Arriving on the just-released Super Famicom during the tail-end of 1990, Actraiser’s juxtaposition of side-scrolling action with god simulation put Quintet – a then-new developer formed primarily of Falcom alumni – on the map as a developer unafraid to innovate. This thirty-year-old game saw you in charge of an almighty God, tasked with restoring peace to the world following its corruption by the hands of Tanzra.

In continued tradition in what has been the year of unlikely series revivals, Square-Enix surprised us last month by shadow-dropping a brand-new remake, dubbed Actraiser Renaissance. It’s an apt name for a game that’s more reimagining than a faithful conversion, something that’s bound to dissatisfy purists, yet its approach to building upon the original game certainly has led to interesting results.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first, then: The controversial art direction. While Renaissance’s prerendered graphics left purists reeling, they work pretty well here. They are authentic: Art director Tetsuya Shiraishi previously worked on the CG models in Resident Evils 1 and 2. Yes, this isn’t beautiful pixel art, but it is effective at communicating extra detail that wouldn’t be there at 240p, the visuals now boasting many frames of animation to boot. It also helps the game stand apart from the countless 2.5D games out there.

Right off the bat, Actraiser Renaissance retains the setup of the original, alternating between two phases of gameplay. You start off striking down a boss who’s occupying one region of the world, then retreat to the heavens above to guild humanity to rebuild civilisation. Once the people’s faith in you soars above a certain level, you’re summoned back below to vanquish the remaining evil.

Renaissance overhauls and expands upon the God game sections significantly. The original release largely left you to your own devices, so it was possible to spend a long time crafting the land with your miracles, guiding the townsfolk to build away, only to realise you’d hit a wall in increasing population to the required level. Experimentation and persistence were key.

This is now a guided process in Renaissance, each key step being split into its own individual quest from your helper agent or from prayer below. Clear a quest and you’ll be presented with another, and while this sounds rote the significantly expanded narrative – where humanity dialogues with you and each other on a regular basis – does go some ways toward adding context to otherwise humdrum tasks.

What this format does do is ensure you’ll always have built things up in the most optimum way, but being railroaded into approaching city building in a specific way and order leaves proceedings feeling shallow and repetitive as you progress throughout the game. The repetitive nature of the quests doesn’t help either (collect seven fruit from the field, build three workshops, relinquish 200 resources, and so on…) 

And yet you’ll probably find yourself glued to the city building anyway despite its inherent shallowness. This is probably a good thing because one area where Renaissance shines is its defence missions. As part of the town’s development, you must place defence towers in preparation for an all-out assault by the monsters of Tanzra.

The defence missions are rarely less than frantic since you’re spread thinly on resources. Each region of the game has its own prophesied hero that you can direct around the map to dispatch foes, and expert guidance of these summoned heroes in tandem with how smartly you place the defence towers is important.

And yet the balancing is certainly iffy – at least on Normal difficulty because you can comfortably secure victory by employing the same strategies over and over. Thankfully, switching difficulty over to Hard ups the ante, posing a bigger challenge that requires a firmer understanding of enemy weaknesses and spawning positions.

The side-scrolling action segments are also transformed from their Super Famicom counterparts, perhaps less radically so. It’s the combat that has changed the most in Renaissance. You see, the original Actraiser on Super Famicom left you feeling vulnerable the whole time – just touching an enemy was enough to knock you reeling – a strange juxtaposition considering you play an all-powerful force of God. In fact, these segments were unforgiving to the point that it was made easier for its North American release, though the European release had a satisfying blend of both.

In Renaissance, not only are you much more nimble, armed with a swift back step manoeuvre, but you’re much more masterful with the sword, which means no more aimless stabbing into thin air. You can pull off combos with ease, you can swipe upwards into the sky or downwards to the ground. Triple tap the attack button and hold left or right, and you’ll slice through the space in front of you, rendering you invincible at the same time.

In the early game, these elements all work together in harmony: Health is low, you can’t use magic, and bosses poses a significant threat. The invincibility frames triggered by your abilities almost become necessary for survival. But it certainly becomes a lot easier the further you progress into the game.

The problem comes when you combine the generous invincibility frames with the magic you steadily unlock. Even the first magic spell – a giant fireball attack – features a generous period by which you’re left partly invincible. It’s possible to get through entire boss fights – even on Hard mode – by standing in front of the beast and then proceeding to spam the magic button while you take next to no damage as it attacks you. As you progress through stages and pick up hidden scrolls your magic points increase accordingly, compounding this issue.

Trivialised difficulty aside, the side-scrolling segments are still enjoyable enough, featuring light platforming, cunning enemy placement, and lusciously animated prerendered background effects that will leave you stopping and staring.

While it overcorrects any disorientation caused by the open-endedness of the original Super Famicom title, Actraiser Renaissance’s all-new defence missions complement the city building nicely.

But something has been lost in the transition to more palatable gameplay – the original was unforgiving, but highly replayable, clocking in at just three hours if you were good. This remake goes on for many times longer, and we’re not sure we’d want to replay it. And yet Actraiser’s charming juxtaposition of God game, action platformer, and amazing Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack still makes for a very interesting game, Renaissance remake or otherwise.  

Actraiser Renaissance is out now on PS4, Switch, PC and mobile.

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