The original Actraiser was one of the best early SNES titles as it offered something new in terms of gameplay and while featuring great production values, mostly in terms of its music. When Actraiser 2 was announced I along with many looked forward to seeing how they would expand the city building gameplay that made the first game so original. While disappointing that wouldn’t be so bad if the game didn’t stumble in a few other areas as well. While still a good game Actraiser 2 had the potential to be great and is a missed opportunity.
Actraiser 2 provides some context to the conflict between Tanzra and the Master. As one of the Master’s disciples Tanzra led a rebellion in heaven and was defeated in battle. After his loss at the hands of the Master Tanzra was cast back into the underworld. There 13 of his most trusted lieutenants revived their master who in turn unleashes them upon the world. These demons represent the seven deadly sins and other maladies that afflict mankind and now the Master must save his people again.
The box art proudly boasts of 100% pure action and excitement and this is the most controversial change in the game. The cool city building of the first game are gone and you are left with nothing but the action levels. Although simple by today’s standards the sim elements of the original were innovative and fed into the action part of the game and what truly made Actraiser unique. With that gone you are left with a pure action title like the box suggests and one that is heavily flawed.
Although you aren’t reconstructing the world this time around the overworld map still exists. You have free reign to travel and find out brief bits of information about each country and their current maladies. The game is totally nonlinear and can be completed in any order, sort of like Mega Man. In terms of structure this is very similar to the first game. Each country has an initial level with a lesser demon. Once defeated the true evil, one of the seven deadly sins, appears. Compared to most action games this is actually pretty long and with its high difficulty will give you your money’s worth. That is, if you last that long.
Your avatar this time around is a beefy warrior equipped with some new gear for battle. You have a sword and shield plus a variety of new attacks. The Master can attack in nearly any direction although your default attack is a forward thrust rather than an arcing slash. Your shield can block nearly any projectile, even massive fireballs and falling rocks. The most startling addition however are your wings. The wings allow some measure of flight and you can slowly glide toward platforms in midair. Pressing jump while in midair will initiate a glide from which you can perform a number of attacks, the most powerful being a diving attack inflicts twice the damage of your other attacks.
The designers certainly went out of their way to beef up your arsenal. However the cumbersome controls almost ruin it. Gliding is fun however you skid a few paces when touching down. Its realistic but also annoying considering the precision needed. By pressing jump a third time you will drop down immediately. You can also glide if need be but it is slow and you lose momentum. Activating the various magic spells is counter intuitive; rather than selecting a spell to use you must first hold the attack button to charge it up and perform a button combination (up+attack, down+attack, etc.) to use them. These issues are manageable within the game but not intuitive in the heat of combat. The SNES controller has six buttons, if they utilized every button the game would have been stellar.
Compared to the brisk pace of the original this is a slower game. The Master walks slowly and the enemies are tougher to make up for your increased offensive power. The game is heavy on the bottomless pits and spike traps, probably to prevent you from simply flying over the elaborately crafted levels. At its best moments Actraiser 2 is amazing. The world and level design are varied and incredibly imaginative. You’ll explore the inside of an active volcano, a town built on the back of a giant crab, and even the fractured mind of a tortured king. There are wide expanses that seemed designed specifically to allow you to cut loose and fly; these moments are picturesque. But they are tempered by a control setup that does its best to get in your way. For as much as I have complained once I adjusted I enjoyed the game immensely.
Where Actraiser leaned a bit on the easy side the sequel is particularly brutal. Most enemies take multiple hits to kill and unfortunately are very aggressive. The game also isn’t shy about littering the screen with enemies, with certain levels like Death Field being especially bad. The various attack options are necessary to make it to even the halfway point in most levels let alone to defeat the vicious bosses. When I first bought it I thought I might have chosen hard mode by accident. But no, the game really is that tough. When combined with the frustrating controls I can see why most would simply give up.
It’s a bit of a shame that the wonky controls and difficulty will turn most gamers away as Actraiser 2 has some of the highest production values of any SNES game. The art direction is simply amazing. The sprite work and animation are a step above most games released in the later years of the system’s life with some of my favorite boss designs of that era. The backgrounds are simply gorgeous, exquisitely detailed and featuring layers of scrolling 3-5 layers deep.
The music has seen a similar upgrade. The sound programming is much better as the instrument samples are clearer and not muffled like the original. The compositions are much more complex and varied, featuring somber tunes when exploring darker areas like Gratis prison and bombastic and rousing music in Death Field. Overall I would still give the edge to the first game as it is more consistent and memorable however the sequel comes dangerously close to surpassing it.
I was disappointed with Actraiser 2 but still found it good enough that I played through it. That took a very long time for a straight up action game. If you can stomach a few frustrating elements there is a pretty damn good game buried underneath the flaws. But I would still recommend its predecessor first.