ActRaiser (SNES) Review

Click here to view the ActRaiser (SNES) description page for save files, guides, screenshots, and more information.

Review by tankMage (July 2017)

Score: A-

   Consider any single aspect of ActRaiser and the game will come off as gimmicky and half baked, but as a whole this title is captivating and enjoyable. I can still remember laughing as a friend described this stupid sounding game where you control a cupid wannabe who helps build and defend villages. My laughter quickly faded after I gave into curiosity and tried ActRaiser, which instantly drew me into its intriguing gameplay. Enix managed to combine two seemingly disparate genres (platformers and city building SIMs) and produce something that is fun, but the game isn’t perfect. The platforming aspect of this title is stiff and poorly balanced. The SIM is overly simplistic and wouldn’t satisfy most hardcore fans of the genre, but put together we get something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only that, but ActRaiser sets the stage for the loosely connected narratives of later Quintet titles and will certainly pique the interest of fans of Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma.

Story

   While the localization team tried to tame the story of the game somewhat to avoid touching upon topics that were sensitive at the time, it’s quite clear that you are literally playing God in this game and there is quite a bit of mythological symbolism from a variety of sources weaved into its narrative. The premise is rather simple: You are a deity known as The Master who has been deposed by your rival, the evil Tanzra. Being the embodiment of chaos and an all around unpleasant dude, Tanzra destroyed humanity after defeating you and populated the world with monsters. Fortunately, The Master escaped with his life and managed to recover from his wounds after a few short millennia. Now The Master is back and ready to do some smiting.

   The story seems superficial and silly summed up in a few words, but there’s truth to the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” and ActRaiser supplies quite a bit of food for thought if you ponder the events of the game a bit. Of course, what this title actually has to say is something I won’t really touch on, since I think it’s not really appropriate to turn reviews into long philosophical lectures, but I will add that I was quite impressed with Quintet’s ability to draw upon the primal nature of mythology and infuse it into a video game so masterfully (hehe no pun intended).

Graphics

   ActRaiser is an early entry into the SNES library and looks the part. The animations are incredibly stiff (although The Master’s rigid, statue-like movements may have been intentional) and the various effects are a bit primitive compared to later Super Nintendo games. With that said, that’s a certain degree of enthusiasm that is apparent in ActRaiser’s art style. There’s a variety of platforming stages all of which are different from one another and nicely detailed. The SIM areas also have their own themes, but tend to be a bit more generic; you will see a lot of sprites for bushes, trees, and the like get reused reused from one area to another. Quintet also went nuts using the SNES’s famed Mode 7 feature by having the screen dramatically scroll down into the monster lairs that The Master must clear. The mode 7 sequences worked well and really add a sense of suspense to the beginning of each level.

   ActRaiser also features a decent lineup of baddies and avoids using the cliched spiders, bats, and skeletons that tend to appear in fantasy games….well for the most part, there are bat-like monsters that appear frequently and giant skulls. In fact some of the monsters are really creative, like headless spear wielding zombies with eyes in their chests (no I’m not making that up), ax throwing ice giants, and mummified monks whose heads detach from their bodies. Of course there’s a bit of sprite recycling done in this title. Stone throwing dwarfs seem to appear throughout the platforming stages and you will see the same monsters in every SIM stage, but at least they tried to keep things fresh in an era when cartridge space was an issue.

    The bosses are all cool looking, but tend to be more trite. You have your obligatory werewolf and minotaur bosses, along with a rather uninspired giant pharaoh head boss for the pyramid stage. You’ll also fight a few more things which probably won’t surprise you and the last boss is the sort of thing you might expect to find at the end of a Final Fantasy game. Originality aside, the bosses are nicely drawn and have some interesting looking attacks.

User Interface

   Oh man where do I start? The UI is a large part of why I didn’t give this game an A. The platformer controls are stiff and The Master tends to just sort of amble along rather than run, which in turn slows the pace of the game. What’s worse is there is really no way to defend yourself aside from jumping or ducking and The Master isn’t exactly the world’s fastest jumper, so fights often turn into a slugfest. Fortunately the SIM controls feel much more fluid, but that’s where we get to the real downfall of the UI: Constant and repetitive dialogue interruptions. Messages often pop up when flying around protecting the towns as the Angel that tend to be the same “Master I know this is unexpected, but the people have something to say.” spiel over and over again. Luckily it’s usually followed by something helpful or interesting, but it happens so often that it’s not unexpected at all. Then there’s the dialogue box that explains what a spell or item does every freakin time you select it! Needless to say this was a bit annoying, but on the bright side, it is possible to speed the messages up, which helps.

It ain’t easy being god.

While the user interface has its hiccups, the various menus are laid out well and are not overly fiddly. In fact they also have some nicely done icons, which was rather unusual for the time.

Music and Sound

   The music for this game is pretty damn good (it is an Enix release after all), but there is little variety to the sound track. The same theme plays throughout the SIM stages (with some exceptions) and there are two themes that are often recycled throughout the action stages. It’s good that every track is well composed and lends a nice sense of atmosphere to the game, because you’d have to turn the volume off otherwise.

