Let's talk about ActRaiser. The name is synonymous by many as one of the first games that was released for the SNES console, often lauded as a work of Tolstoy. I don't think that personally, but I do think it's a great game in its own right. It incorporated decent sidescrolling action/platform elements with fantastic town micromanagement elements to keep things versatile and fresh. Back in 2007, back when I downloaded it on the Wii Virtual Console, I had gotten my hopes in thinking that the other games developed by Quintet by would be released for the current gaming generation to experience, but it never happened (wish someone would ask Square-Enix what the hold up is). In 2009, when I bought SoulBlazer in its physical SNES format from eBay, and its follow-up Illusion of Gaia the following year, I since realized that if you wish to experience a game from the past you missed out on and/or are really interested in (whether or not there's a high probability it will be released for the current generation to experience), just go ahead and try it in its original format if you don't wish to wait who knows how long until it gets rereleased to a downloadable service or a compilation (if you own the console in question, that is). But I digress. Now I ask you: is it hard to make a sequel that lives up to the name of the original and be just as fun, if not good? The answer to that question, I surmise, would be: "Maybe?" That's the case with ActRaiser 2, which I've long been curious about but was hesitant to try. This October ('11), I decided to bite the bullet and give it a go; and when I got to play it, it was better than I thought it was going to be. But does it do the ActRaiser name justice? [Click the images or open them in a new tab to see their native size]
In the first ActRaiser, a battle had emerged between the Master (God, your character) and Tanzra (Satan), and only one entity emerged the victor. The Master, having been defeated by his arch nemesis, was forced to flee to the Sky Palace (Heaven) due to the injuries he had sustained. A long time passed following that event, and the world was being overrun by monsters under Tanzra's rule. After a vigorous, involved quest to restore peace to the people, a rematch with Tanzra was settled in Death Heim (Hell) in the end, and the Master wound up defeating him, saving the world in the process. Now onto ActRaiser 2's plot: long ago, a battle had emerged between the Master and Tanzra, and only one entity emerged the victor. In the Sky Palace, a rebellion led by Tanzrra was taking place, and the Master put a stop to it once and for all and won the battle. Burdened by vengeance for Tanzra's death, his thirteen generals vowed to revive their leader and take down the Master by all means necessary. Confused? If you are, there's a reason for that: the plot consistency between the two is incoherent. There's no explanation as to when the game occurs (before, during, or after the first game?). But wait, despite the nonsensical timeline, there's one thing in common: when Tanzra won the monsters invaded and terrorized the villages and the people themselves, but when the Master won... basically, regardless of what happens, the outcome will be the same. But enough ranting, will you succeed in salvaging Earth once more? Only time will tell. Luckily, for the weak plot point it's got, it more than makes up for with atmosphere, and there is a lot! You will be traversing through foliage, trek underwater, roam through mutant-infested locales, pass through fames, travel inside a prison, explore palaces, and more. There are various issues going on in the seven villages of the world (for example, a village might be in starvation because the monsters are stealing their food), and in order to save them, you must go down and defeat the evil general. The generals all represent a different sin, whether it's a minor one or a deadly one (i.e. Gluttony, Greed, Pride). And I've got to say, Quintet sure found some interesting representations of these vices, but more on that later. Can you think of any other similar games where you fight off the seven sins?
