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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (477)

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ActRaiser Renaissance   PC (Steam) 

Subtraction by Addition    4/5 stars

In September of 2021, Square-Enix both stealth-announced and stealth-released a ground-up remake of “ActRaiser,” dubbed “ActRaiser Renaissance” (“Renaissance”) for PC, PlayStation 4 and Switch (and mobile, as if anyone cares). This caught me completely off-guard, as “ActRaiser,” which was released as a SNES launch title in 1991 (complete with its picture on the back of the console’s box), was one of my favorite SNES games. “ActRaiser” received but one horrendously miss-managed sequel in 1993 before the IP was put on ice for decades.

That ice, however, wasn’t particularly glacial, as the original developer, Quintet, tried (unsuccessfully) to ‘remix’ the two ‘ActRaiser’ games into a unified game called “Solo Crisis,” which not only released on the failure that was the Sega Saturn, but remained unlocalized outside of Japan. A third ‘ActRaiser’ game was in development for the Nintendo 64, before Quintet pulled the plug, leaving us with mixed memories and a Virtual Console re-release on the Wii.

Square-Enix has been doing a LOT of bizarre and unpredictable things in the last few years, and resurrecting a dead IP with a fresh remake ranks among them, notwithstanding the complete lack of hype and pre-release promotion surrounding the remake. However, with a ‘budget’ price (in Square-Enix world) of $30, I was willing to throw some money at this remake the first time it hit 50% off during a Steam sale. What I found was a bit of a mixed bag that is faithful in some ways, improved in others, and covered in unnecessary cruft in still others.

Presentation
“Renaissance” was developed by Sonic Powered – a small, Japanese contract studio that has been developing videogames since the 1990s – in collaboration Square-Enix Creative Business Unit 4 (and what an oxymoronic name that is!). I went in expecting a typical ‘modern’ remake with 2.5D graphics, slapped together in the Unity Engine. Instead, “Renaissance” is a 100% bone-a-fide 2D game made entirely out of layered 2D assets. The modern sprites do, however, try to go for a more dimensional look, reminiscent of older games like the ‘Donkey Kong Country’ series on the SNES, or pretty much any sprite-based N64 game, with pre-rendered 3D objects converted into 2D sprites. In the side-scrolling portions of the game, these visuals look alright, with attractive environments and striking boss monsters, but with generally drab-looking minion monsters and a less-than-divine appearance for the Master himself. In simulation mode, the new visuals really pop, though, with far more detailed citizens ( or, ‘Feebs,’ as I used to call them in the original game) populating the maps. The Guardian Angel and the monsters he must chase away from the various cities of the world, though, are more of the same pre-rendered sprite work, and while they are well animated, tend to look a little cheesy.

Audio is, as always, one of the game’s killer features. “ActRaiser” had an absolutely mindblowing soundtrack composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who returned for the remake. Not only are all of the classic tracks there, “Renaissance” includes a sizeable number of new tracks. Even better, in a rare move from Square-Enix, the game allows players to choose whether to have the soundtrack play in its original SNES MIDI quality or in a new symphonic quality. Otherwise, the sound effects are still great and as iconic as they ever were, however, “Renaissance” is surprisingly unvoiced, with entirely text-based dialog throughout.

Technically, “Renaissance” is as inoffensive as any SNES game. It ‘just works’ out of the box, with native Xinput support on PC that can seamlessly swap to typewriter controls. Unlike Square-Enix’s bigger recent releases, “Renaissance” isn’t saddled with Denuvo or any other onerous DRM, nor is it festooned with microtransactions or other forms of DLC. It is, indeed, a complete product. However, in a bizarre and censorious move that didn’t afflict the SNES original, even though it was released in a time of fervent Bible thumping and prayer-bead-clutching over heathen games corrupting the youth, it is forbidden to name the main character of the game, who is the Christian God, either Jehovah, Yahweh, or the Tetragrammaton, which offends me deeply. I was stuck naming my God ‘Monad’ in a lame tribute to Neo-Platonist syncretism.