   You will recognize the sound effects right off the bat if you played Illusion of Gaia or Soul Blazer, which isn’t a bad thing since they tend to stand out and make Quintet’s games feel more connected, even if only vaguely. That also means one of my least favorite sound effects, a metal clank sound used in several other Enix titles, is present in ActRaiser.

Gameplay

   ActRaiser has quite a few balance issues and yet it’s its gameplay is a big part of what makes it so special. As I said before, no single element of this title is very impressive, but put together they click into place to make a unique and addictive game. So the game is composed of two primary elements: a town building SIM and more or less traditional platforming stages. ActRaiser also has some RPG elements so The Master and the Angel become more powerful as the world’s population grows. You’ll also find spells for The Master and important storyline items via town building, though you may have to get creative to find some of the hidden goodies.

   The first aspect of the game players will experience is the Sky Palace, which is more or less an extension of the SIM mode and acts as a means of transportation as well as a stage selector. The player is able to travel freely around the world via the Sky Palace and can challenge the six areas, but there’s a fairly clear sequence in which he or she should play the game. There are also obstacles and level caps built into some areas that will prevent players from entering them until they have completed another section of the game.

I guess the censors over at Nintendo didn’t notice the naked angel that is present in 50% of the game.

  A player must challenge and complete the first act of an area to begin building a town in it, which is where the platforming element comes into play. The Master beams down from the Sky Palace at the beginning of each act and has to hack his way through various monsters with his blade as well as leap over pitfalls. At the end of each act waits a boss (with the second act boss of an area being considerably stronger than that of the first act) that The Master must best in single combat. While The Master primarily relies upon his sword to slay the servants of the wicked Tanzra, there are also a number of spells available to him that deal impressive amounts of damage to enemies.

   For the most part the combat in this game lacks any sense of subtlety or finesse. You either whack baddies with a sword or fry them with a spell and as I said earlier, The Master is so unwieldy that dodging is often impractical unless you have a lot of experience playing. As a result, fights often devolve into a damage race, with magic often swaying the battle in your favor. There is something to be said for the art of positioning yourself in a foe’s blind spot and learning enemy patterns in order to fight them efficiently, but it’s not really necessary. Magic is also tremendously overpowered and is possible to annihilate even bosses in few hits if you use the right spell in the proper manner. Quintet did attempt to balance the magic system out a bit and spell castings are limited by how many scrolls you have in your possession, which you can collect more of by exploring. You’ll also have to aim magic somewhat in order to hit your target and each spell operates differently.

   While imaginative and generally well done, the action stages come off as a bit bland at times, since there’s so little strategy involved in combat. This is offset somewhat by the wide variety of foes you encounter and the fact that many acts have multiple paths and secrets to find. The RPG element actually does this game a service, since the Master gets stronger as the world grows and having more life or spells can make a big difference when trying to clear certain stages.

   The SIM portion of the game becomes available once the first act of an area is completed. Players control an Angel in SIM Mode and will have to aid the townspeople as they rebuild the world. As the angel you will often be required to kill monsters that prey on your villagers, good thing you are given a bow and various magic spells to get the job done. The Angel is also charged with the task of telling the townspeople where to build their homes and will often have to use magic to clear land for buildings. Spells used in the SIM Mode are completely different from those available in the platforming stages and are generally based on nature. You can call down lightning to destroy bushes, use sunlight to melt snow, or even cause massive earthquakes. The Angel’s magic system is perhaps the most well thought out aspect of this title, primarily due to the fact that you will use it often and for a variety of purposes. Even spells that are not utilized for town building have their uses if you are creative. There’s even a sinister element to magic as it can be used to torment your townspeople as much as it can be used to aid them. There’s also a number of secrets that can be uncovered by using magic in certain places or at certain times, which adds an element of exploration to the game.

   As fun as the SIM Mode is, it can become repetitive at times. The same creatures tend tend appear in every area, aside from a few new ones that pop up late in the game. It also takes time for the townspeople to actually build things and you may find yourself sitting around waiting for them to spawn once all the monsters in an area have been slain (of course, this is always a good opportunity to look for hidden goodies). It also goes without saying that the SIM mechanics are highly simplistic and someone expecting Age of Empires or SIM City from this game would be disappointed.

Final Thoughts

   Act Raiser is easily one of the best games on the SNES despite its flaws. In fact, it would have gotten a much higher score if not for some of the issues concerning its UI. I should also mention that this title isn’t terribly long and most people will be able to beat it in a couple of days or even a single sitting. At any rate, there’s something addictive about this game and I find it hard to put down, even after playing it several times over the years.

Recommendations

   Just about everyone should give this game a try. Even if you aren’t particularly a fan of  SIMs (a category I fall into) or platformers, you may find that the unique combination of the two genres is to your liking. Most collectors will also consider ActRaiser to be a fine addition to their SNES library.

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