The play control is pretty decent, but due to how it was handled, a little time will be required in order to get full adjusted to them. Like the previous game, you'll start off in the overworld (or "Skyworld") where you get to place the Sky Palace on top of a city and then on a location infested with monsters. Once you're ready, you'll descend to Earth and will try to vanquish the monsters so you'll save the current city in peril. Unlike the previous game, this iteration decided to skip the town simulation elements, which means that this game is a full action/platformer, which disappointed several fants of the first ActRaiser. I don't mind it personally, even though I did love the micromanagement acts. But I can't help but wonder why Quintet decided to go with this decision; heck, I'm not sure if they've even given a reason to do what they did (but if they did, a link to the inverview or article would be much appreciated). As for the controls: only two buttons are required, the jump button and the attack button. The Master is a little slow on foot this time around, and his sword attacks are more versatile. He can thrust straight ahead, below, above, which crouching, and in the air. He can even attack downward; if you press down after a normal jump, then the sword will point straight down, but if you press down after a double jump, you'll amass a powerful downward thrust toward your foes. Now the Master holds a shield by his side and has wings on his back. With the shield you can block the projectiles in front or above you, and if you do a double jump your wings will help you glide a long distance (but if you press down, you'll plunge downward). It's also possible to glide slowly by pressing up after double jumping. By dropping down from the platform, press down and the jump button together so you can slide down (as long as it's a "thin" platform). Also this time around you've got various magic spells at your disposal, but which one you use depends on which position you're in. To conjure the spell, hold down the attack button until the Master starts to swiftly flash red, and then once the magic symbol appears at the top, you can let go to unleash it. Some examples of the magic you'll cast is a flame attack from your sword like a flamethrower (by casting it in front of you), a temporary explosive force field that will shield you from enemy attack (by casting it while ducking), and a deadly phoenix attack (by casting it while you're attempting the super downward thrust). The potency of your magic will depend on which one you use; but beware, for the magic can only be cast by using a scroll, so use your spells sparingly. Throughout the stages there will be rune-like statues, and inside them you'll find helpful stuff like health (2 HP, 5 HP, or 10 HP), scrolls (1 MP, or 3 MP), and a life (should you find it). In most stages, you'll be encountering a midboss who'll attempt to impede your progress, and in the end of the stage a boss will be waiting for your arrival. One thing you want to make sure doesn't happen is letting the Master skid if you landed on the ground after gliding, for if it happens when you're near a ledge it's not going to be pretty (it's happened to me several times). In order to avoid this (especially when it comes to small platforms), plunge towards the platform and hold down long enough so the Master doesn't skid off the platform. I think the game's control scheme is good, although it does have its issues.
Like the first game, ActRaiser 2's soundtrack was composed by legendary Yuzo Koshiro. After the greatness of the first game's music, Streets of Rage 1 and 2, Super Adventure Island, and Ys Book I & II, you'd think he would make just as strong a delivery for this title like he did for the aforementioned games--but he didn't. It's not that the music is bad, as it's nice to listen to; it's just that it's not as powerful in comparison to the first ActRaiser's soundtrack. Not even the remix of the title theme is energetic, but it's not bad. But despite the low quality sound, I've grown to like it the more I played it. The Devote theme (Tortoise Isl. and Altheria) is a depressing-sounding underwater theme which makes you feel like you're in a long-lost place. The Leon theme (Gratis and Stormrook) tries to be as ominous as it can, but it falls a little flat due to its sparse melody. The Lovaous Palace theme is a neverending string symphony with a chill of sorts. The penultimate area, the Tower of Babel, has a theme which, if listened to for so long, can sound nightmarishly overwhelming (especially considering the stage's layout and difficulty). Usually when it comes to video games, if a midboss theme sounds stronger and more energetic than the main boss theme, then depending on how you look at it, it can be a problem. The midboss theme uses percussion drums and riveting string work, while the main boss theme is rather laid back, in and out of comparison. Again, I don't dislike the music from ActRaiser 2, I just don't feel it delivered as strongly as the first game's music did. The songs are decent, too, like the Skyworld theme, where the music compliments the bird's eye view and the events that go on up above. The music for when you fight Tanzra and the ending music, despite the sound quality, are actually pretty good (the latter can be a big reward for finishing the game, especially on Hard mode). But, believe it or not, Quintet actually lifted a song from the first ActRaiser: the music you hear for whenever you descend to Earth. Odd choice, considering it's rather short, but eh, whatever. The sound effects, initially heard in ActRaiser and SoulBlazer, are always a joy to listen to. There are even a couple of original sound effects: the dragon boss' breath which tries to blow you away and the Master's dying sound, which bothers me a lot as it sounds like the roar of a dying lion or something similar. Even when I first heard it while watching Shiryu's gameplay video of it years ago I was like "What the heck was that?" In the end, there's no bad music here, but not great music, either.