Story
“Renaissance” re-treads the familiar story of the original “ActRaiser,” but adds a lot of new narrative concepts to the mix as well. While the original game is a thinly-veiled (by the North American censors) parable about the eternal struggle between Good and Evil embodied in the Christian God and Satan, what we actually got in the original localization was a story about the eternal struggle between Good and Evil embodied in The Master and the Demon Lord Tanzra.

The game begins centuries after the last massive conflict between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, which saw The Master defeated and humanity scoured from the face of the Earth by the monstrous minions of the Demon Lord. The Master re-awakens to the cherubic face of an Angel who has been keeping The Master’s Sky Palace safe for all these years. The Angel informs The Master that the Demon Lord has grown complacent, and if The Master can re-establish humanity and shepherd them into a force that can resist the demons, he can force another confrontation, and, backed by the faith of the people, win.

Thus The Master descends into a haunted forest in the region known as Fillmore to renew the fight by defeating one of Tanzra’s lieutenants. With the monstrous presence weakened, The Master is able to create two new humans who will be the ancestors of everyone living in the region. At this point, the Angel must step in and guard the people from demonic incursions while tracking down the last demonic lieutenant whose death will finally free the region from demonic influence for good.

This basic story template repeats itself over 6 chapters, each taking place in a new location with a unique biome (Forest, Lake, Desert, Volcano, Tropical Island, Ice). Each separate group of The Master’s people finds themselves up against unique hardships from both their location and the activities of the demons arrayed against them.

Unlike the original “ActRaiser,” though, “Renaissance” is an INCREDIBLY verbose and wordy game, narratively speaking. The Angel has a LOT more to say, and will dump paragraph after paragraph at the player, oftentimes repeating himself. Not only that, but the faithful humans of the world generally have a lot more to say as well. Of course, a lot of this new dialog comes from the fact that, as a Square-Enix game, there has to be something to do with ‘Crystals’ and ‘Warriors of Light,’ so “Renaissance” features a cadre of six Chosen Heroes, each of whom is tied to one of the world’s regions. Ultimately, few of these Chosen Heroes really feel at home within the “ActRaiser” narrative structure, requiring a lot of nonsensical handwaving to justify their existence in a world that was depopulated of all humans.

Perhaps the most aggravating narrative change, though, is the fact that the humans feel far more helpless than they did in the original version of the game. They call on The Master to do more things for them, yet the Angel typically follows-up these activities by proclaiming that the people feel more self-assured and braver, creating a fairly severe case of ludonarrative dissonance, in which what we, the players, are doing in the game and what we are being told by the game that we’re doing don’t mesh up.

Originally, “ActRaiser” was a huge influence on the development of my personal theology, growing up. The idea that God was remote and aloof, and only really intervened directly in human activity when those activities were being directly threatened by some other agent of the supernatural really stuck with me. Even the original bitter-sweet ending, in which the Angel confesses to The Master that he imagines that one day humans will forget all about them really struck a chord. While “Renaissance” largely has all of the same ideas coming out of its mount (accompanied by about 50,000 more words than necessary), this new world in which demi-god heroes lead the tribes of humanity while actual God comes and seals up all the monster lairs for them instead of letting them figure out how to do it themselves just doesn’t click.

Lastly, I would like to point out how bizarre the use of pronouns is in the English localization. For some reason, the Angel refers to The Master as ‘they’ all the time. Not ‘He’ with a capital ‘H,’ but the plural, which is typically used within the Gender Dysphoria community to denote non-binary gender identity. If we were dealing with a Trinitarian interpretation of The Master as the Christian God, ‘they’ might make sense, but there’s really no effort at theologically linking The Master to the Father, the Angel to the Holy Spirit, and one or more of the Chosen Heroes to the Son, so I can only assume this use of ‘they’ is gender pandering nonsense.

