Review: Actraiser Renaissance

30 Sep 2021

The thing that you have to understand about Actraiser is that it’s a classic game that is at the same time so unique it’s never really had a proper sequel. (Yes, I’m aware there’s an Actraiser 2, I’ll get to that.) The game is already a blend of two different genres in a melange of elements that in some way feel like older games where the title swaps back and forth between gameplay styles with nary a care in the world.

Actraiser Renaissance is, at first glance, a high-definition remake of the game to bring all of that melange onto modern consoles. It is not just that, however; it is also a further expansion of the game stapling more genres into the mixture, expanding how the game plays, and generally standing somewhere between a remaster and a full-on remake with a whole bunch of new stuff added on top of the familiar framework. Does it even work when it expans the basic game beyond what it was originally supposed to be? Should it work? What the heck is this game, anyway?

Actraiser Renaissance is out now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review.

A Mighty Act

So here’s the thing. Actraiser Renaissance is a story in two parts. One part is the story from the original; the other part is the story that has been added along with this particular remake. They’re contiguous enough in tone, though, so it doesn’t feel like they’re two entirely different components.

You play as the Master, who is definitely not an Abrahamic religious figure despite living in a Sky Palace along with an obsequious angel who reports directly to him. At the start of the game, the Master is informed by the angel that the people of the world below are beset by the forces of darkness led by the demonic Tanzra, and so it falls to the Master to guide and defend the people below in hopes of improving their lot in life. That part is all from the original game.

On top of that, though, the story also now adds plot about six warriors destined to help overthrow Tanzra, which mostly has the positive effect of bulking out the cast, giving the angel some other people to play off of, and bulking out the relevant players in the story as you focus on improving the lot of the various peoples around the world. It feels a bit like a superfluous addition, and it kind of is, but at the same time it fastens on pretty seamlessly to the original.

Part of the reason it does, however, is that the original had a story that was frankly kind of perfunctory and explained more about why you were doing things than who was doing them. A story requires characters, and for better or worse this is one rendered with very arch stock types and broad strokes rather than developed individuals. You find it hard to really sink into the game’s narrative at any point; it’s just a sequence of stuff that happens, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys with no need for nuance or further examination.

And if you’ve ever played the original, you know that the story wasn’t why people cared in the first place, so frankly that’s perfectly all right.

Act With Integrity

Here’s why Actraiser (the original) absolutely ruled – it was an insanely weird mashup of two totally different genres. You start each area in a side-scrolling hack-and-slash style of gameplay, hopping between platforms, slashing at monsters, collecting various power-ups along the way and defeating bosses. It’s a pretty simple setup and a pretty basic gameplay mode, but it’s functional and fun enough.

Then, however, you’re thrown into a building sim in which you have to guide the people of your chosen area to colonize in certain areas, close off pits of monsters that the angel has to dispatch with his bow and arrow, and send miracles to render the land more habitable. This mode was also pretty simple and lacked a lot of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a more developed strategy game, but again, it was functional and fun enough. What made the game awesome was the fact that you were swapping back and forth between these game modes in a synergistic dance. It completely ruled.

Actraiser Renaissance gets this, and at its heart, that’s still the game you’re dealing with. There are, however, two major changes. The first is that monster dens now require a bit more sidescrolling hack-and-slash, which means that the two main game modes involve more time jumping back and forth between them. The second is that there’s now a third game mode on top of the other ones, with strategic tower deployment and specialized hero units, like defending against base attacks in an RTS.

Did you guess that this mode is kind of simple but fun enough to play? Congratulations, you’re following along! That’s exactly how I would describe it. Not bad, not great, sufficiently fun and a neat addition to the game to make those extra cast members actually do something.

The thing about this game as a whole is that it’s hard to rate just because of that. None of the three game modes it rapidly cycles between are particularly in-depth, and while they all support and inform one another, they’re kind of weak as individual games. They feel more like the game is gliding past each portion and touching the node rather than really diving into what’s available. At the same time… the fact that it blends such disparate genres is itself fun and different. If you like that element of the gameplay, this remake adding more of it feels like perhaps the most enriching option possible. Rather than making the existing parts deeper, the game adds more parts.

Actors On Stage

Visually, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Everything is recognizable from its original source and is drawn to resemble the original artwork, but at a vastly higher resolution and with more animation than the chunky sprites of the SNES version. Still, it all does feel accurate to that original design; you get the feeling like it’s a new skin layered on top of familiar interfaces, even though that’s obviously not the case. (There’s no option to swap to older artwork for obvious reasons, not the least of which being that older artwork for the defense mode doesn’t exist.)

The game’s soundtrack has been completely re-arranged, and it also remains a high point of the game. This is one of the most environmental and engaging soundtracks ever made for the SNES, and the remastered music reminds me a great deal of the music of the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters in that it’s clearly drawn from and improved upon while retaining the same basic character. Of course, if that isn’t doing it for you, you can also just turn the soundtrack back to the original 16-bit tracks.

Act Like You Know It

I absolutely love the original Actraiser, and so it was almost a foregone conclusion that I was going to love this remake. The additions work and feel like a natural outgrowth of adding more into the game without feeling intrusive, and it still has that great sense of being a wonderful blend of different genres in one package. At the same time, while this is a game I personally love, I also recognize that some people are going to find it, well… tedious at best and miserable at worst.

See, again, that’s part of what makes this either work for people or not. This is a game that brushes up against a lot of different genres without diving too deeply into any of them, and some players are going to either clock out from that or find that they like one or two parts but not all three. It is kind of a weird game and it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

But if the idea of the game sounds interesting to you? Hey, this is a classic remastered and improved, and it’s well worth the asking price.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Game provided courtesy of Square Enix for PS4. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.