One thing without a doubt which surpasses the first game is the overall visual appearances. ActRaiser 2's visuals are detailed, in-depth, atmospheric, dark, and downright beautiful. The first game had very great visuals at the time of its release, but Quintet has managed to make a much more visually improved experience. Each area has its own distinct look and feel, each with a unique variety. The first stage, Industen, kicks things off with a lush forest landscape with dripping water protruding from the leaves, with giant mushrooms, large trees present in the background, a dense mist surrounding you, and dangerous quicksand near the end. but i doesn't end there, as there's more visual wonder throughout the game. The Demon's Cave takes place inside a mutant ant hill, and as you progress through that stage, there will eventually be spider webs flowing so pristinely in the foreground, which incorporates a lot of depth. Death Field begins as you trek along a field littered with flames, which creates smoke which consume the present area's entire skyline. The prison of Gratis is dark and grueling, where you're greed to dozens of skulls littered on the ground before you with an ominous message written on pieces of wood. It's also a dark area, with sets of lights here and there that make it a tad brighter. The first part of the Lovaous palace is wonderful, for it is made entirely out of ice and snow, with falling stalactites and icy fixtures hanging in the background. But one of my favorite areas, visually, is Stormrook. It's a fantastic setup for... a fantastic setup. It starts outside the castle walls, with a full moon in the background with blue shades of trees in the backdrop. After you get past the first part, you'll enter the castle, which is fully coated with gold which seamlessly glimmers throughout the interior area (when you watch it in motion, it's very impressive). The underwater areas (Tortoise Isl. and Altheria) are also visual splendors, with backdrops of the ocean and a beautiful temple-like establishment. Basically all the areas are beautiful to look at. The Master animates decently, and his appearance is cool, too. In here, he's a winged entity decked out in only some sort of battle garb; he also looks like a Greek mythological hero, come to think of it. Now onto the enemies: now, I normally don't care if a game's enemy is designed in a serious or cartoony way (regardless of the overall tone of the game), but the enemies in this title fall so much into the latter category that I cannot help but think it doesn't match the dark tone of this game. We've got pirahnas wearing swimming trunks, "skull"-erflies, cyclopic rock-throwing enemies who have goats legs, "Gules" of different statuses (I could swear the purple one has a green spiky mohawk on its head), et al. The thing they all have in common is that they're neither dark nor theatening. Considering that the Master and his angelic compatriots are all serious-looking, it's just jarring to me. I don't know if it's because Quintet altered the visual appearance from their first two games or something, but I can't help but wonder: what happened? One of the midbosses you combat looks like he jumped out of one of Pablo Picasso's paintings. When looking at Picasso's cubist work, it's powerful, energetic, captivating, and totally natural. But if a Picasso-like subject is inserted in a game of this type, it just stands out and looks silly. I just can't take the majority of the enemy designs in this game seriously. Anytime you lash a hit towards an enemey, a white and green starburst effect will appear which feels very out of place. I mean what it this, Streets of Rage? Again, normally I don't mind whether an enemy is designed in a serious or cartoony way, but I couldn't help it with this game. That's not to say the enemy designs are bad; actually, there are pretty decent, and some of them look very cool. For example: the Demon's Cave is infested with the result of ant and an alien from H.R. Giger's Alien giving birth, and they also animate pretty smoothly. The midbosses and bosses also look pretty interesting. Among the midboss roster are a gigantic venus fly trap, a big serpent, and a winged centaur. The main bosses look great as well, and the seven of them you fight are each representations of one of the seven deadly sins. The boss of Stormrook is a dragon bound by gold scales which represents Greed, for in a room that's already filled with gold he's even wearing some of the gold jewelry on him during the battle. The boss of Altheria is a representative of Jealousy; basically, the flame needs to be extinguished all the while contending with an ugly head trying to prevent you from doing so. And it all takes place in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. Um, aren't we going too far, Quintet? Anyway, it's a pretty near boss experience to look at, and the other bosses are cool, too. I like how whenever you press either the A or the B button anywhere on the Skyworld map, there's a cool shifting sequence from bird's eye view to third person view where you meet one of your angelic companions. It's a little similar to an effect done in Produce's turn-based RPG The 7th Saga whenever you engage in battle in the overworld, only in this game it's done much smoother, with less spiraling, and it's straightforward. ActRaiser 2 also has nice stylized font, which is very awesome, and perhaps the best font choice I've seen in a Quintet game. But I've rambled long enough; I know what you really want to know.