Clocking in at around 20 hours, “Renaissance” is definitely a bit beefier than the original game, but this is largely due to the padding of extra dialog and a complete re-working of many gameplay systems to be more formulaic and banal, with Quests and time-gates put in place in nearly all of the regions. Really, the only new content that’s actually good is a new region that becomes accessible after defeating Tanzra, in which The Master will encounter a rather vague blast from the past.

Gameplay
“ActRaiser” was always a unique game solely for the fact that it took two entirely disparate genres – 2D Platformer and Simulation – and stuck them together. Spread out over 6 regions (plus a bonus post-game region), the player is tasked with resurrecting a civilization via a City-Building Simulation. However, this Simulation is bookended by two ‘Acts’ – giving the game its title – in which the player, as The Master, descends from the heavens to possess a graven image – a statue – and lay waste to a hoard of demons via sword and magic.

Each Act is a fairly short side-scrolling stage in which The Master can run, jump, slash, and unleash magic (after finding it in the Simulation segments), in typical 2D Platformer fashion. “Renaissance” drastically improves the fairly rudimentary platforming of the original “ActRaiser” giving The Master more moves, including an upward jump-slash, a ground-pounding slam, and a “Symphony of the Night”-inspired backdash for evasion. In addition to these new moves, the Vancian magic system from the original game has been replaced with a free-form MP-based system that allows the player to swap between all of their known spells at any point during the action, instead of having to pick one before heading into an Act. Furthermore, killing enemies and breaking environmental objects causes gems to appear, which gradually fill a meter, providing The Master with significant buffs for the remainder of the Act, culminating in doubled damage and a free in-place resurrection upon defeat. In general, the 2D Platforming in the Acts feels much tighter and vastly improved over the original game, in which the Acts felt more like something to suffer through in order to get to the good Simulation segments. In addition, Acts are replayable, and MP boosting scrolls are hidden in out of the way corners, encouraging players to revisit the Acts if they miss something the first time.

Unfortunately, players will be compelled to return to the Acts later on for less-than-compelling reasons. Near the end of the game, when revisiting previously-conquered realms to see how they’re doing, the people now, invariably, request The Master to go out and cull X copies of specific monster Y. Because that’s what the kids today like to do, I guess.

In the original “ActRaiser,” the meat and potatoes were always the Simulation segments, in which the player controls the guardian Angel as he protects the newly-rebuilt human civilization from monsters long enough for the humans to seal the monster lairs and grow their population. Indeed, in the original game, global population was directly equal to faith, and for The Master, faith was directly equal to experience points. Leveling up and gaining more health for the Acts came directly from doing well in the Simulations and growing the human population as much as possible. “Renaissance” changes quite a few minor things, but all of them cause that sense of ludonarrative dissonance I mentioned earlier to grow. In the original game, when the Angel killed enemies, their souls – which were really trapped and corrupted human souls – would fly into the Temple of the Master on the map, allowing more humans to be born. Sealing a monster lair would instantly free up all the remaining souls held within, allowing for a population boom. Likewise, The Master was free to perform miracles – every single one of them weather-related, giving us a big clue of what kind of Bronze-Age version of God we’re dealing with – by spending Spirit Points, which simply accumulated through the passage of time, denoted by an omnipresent hourglass at the top of the screen. In “Renaissance,” though, those things are nonsensically reversed. Killing monsters is the main way to replenish SP for performing miracles, while the human population automatically grows to whatever their current population cap is – a cap controlled directly by both the development level of the civilization and the number of farm fields the people have built. These fields (and workshops) now play double-duty, generating random healing items (health apples and SP potions) or construction materials for the Angel to pick up.

The Simulation segments tend to drag a bit in “Renaissance” as it’s not possible to simply lead the people to the monster lairs, seal them, and make progress, as there are linear Quest chains that must be completed before the people ‘feel ready’ to take on the next monster lair. This reliance on a banal MMO-like structure hampers the feeling of player agency quite a bit, as it takes the Simulation segments from something to be played strategically to something to simply sit-through as they play out largely on their own. But we haven’t gotten to the two truly irritating changes made to the Simulation segments.

