Review by Overdrive

Reviewed: 12/15/04

Well, it is pretty....

ActRaiser 2 could have been....no, it SHOULD have been the perfect game. Just imagine....

Walking through a submerged city situated on the back of a gigantic tortoise. The hapless residents recently turned to stone by the cruel hand of fate — their bodies strewn throughout the streets, arms raised in a final prayer for salvation. Only you can be their avenging angel — the one to erase a cruel past and give these people life again. And you’ve barely begun....

Slashing your way past demihuman foes on a fiery battlefield. Off in the distance, past a battalion of flying ships, sits a mammoth fortress. You must reach the top and engage in mortal combat with the king of a nearby city — an armor-clad giant possessed by a warmongering demon. Survive this epic confrontation of good and evil....and you’ll still only be halfway home....

Entering the mind of another demon-controlled king, you’re forced to take up arms against vile and nightmarish hallucinations created to end your “fantastic voyage”. Survive all the macabre obstacles created by the horrid power of deception and you just may be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel....

Ascending an enormous tower created by foolish mortals desiring to reach the heavens and usurp your divine power, you find yourself fighting a seemingly infinite string of reanimated foes from earlier battles. The final confrontation between you and the ultimate evil summoned from beyond to ravage the land is about to begin. Do you dare enter the final door leading to the top of the tower? Your destiny awaits....

And that doesn’t even reveal one-third of the marvels displayed in ActRaiser 2, Enix’s long-awaited follow-up to their first-generation SNES hit. Thirteen levels featuring gorgeously decorated backgrounds colliding with wonderfully animated foes create what easily could be considered the most beautiful game released on any of the 16-bit systems.

I haven’t a single complaint about the aesthetic presentation of ActRaiser 2 — in fact it had such a profound effect on my senses that a part of me truly wishes I could simply close this review now by saying, “This game is gorgeous and you have to experience it!” Sadly, to do so would be a huge injustice to readers, as this game’s beauty is only skin-deep. Take away the gorgeous appearance and what you’re left with is one of the most flawed and frustrating platformers I’ve ever had the not-so-great fortune to experience.

I never felt the original ActRaiser was an amazing action title, but I did think it was an appealing and unique game due to the way two completely different genres were melded together. The angelic deity under your control (known only as “Master”) alternated between kicking medieval butt in platforming levels and allowing civilization to take root in well-executed “sim” levels. Offering a welcome change of pace, these “Populous Lite” activities allowed you to use god-like powers to reshape hostile lands into welcome refuges for settlers to call home.

This aspect of ActRaiser was fun, addictive and single-handedly turned a pretty, but unexceptional, action title into a very enjoyable adventure. Sadly, that must not have been good enough for Enix, as the powers that be apparently decided that fans would be better served if they didn’t have to use their brains to get through a sequel.

After playing through ActRaiser 2, I can honestly say I disliked that decision just about as much as Enix’s subsequent choice to temporarily turn their back on the American market. With all the focus now placed solely upon action elements, the company flopped in a big way, creating a game with no heart or soul.

ActRaiser 2 takes place shortly after the events of that first game. The many lieutenants of the fallen demon Tanzra have ravaged the land in order to bring their master back. You must embark on a worldwide tour to save the people from this unwanted demonic assault before their diabolical plot comes to fruition.

You’ll be at a massive disadvantage, though, as even the weakest of Tanzra’s underlings likely could teach their old master a few tricks. The “Easy” level seemed tougher than the “Normal” mode of most games. I got frustrated by the first boss on “Normal”. After that experience, I didn’t even dare to venture into the “Hard” difficulty. On “Easy”, I was (barely) able to complete the game — at which time, I was simply told to try playing on “Normal”. Yeah, that was rewarding....especially when I found out that to actually beat the real final boss and get a legit ending, I’d have to endure the whole agonizing experience again at what would be a painfully high level of challenge.

So why is this game so difficult? Combine consistently poor play control with a number of nightmarish jumping sequences and a few cheap enemies and bosses. Obviously this game falls victim to the “three strikes and you’re out” rule.

Start with the play control. For the parts of the game that involve you moving left or right and either swinging your sword or using a couple of the simpler magical spells (accessed by holding down the action button until Master starts to flash and then releasing it while performing an action), everything is just peachy. But when jumping is brought into the mix, everything collapses. To successfully make many jumps, you’ll have to utilize Master’s double-jump. Sadly, most of the time, that second jump seems to turn into a hard-to-control glide that will cause many players to completely miss their target one way or the other. Successfully land where you’re supposed to and, if you’re not careful, you might skid to a stop — which likely will cause you to stumble right off your platform.

And this leads to all those awkward jumps you’ll have to make. A number of levels will place you in situations where an absolutely perfect double-jump will have to be executed. Early in the game, the main purpose of this is to get an optional health or magic-recharging item — but as you progress, there are a couple of instances where these jumps are mandatory with failure resulting in instant death on a bed of spikes. And as the game goes on, you’ll find yourself forced to make more and more jumps to platforms that seem to constantly shrink in size — which caused my frustration level to rise to a point that couldn’t have been healthy. Oh, and close doesn’t count in ActRaiser 2. I can’t count the number of times I felt I’d succeeded in a tough jump only to watch Master bang his shin on the ledge and then plummet to his death. It really makes you wonder how this clown became a god-like figure to the denizens of this world....

With all that working against you, the last thing you need is for the game to constantly put monsters in the most aggravating places possible, but that’s what you’ll get repeated throughout virtually every level. You can count on many tough jumps to be made even rougher due to the presence of a cleverly-placed foe — or, as you get farther into the game, one that materializes while you’re in mid-air, giving you little (if any) chance to escape unscathed.

The bosses range from pathetically easy (one or two magic spells will decimate them) to hellish. One rather prominent mini-boss uses a large shield for protection and only can be hit at certain times from certain angles. A gigantic and grotesque head surrounding by many smaller ones takes up enough of the screen to ensure dodging will be far easier said than done. To beat a fire demon, you must chip away each part of its magical shield and deliver as much damage as possible before that protection reforms....while leaping from one falling rock to the next. The “Easy” level’s final boss has an annoying habit of magically causing you to freeze in place for a standing eight-count. These encounters may initially be fun, but after you realize you’re not only fighting the boss, but the programming and mechanics of ActRaiser 2, any enjoyment you’ve gotten soon dissolves into agony.

The thing that really bothers me is that shortly after releasing the original ActRaiser, Enix actually did give us the perfect sequel. You controlled the follower of a deity called "Master" and you traveled through many lands to kill evil monsters and rebuild destroyed civilizations. That game (Soul Blazer) is what ActRaiser 2 should have been. Instead, somewhere along the line, it was determined that Soul Blazer would be the first in a series of three games that only possessed vague similarities to each other. The game created to actually be the sequel to ActRaiser was a monumental disappointment — a feast for the eyes with so many seemingly omnipresent gameplay flaws that I’d personally prefer starvation.

Rating: 3

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