Chances are that if you heard anything about ActRaiser 2 is that it's challenging. But how challenging is it exactly? Let's look at my challenge-o-meter for a second. Wow! That is quite an accomplishment, Quintet! Quite an accomplishment! I'm not kidding, this game makes Plok's difficulty seem like child's play, even when you're not playing that game's Child's Play mode. Each of the stages has their own series of hazards and obstacles that will try to put a stop to your progress. Unlike the first iteration where you lost the same amount of damage regardlesss of what enemy or boss hit you, that's an entirely different story here. Some enemies might remove a tiny portion of your health, while others may remove a much larger portion if you're not careful. There may be a few moments where you'll have to avert a bed of spikes in midair, for if you fail to to do so you'll lose a whopping 8 HP (one full circle is the equivalent of 2 HP). But much more vital to avoid is touching the spikes implaneted on the floor or the ceiling, for one touch from them will cost you a life. One such occasion where you'll have to avoid getting punctured will be in Gratis, where you have to successfully jump over them on a diagonal slope, with a tight diagonal ceiling space to bear in mind. It's simple to get past that if you time your double jump correctly, but the very thought of it is quite scary. Leaps of faith, or glides of faith, are required as well in a few of the stages. Some midbosses will pose a bit of a challenge the first time around. In most stages you'll only bout against one midboss, and in a few cases you might dish out against two, and in certain stages you might not meet with a midboss at all. If fighting against two doesn't sound intimidating, imagine fighting against six of them, one by one. Att the end of the Tower of Souls stage (should you be successful to do so), there's the boss representing Pride, but before that happens, you have to encounter six midbosses. Here's how the process goes: enter the room, fight a midboss, beat said midboss, rinse and repeat until the demise of the sixth one. Want to hear some good news? After the third one, there is a rune-like statue with a set of health, as well as when you defeat the sixth one. At first the midbosses will pose a major threat, but shouls you study their patterns long enough (or devise a full-proof strategy against them), they actually aren't that hard. Not saying they're easy, as you'll have to really concentrate during those moments. The bosses can be slightly difficult at times, and they can be easily dispatched if you conjure some pieces of magic against them, but should you not have magic at that time, you'll have to make do with your blade. Just be careful that they don't do you out quick. As was the case in the first ActRaiser, there is a boss rehash in Death Heim with the seven main bosses before you meet Tanzra (only in the Normal and Hard difficulty modes). The Easy difficulty setting will end the game right after you beat the Tower of Souls. Anyway, during the boss rehash, you'll be granted a powerful type of magic emanating from your sword, which makes some bosses easy than they were before. And if you thought Tanzra looked hideous in the first game, then you've seen nothing yet. He looks like a total monstrosity here, I mean he's really horrendous here (I looked up that it's loosely based on Satan being frozen wasit-deep in an icy lake from Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy). But look on the bright side: at least he's not like the Demon King in Produce's little-known action-oriented RPG Brain Lord, where he was totally unbearable in appearance. But I'm getting dangerously off topic. Once the score has been settled with the seventh and final sin, you then go to confront Tanzra, and soon the screen turns black and the next moment he appears right before you. There's one thing that I don't appreciate during the final boss fight, and that is the moment he appears, the HUD will be gone. Unacceptable! Tanzra is manageable enough if you follow his pattern, and he's one boss you must absolutely be careful with (on Hard mode, specifically, as it takes longer than it does on Normal). Since there's no HUD at the top, there's no telling how many hits he'll sustain until he's finished once and for all. Unfortunately at this time, there's no telling how much health you'll have before you go down, as there's no way of telling how much damage Tanzra's fire power will take away from the Master if you do get hit. At this point there's nothing to do but persevere and be careful. Also, should you lose all your lives near the end, you have to start Death Heim all over again. ActRaiser 2 has three difficulty settings, and there's a major difference between the three. On Easy mode, you start off each stage with five lives and five magic scrolls. There are less enemies to deal with, they take up less damage, it takes a shorter time to charge up your magic, there are more rune-like statues, the mid-bosses have 10 HP (five full circles), and the game ends when you beat the Tower of Souls. On Normal mode, you start off each stage with three lives and three magic scrolls. There are slightly more enemies, they begin to take a bit more damage than before, it takes a little longer to charge up your magic, a few rune-like statues are omitted, the mid-bosses have 16 HP (eight full circles), and