First, when leading the people to a monster lair, they no longer perform a ritual and seal it on their own. Instead, they gather around it, perform a ritual that does nothing and summon God to go into the monster lair, kill the creatively-named ‘spawner’ in a one-room, bullet-hell-inspired mini-Act. As previously mentioned, this not only tortures the narrative, but none of these mini-Acts are anywhere near as fun, interesting, or well-designed as the main Acts that bookend the Simulations.

Second, there’s a new Tower Defense mini-game. While ‘ActRaiser’ in general is a very fitting IP to use for a Tower Defense game, the one shoehorned into the Simulation segments of “Renaissance” was clearly designed by a team that knows nothing about Tower Defense. The number of ‘Forts’ the player can build in each town is strictly limited, as is their placement on the map. There are also only three types of Fort: a blockade type, a non-magical single-target type, and a magical area-of-effect type. While the people in each region will automatically build roads as they claim more territory, in the original game it was important to build a complete grid of crossroads to maximize the population. In “Renaissance,” building a complete grid is a liability, as it allows ground-based demons in the Tower Defense mode to circumvent Forts more easily. On the other hand, a full grid of roads allows Chosen Heroes to move around the map more quickly. Regardless, once a road is in place, it can’t be removed. Indeed, the Chosen Hero of each realm acts as a mobile tower that can be moved around in lieu of the Angel shooting his bow, since he conveniently forgets how it works when switching gears from ‘Defend the People from Monsters During Simulation’ to ‘Defend the People from Monsters During Hordes.’ After the first chapter, each subsequent Simulation region allows the player to build up a meter by killing monsters during Tower Defense Hordes in order to summon a second (or third) Chosen Hero from a previous realm to assist in the current battle.

In order for a Tower Defense game to be fun and interesting rather than tedious and repetitive, the player needs access to certain pieces of information prior to any battle: Where are the monsters coming from? What specific types of monsters are coming from each position? Do the monsters coming from a given position have any special buffs to worry about? Unfortunately, “Renaissance” doesn’t provide ANY of that information, instead informing the player only of the failure conditions for the battle, which range from having the Temple of the Master destroyed to having the regional Chosen Hero KO’d to having all the fields or workshops destroyed. In most cases, these failure conditions aren’t really helpful, but are quite annoying, as there’s no telling where the people will decide to put their fields, and trying to defend a large, spread-out map with a maximum of 6 towers just doesn’t work, especially when it’s entirely a matter of trial and error to discover which monsters with what damage immunities are coming from where. The only real upside to the design of the Tower Defense Hordes is that there’s no real penalty for failure, other than having to try again (and again). Moreover, each individual horde is always the same, so after losing to a never-ending stream of magic-proof flying enemies making a bee-line to the temple (or eating all the fields), it’s possible to reconfigure the Forts, select different Chosen Heroes to summon, and try again (and again).

Lasty, “Renaissance” features a ‘Special Mode,’ which becomes available upon completing the game. This is a score attack mode with multiple difficulty levels that seems to exist only to provide ‘replay value’ in the least interesting way possible.

Overall
“ActRaiser Renaissance” was a delightful bolt from the blue for me as a long-time fan of the original. However, in spite of always being up for a Square-Enix remake with added content, I can’t help but feel like most of the added content this time around actually detracts from the experience. Between the unnecessary narrative padding, the linear Quest structure, and the miserable excuse for a Tower Defense mini-game, if given the option to replay this game or the original, I’d fire-up RetroArch and replay the original. Still, the new visuals and audio are quite nice, and the improvements to the sidescrolling Acts can’t be overstated. Now that ‘ActRaiser’ is back from the dead, I can only hope that Square-Enix will give Sonic Powered the go-ahead to take what they learned remaking “ActRaiser” and remake/decrapify “ActRaiser 2” before giving us a truly original entry in the series.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4/5

 

 


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