Attempting to expand on the “runner” genre, Axe, Bow & Staff almost gets it right.
In a business-style pitch, the whole package seems pretty appealing. It’s a side-scrolling game that borrows and combines a few elements from other genres. You aren’t restricted to a jump button and you aren’t just tapping it to avoid obstacles that become progressively more aggravating. Axe, Bow & Staff builds on this classic setup by chucking in more features to play with: you take control of three characters instead of one, there’s three lanes to swap between, and most notably, it’s upheld by some traditional RPG-esque pillars. From an outside perspective, it’s an appealing concept, but it’s not until you pour some time into the game that you realise the genre perhaps needn’t be fiddled with too much.
Starting off on the strongest note, visually Axe, Bow & Staff looks fantastic. It may not be unique, but the colourful, 8-bit pixel-popping aesthetics always look darn good to me. Everything from the environments to the characters and their animations are wonderfully rendered. And it’s all backed by a funky, retro soundtrack that’s a little repetitive, but essentially harmless in its catchiness.
Axe, Bow & Staff‘s characters are imaginatively named Axe, Bow and Staff. They also conform to stereotypes, with Axe being a dwarf, Bow looking remarkably similar to Link/Legolas and Staff… well he has a staff, a grey beard and a pointy wizard hat. Jumping into the story mode, it became immediately apparent that this wasn’t a “story” as such, more an excuse to introduce progression through a world map. It covers a slew of locales from forests to castles, to deserts and strange pink kingdoms. As I battled onwards, I didn’t gain a better grasp of the character’s motivations or delve deep into their personalities. Part of this was down to the sliver of narrative the game uses to glue together the transition from one area to another. A sudden still image of the characters going about their merry way (?) and off we went. The other half of the problem lies with the characters exclusively communicating and conveying emotion through emojis. It’s a lazy design choice that might work in theory; “down with the kids and all that”, and “it definitely fits the retro theme we’re going for right?” Wrong. Text would’ve been a quality alternative, not only for clarity’s sake, but because it’s ruddy effective in instilling some real meaning. Emojis convey basic emotion, and should remain tacked onto the end of embarrassing texts, not in the world of video game storytelling.
What Axe, Bow & Staff lacks in motivation and plot points, it makes up for a little in gameplay. Each character has two abilities: Axe can swing his axe to smack foes, or raise his shield and block incoming damage. Bow can fire off a shot, or hop over enemies and obstacles. Staff is easily the most interesting of the three; he can teleport baddies from one lane to another and emit an arcane charge that dispels any negative effects such as a poison. From the outset it’s fairly simple, but as levels ramp up in difficulty, it soon becomes a frantic, button-bashing nightmare – that is, if you wish to play the game as intended.
Travelling as a trio, you can populate each lane with one character, or have them all lined up in one. You can switch between them with TAB or 1,2,3, and use their individual abilities by swiftly tapping J or K. On your adventures, you’ll run into some traditional RPG tropes; spooky skeletons, ragtag goblins and menacing knights. Foliage such as brushes and shrubs aim to rudely interrupt your momentum and force you off the edge of the screen. Don’t forget the rocks, switches, falling boulders and assorted kegs and barrels. And yes, enemies will lob stuff and jump between lanes. It’s standard fare with an interchangeable twist thanks to the cast at your fingertips. Playing by myself, I tried my absolute hardest to go about Axe, Bow & Staff as intended. I imagine the developers envisaged me switching from Axe to deftly block a toxic projectile, before quickly snapping to Bow, shooting the poisonous-plant-with-angry-face, then suddenly flicking to Staff and teleporting a green skinned goblin onto a switch so the spikes lower and we’re out of trouble. This is how it was intended, and if you’ve got some mates, hopping into local multiplayer will ensure Axe, Bow & Staff is at its most rewarding and enjoyable.
By one’s lonesome, I found the mechanics too tricky to handle. Requiring lightning fast thinking, I just couldn’t fathom how one could “play it properly”. In the end I just reverted to playing as Bow and letting the rest of the gang endure an endless cycle of death. Thankfully there’s an upgrade tree for each character, so I put points into making Bow as overpowered as possible. And it worked. Further into the “story” I could fire multiple arrows in each lane and deal poison damage over time with each hit. Visiting the shop meant stocking up on health potions and equipping rings and belts which gave that sweet sweet survivability. There’s a plethora of things on offer, some of it upgradable (only upping the stats) but mostly it fell foul of my eyes that sought only goods that supported the cheesiest of tactics. Progression meant spamming arrows, jumping, and chugging health potions, somewhat detracting from the experience as a whole. Why bother with switching between everyone when playing as one works just as well, or even better?
Bossfights and extremely random moments proved to be quite exciting, mixing things up a tad. Learning a giant goblin king’s attack patterns (he abducts a cat) or following a friendly white cat (this cat) as it destroys tons of rats were some highlights. That’s because they shake up a formula that drags on a bit. Each level lasts an age, to the point where it becomes a relief when it’s over. Although that’s by no means an allusion to the entirety of Axe, Bow & Staff, ultimately I did end up longing for a more streamlined, stripped back experience. Strange really, as it builds upon a “runner” genre bloated by samey titles. It’s fun for a while, and most likely more so with buddies in tow, but I longed for a simpler running, jumping experience. Simply put, Axe, Bow & Staff valiantly tries and doesn’t quite fail – it’s just, alright.