One of the biggest surprises of the most recent Nintendo Direct was the announcement of Actraiser Renaissance. Long-held as one of the early jewels of the SNES library, it was an utterly dormant IP, right up until the moment it was revealed for a quick release cycle.
That’s typically not a great sign, because if publishers think they’ve got a hit on their hands, they’ll hype it endlessly for months. If it’s more of a duffer, they’ll release it with little fanfare, hoping to trade on the brand name more than the quality of the finished product.
Actraiser Renassance sits somewhere between those two extremes. There are some smart upgrades to the core Actraiser experience that work well, alongside expected visual upgrades. It has been 31 years since the original, after all, and even thinking about that makes me feel truly ancient. Unlike your protagonist in Actraiser Renaissance, however, I am not a god. At least, I don’t think I am.
If you’re new to Actraiser, it was in its time a unique proposition that merged action platforming with god sims. That’s still not a terribly common recipe for a game even now.
Cast as a mostly-forgotten god – in the Japanese original the allusions to Judeo-Christianity were rather more explicit, but Nintendo of America was never going to let fly back in the day – your job was to rid the land of demons that plagued the land in the action sequences before using your miraculous god powers to help guide the people building up their lands. One part Rastan, one part Sim City, if you will.
There was a loose plot (and a poor sequel), but what made Actraiser special was the way that it balanced the hectic nature of its action sequences with some pretty chilled resource management style gameplay. It’s still a game I reach for on my SNES shelf when I want some relaxed play time.
Actraiser Renaissance is a remake of that original title, but I can’t call it relaxed in any way. That’s because while the action platforming sections have been nicely updated with new animations, moves and combat styles, and the god sim sections have a whole lot more backstory, they’re also joined by a new gameplay mechanic for the series.
Once you’ve entered a new land and conquered its first stage demon boss, you start building up the land, clearing trees, draining swamps and so on to help your people prosper.
As you do, various flying demons do attack lightly, but they’re basically there to keep your angelic host’s magic power up, rather than as a real nuisance factor. Get your people to a high enough level and they can storm the areas where those demons spawn from. So far, so very Actraiser, and as previously noted not a gameplay genre that’s seen a lot of competitors over three decades.
However, while Actraiser Renaissance is a remake, it’s also one that’s decided to expand on the original game with the inclusion of settlement siege battles that see your followers attacked by hordes of demons all at once. These play out in the style – but with little of the fun – of any tower defence game you’ve ever played.
For reasons that are never well explained, you can’t use your angelic cherub’s powerful bow during these settlement siege sections. Instead you’ve got local heroes to command and a limited stock of magic for miracles to see off the numerous invaders intent on destroying your temple. All of this could be well realised, but it frankly just isn’t.
All too often the solution to passing the invasion stages had little to do with changing up my strategy, and everything to do with the bonus items that my people generated. Get enough magic at the right time, or the right number of palisades to block enemy movement, and many invasions are a doddle. If they don’t appear at the right time (and it does appear to be random) and you fail the battle, only to have to do this again.
To make matters worse, the inclusion of siege settlements means that Actraiser loses its gentle god sim vibe almost entirely. There’s always something going on, and little time to stop and admire your followers as they build up each of the game’s themed lands.
This is not fun, and Actraiser totally should be fun to play. The updated visuals aren’t the best you’ll ever see but they’re entirely suitable for the subject matter. The plot is 100 per cent lifted from the original, so it’s like putting on a comfy old jumper after a cold day with few surprises there.
There’s even a remastering of the original score by original composer Yuzo Korisho to enjoy, and it is glorious. I’m not going to lie here; this is one of those games that I’ve fired up just to listen to the music, more than once, and if there isn’t a fresh soundtrack CD incoming, then Square Enix plain doesn’t like my money.
Like a lot of retro focused gamers, my jaw dropped when Actraiser Renaissance was announced, because I totally didn’t see it coming. My anticipation was high, because it’s one of my favourite SNES-era titles.
Actraiser Renaissance, however, is a remake that should have simply stuck to the basics that made Actraiser great. Instead, what you get are moments of greatness broken up by far too many moments of mediocrity.