed of the thing, to the extensive voice-over work and fantastic music, by former in-house Capcom composer Manami Matsumae ("I was very pleased to have a legendary composer like her onboard," Nieborg says), it feels a lot more like a 21st century game dressed in late-20th century clothing. Even the nature of the gameplay is something of a mix, with fans of contemporary roguelikes (like Hades) certain to click with its sprawling dungeons, and old-school arcade-goers also likely to find it evocative of some coin-op classics.
"Battle Axe is mainly inspired by (Atari's 1985 arcade classic) Gauntlet but has a more open approach," Nieborg explains. "The art style used is also bigger and bolder, which makes it feel more different and immersive. Games from Capcom, Konami and SEGA have been an influence; so to hack 'n' slash classics from the 1990s like Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, and Knights of the Round - not just visually but also regarding gameplay."
And that art style truly is a wondrous thing. No matter the character you select - there are three: Rooney the marauding pirate (who carries a cannon on his shoulder), Fae the dagger-wielding dark elf, and Iolo the bearded druid - they're infused with a fantastically physical sense of personality, with animation doing the heavy lifting where lots of facial close-ups just aren't possible on all characters. Enemies in the land of game's Mercia setting, sent form by the evil sorceress Etheldred, range from the grotesque to the kind of cute, but all are there to be chopped into chunks; and environments are finely balanced between enticing detail and remaining perfectly navigable. However 'lost' you might sometimes feel, there's always an obvious way forward.
"I had many quirky ideas about the characters, but ended up with a classic line-up with some funny twists," Nieborg tells me. "I stuck to more classic design as I knew this would work in a game like Battle Axe. Unfortunately, I only had time to create and animate three different heroes that all offer a different gameplay experience, but I think they are all fun to play."
Time, inevitably, played a part in Battle Axe's playable protagonist options being limited to a trio. "All the animations for just one hero took approximately two months to design and animate," Nieborg says. "I was the sole artist on this game because it was my pet project, and I knew it could be done in time, but the workload was a bit nuts sometimes. I had many more playable characters planned, like a flame-throwing Jinn, a Minotaur, and a fish-like creature shooting with piranhas out of a popgun, just to name a few. I really hope Battle Axe does so well that we can afford to create more scenery, enemies, and player characters."
Battle Axe has already achieved one important level of success - its Kickstarter campaign exceeded its fundraising target, bringing in almost £74,000 towards development. Now, partnered with Numskull Games, it has the chance of taking its action-packed, arcade-style gameplay to many more players than those who backed it. And when I say arcade-style, I mean it in the purest, most challenging way: there are no continues here, so when it's game over, it's back to the start for you.
"We wanted Battle Axe to be a tough, rewarding, and fun challenge, and I think we found the right balance," Nieborg says. "Since our game is more arcade oriented, I hope the player will appreciate this kind of approach." It's worth noting that two-player local co-op (no online support is available, yet) does make things a little bit more manageable in the arcade campaign mode; and the game also offers an 'Infinite Mode', which keeps on throwing randomly generated dungeons at the player, to hone their skills. And there might even be more help available, hidden away. "There are certainly cheat modes built into the game, which we will probably reveal later," the artist adds.
"The ingredients of a classic are here,. for sure," Nieborg confidently states. "I really hope the players will agree with me and enjoy this, and that we've hopefully created an evergreen game." In my experience with Battle Axe, I have to agree that it doesn't feel pinned to any particular eras of gaming - yes, it takes inspiration from the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 21st century, but at no one moment does it feel like it's merely an imitation of relevant titles from those periods. It's a demanding, high-energy adventure that'll have your senses sparking and your reactions on fire; and I, too, hope that it does well enough for its maker for it to be expanded on, be that with extra characters and levels, or the implementation of online co-op.
Battle Axe releases for Nintendo Switch (version tested, code provided by the publisher), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux on April 30. Unless it's already out, as platforms vary, in which case: have at it.
Featured Image Credit: Numskull Games