Review – Actraiser Renaissance

Back in 2019, when I reviewed a game called SolSeraph, I literally closed said review with the following statement:

“I doubt Square Enix is planning to re-release Actraiser in any given form anyway…”

At the time, or to be honest, up until a week ago, it wasn’t crazy to think that Square Enix was okay with never bringing Actraiser back to life in any way, shape or form. For as much as the game is revered by retro enthusiasts, it had never managed to be a commercial hit. The fact that Actraiser Renaissance exists is nothing short of a miracle. But there’s a catch: Actraiser has always been a really weird game, mixing action platforming with city building. SolSeraph tried to bring that mixture back to life and failed. Let’s see if that was a problem with that game in particular, or if such a concept has just dated poorly in general.

Actraiser Renaissance

Pre-rendered graphics in a 2021 game.

Originally released in 1991, Actraiser combined traditional 2D action platforming sections, where you control the statue of a god brought to life, with city building and management, with you controlling an angel overseeing the development of a primitive civilization that worships you. The contrast between these completely different genres, as well as Yuzo Koshiro’s masterful soundtrack, led to the game’s cult status, even if it didn’t exactly make a cultural impact at the time. Bringing it back to a new audience with a complete remake of the original makes sense, but you have to understand one thing before tackling it: Actraiser Renaissance is a low budget game. Square Enix didn’t give the folks at Sonic Powered a lot of money to remake it, and it shows.

Actraiser Renaissance is a game that leaves a TERRIBLE first impression. When you first step into the shoes of the revived god statue in the initial 2D level, Fillmore, you are greeted with one of the most bizarre art styles seen in a modern videogame. Everything is… pre-rendered. Yep, just like Donkey Kong Country or the classic Mortal Kombat games. Everything, be it the main character, the enemies, or level elements themselves, are 3D assets turned into sprites, and boy oh boy, it does not look good at all. It doesn’t help that the game runs with some weird frame pacing issues, with other reviewers showing that it skips every sixth frame, resulting in a bizarre glitchy effect, a problem caused by the Unity engine.

Actraiser Renaissance Philotas

These static dialogue sections make Actraiser Renaissance feel like a mobile game.

Now, Actraiser Renaissance, as a whole, is not hideous. Other 2D levels feature less pre-rendered elements and more hand drawn sprites. It doesn’t look entirely bad when you’re hovering a town with your angel guide. It runs well, without hiccups. There are no animations during these sections, nor voiceovers: owing to what’s probably the developers’ experience with mobile games, dialogue sections are comprised of (well-drawn) static images talking to you via barrages of text. It’s not exactly ideal, but that’s fine. That’s what the skip button is for.

These city management sections are longer than they were back in the original Actraiser, but as a whole, aren’t annoying. There are new sidequests to partake on, as well as a huge amount of brand new tower defense sections, but the latter are so easy that I didn’t mind them at all. Sure, it takes a while before you’re finally able to partake on a full fledged 2D platforming section again, besides some fights against “Spawners”, but they are worth the wait. There are even some brand new 2D levels, which are better designed than most classic Actraiser levels. They also feature brand new music. Speaking of which…

If you thought Yuzo Koshiro’s score was already great on a SNES soundchip, just wait until you listen to the same songs you know and love being played by an actual orchestra. That’s Actraiser Renaissance‘s soundtrack. What was already epic sounds even more epic. Boss battles sound even more intense. The title theme sounds like an ode from the heavens. The attention to detail is impeccable, to the point that the handful of new tracks composed for this remake (I did mention new levels, didn’t I?) have both orchestrated and SNES-esque versions, since you can toggle between both in the options menu.

Actraiser Renaissance Tower Defense

Not everyone will like Actraiser Renaissance’s tower defense sections. I didn’t mind them, to be honest.

Actraiser Renaissance is an odd beast. It’s not exactly visually pleasing, and it takes an eternity before it becomes actually interesting, but if you endure its first couple of hours, you’ll be greeted with the reason why the half dozen people who played the original back in the 90’s love it to death to this very day. A game this epic did deserve a remake with a slightly bigger budget though. With that being said, this might indicate that, if this sells enough copies, Square Enix might actually greenlight a proper sequel to Actraiser, one we’ve been looking forward to since 1991. Yes, I am deliberately ignoring Actraiser II‘s existence, by the way.

Graphics: 6.5

A mixed bag. The first level leaves a terrible first impression due to its pre-rendered visuals and wonky frame pacing. Things get better later on, though. The game looks pleasing during its city management sections, even if it looks low budget as hell.

Gameplay: 7.0

The platforming sections are serviceable enough, even though they are slightly hampered by the frame pacing issues. The city management sections feature simple controls, but they are poorly explained during the game’s long tutorials. The tower defense sections will not please everybody.

Sound: 10

Yuzo Koshiro’s rearranged soundtrack is nothing short of epic, especially in its orchestrated version. The original SNES-esque tunes are also present.

Fun Factor: 7.0

Actraiser Renaissance is… interesting. Despite being ugly and filled with questionable design decisions, it retains what made the original so beloved among retro enthusiasts. You just need to get past its first few hours, which are indeed awful.

Final Verdict: 7.0

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

Reviewed on PS4.

A copy of Actraiser Renaissance was provided by the publisher.