you get to go to Death Heim in the end. On Hard mode, you start off each stage with two lives and three magic scrolls. There are more enemies than before, they take much more damage, it takes the longest to charge up your magic, the mid-bosses have a full set of 20 HP (ten full circles), Tanzra takes more damage, and like on Normal mode you get to go to Death Heim. Getting through the stages is no piece of cake (most definitely the case on Hard mode). You'll have to pay attention to the enemy patterns, and there are some moments when getting to the end of the stage will prove most difficult because a few enemies might come out of thin air or because certain enemy attacks are difficult to avoid. I find going at a steady pace to be a safer option, although you'll still have to conted with the enemies, and of course avoid the spikes. During the first part of the Lovaous Palace, there are platforms that will appear and disappear in a matter of seconds (one by one), so you'll have to jump on them on time to move forward (think the infamous platfroms from the Mega Man series). There's a moment during the volcanic stage Almetha where you must successfully reach the boss by hopping onto gradually falling rocks without being struck by the lightning that sometimes strikes. There are branching paths in the Gratis prison, plus several spikes to avert. There are various ways that the game challenges you, and I like that. There are some frustrating moments, sure, but overall it's got a commendable amount of challenge, as far as I'm concerned. Unlike the first game, ActRaiser 2 has a password system (three sets of four characters), and honestly, it's not so bad. The thing that bothers me about the first ActRaiser (not that big a problem, mind you) is that it's only got one save file, and that's it. That game's easy for me to beat, but even if it weren't the case, at least it was very manageable; but what if there were a group of gamers (novice or not) that wanted to play it, they had to wait until one was finished with it. You can see how big a problem that might be. But ActRaiser 2 I strongly felt offered a much more superior and recommendable way of continuing your progress. Press the A button anywhere on the Skyworld that is not on a city or on a stage, and the recorder angel will give you the password.
So yeah, it has its legitimate issues (not to mention some issues I personally have with it), but to be quite honest, I had a lot of fun with it. Yeah, it's not as enjoyable or as great as the original ActRaiser, Quintet's other games, or even Plok for that matter, but its strengths far outweight its weaknesses. The visuals are flat-out gorgeous , and the controls are, as I said earlier, decent. Although the soundtrack isn't quite as hight quality of some of Yuzo Koshiro's other pieces of work, it's definitely nice to listen to. The plot is a little lacking and inconsistent to the first title (I question the ActRaiser continuity, as it doesn't really feel like an ActRaiser experience), but the atmosphere makes up for it all with its great expositions and dark tone (for the most part), and I like how Quintet took some risks. The various amounts of challenge make it exciting, even if it is difficult, and with three difficulty settings it adds a touch of replay value, believe it or not. The enemies can sometimes be annoying, and the (mid)bosses are cool, especially Tanzra. I do admit I would've liked the town simulation elements to have returned here, but for being a straight action/platformer, from Quintet of all developers, it was actually quite a nice experience. The ending for when you beat the game on Normal and Hard is similar, only in the latter there is a visual imagery that is so breathtaking it's rewarding; I won't disclose the ending scene for the sake of posterity. Beating the stages will take some time to accomplish, on Hard mode most of all. As I kept getting beaten, I kept getting back up, and as I kept on persevering, I kept on getting farther. The password system is a nice touch, and what's neat is that there are also secret passwords for more enjoyment; three of which are the credits with the sketch of the crew behind the game, an intro sequence that's interactive, and even the chance to battle Tanzra as he appeared in the first ActRaiser (to do so, go to the password screen, and enter Xxxx Yyyy Zzzz; press Select to lowercase or uppercase). It's pretty neat. Without spoiling anything, the opening of Death Heim is perhaps one of the most depressing set ups I've seen in an SNES game. Fans of the original were disappointed with the sequel due the fact that it excised the town simulation elements in favor of 100% action, and if that did not drive some away from it, then the difficulty most certainly did. ActRaiser 2 is a game many should be able to beat (with one or two difficulty settings), but few will manage to complete (with all three difficulty settings). It's not for everyone, and if you're not keen on playing this game, then you're not really missing out on much. But, should you wish to partake in this crusade to silence, then you'll need the following items with you: patience, observance, and perseverance. It's one of those love it or hate it type of games, but let me tell you: I'm glad I played it. In sum: ActRaiser 2 is a bad ActRaiser game, but a good game on its own.7.5/10
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