Actraiser Renaissance (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Rudy Lavaux 20.12.2021

Review for Actraiser Renaissance on Nintendo Switch

ActRaiser, a game released merely weeks after the launch of the Super Famicom in Japan back in 1990, left its mark on the video game industry when it was first unleashed on the world. Its unique mix of God Sim elements, and tight side scrolling action coupled to great art direction, ensured it would remain engraved in the memories of everyone alive to play it at the time. This was all greatly enhanced by a killer soundtrack by the legend Yuzo Koshiro. Nobuo Uematsu who was still working on Final Fantasy IV at the time can be quoted saying that this game alone made him realise that the Super Nintendo's sound capabilities could be pushed much further still than what he himself had accomplished at that time, pushing him to work harder. A sequel to ActRaiser was released a couple years later, but devoid of involvement from Koshiro and stripped of its distinctive God Sim sections in favour of a more straightforward, but also more forgettable action platformer. The original would receive ports and re-releases over the years for mobile phones in Japan and on Nintendo's Virtual Console services, but the series laid dormant for the longest time. Then, out of nowhere, Actraiser Renaissance gets announced in Nintendo's September 2021 Direct, as an instant new release for the eShop. Cubed3 sets out to find out about it.

What made ActRaiser a classic still fondly remembered to this day is, more than anything else, its unexpected mix of genres. Having games that play as both a top-down view sim game and as a side scrolling action platformer simply didn't happen at the time. Console limitations or even cartridge storage capacity simply didn't allow for seemingly two very different games to be combined into one, let alone both working off one another nicely, being engaging, fun, and memorable - ActRaiser did just that, and practically at launch no less! Actraiser Renaissance starts out in just the same way: an angel wakes the lord of light, sealed away in slumber by the lord of evil Tanzra, and asks the god (or 'Master' in the original release) to pick a name for themselves. The world is almost devoid of humans, who have all been driven away or exterminated. The lord of light and fire will have to go down to earth to rid it of the evil fiends that roam the land, so that civilization may be rebuilt.

It all begins in the first side-scrolling act in Fillmore and the kickass re-arranged soundtrack starts playing. It certainly sounds amazing and gets the old fans' endorphin going but something immediately seems off... that would be the art style. It's hard to say what most expect instead, and what the developer should have gone with in lieu of this cheap looking pre-rendered mess. Not only does it look out of place and definitely not… ActRaiser-y, for a lack of a better term, but on Switch in docked mode and every platform it released on for that matter, the art assets that make up the scenes look badly scaled up and show uneven pixel width, which in movement show pixel crawling or a shimmering effect in every direction that the screen scrolls. It's worth noting that this is not an issue on Switch in portable mode. In fact, out of all the possible platforms to play this game on, it probably looks best on Switch in portable mode, which is to say its visuals are the most "tolerable" there. However, the Switch is the platform on which it runs the worst and the problem is twofold here.

Screenshot for Actraiser Renaissance on Nintendo Switch

First, as discovered by the savvy folks at Digital Foundry the day after it released, this suffers, at the time of writing anyway and on all platforms it is available on, of a Unity Engine fault which makes it run at its target of 60FPS but scroll only at 50FPS. This creates a perception that the game is dropping frames even when it is not. Only the side scrolling sections of the game are affected by this specific bug, and not the top-down view God Sim sections it should be noted. So already there's the art style seemingly denoting a lack of care for the original masterpiece, but now on top of it all there's a common problem found in many other Unity titles, but which the best developers have managed to sidestep entirely. The team behind Ori and the Will of the Wisp on Switch, for example, has managed to make its much more complex and better looking game running at a nearly flawless 60FPS in Unity, albeit after much time spent optimising things on Switch to make sure it runs that way. Actraiser Renaissance just scrolls flat 2D elements with a minor amount of parallax, and it chugs on all platforms, including the Switch. Worse even, the Switch version, as well as PS4, and even PS4 Pro ones, show drops in framerate unless the "additional visual effects" are toggled off in the options menu, which then allows this to run at its intended target frame rate. Lengthy load times on anything but PC and PS5 also make an experience that should have been just as snappy as the original feel more sluggish.

Initial impressions then, going in, are definitely not great and make the unconditional fan of the original feel cheated or robbed of what should have been the magnificent resurrection that this great forgotten classic deserved. The side scrolling action however, in all fairness, technical issues aside, is amazing. The character controlled great in the original, but the modernised gameplay here is outstanding. It feels responsive and the lord of light has new moves to boot: an upward sword swing when jumping and holding up, a downward swing when falling back down and enemy attacks can even be blocked with the sword when crouching and remaining still. Moreover, magic spells have less limited uses since they consume more traditional MP instead of the old individual scroll system and spells can be swapped from withing the levels themselves to adapt to changing situations. Exploration of the side scrolling levels is also encouraged by MP scrolls to be found within, typically numbering three per act.

Furthermore, those side-scrolling acts do not simply reuse the level layouts of the original: they are new creations that are "inspired" by ιτ. The ice cave of Northwall, for example, is redone, but still has a section where an ice platform slides around, and the player has to ride on it to reach new places. Sometimes the reworking is not necessarily for the better, though, such as the great tree, still in Northwall, lacking the outdoor section on the snow-covered branches, which contrasted nicely with the dark frozen interiors. In fact the reworked stages, again because of the art style, are a mixed affair. Some don't look good at all, and this includes the very first stage in Fillmore, while others look great like those in Bloodpool or simply castle interiors in general. The latter, combined with the rearranged soundtrack and the reworked gameplay, almost give this game a Castlevania vibe that's not at all unwelcome. In fact, the whole soundtrack is still very much a highlight. The orchestrated recordings of the original compositions are fantastic. It's worth noting that the track placement follows the original Super Famicom release. In the West, ActRaiser saw the placement of some of its music pieces rearranged, so that the music being played would better fit the mood of the location. In the Japanese release for example, both Fillmore acts played the same track but in the West, the cave and castle sections of Act 2 played the same music as Act 1 of Maranha.

Screenshot for Actraiser Renaissance on Nintendo Switch

Actraiser Renaissance ditches this later-revision tweak in favour of something closer to what the original Japanese audience would be familiar with. It is a matter of taste, but while this reviewer thinks the Western version made more sense, the music is still so awesome to listen to no matter what that it barely matters. Additionally, new compositions by Yuzo Koshiro are part of this new version too! The maestro went back to compose new tracks, using the original samples or 'soundfont,' on the SNES's SPC700 sound chip, and then those were played by an orchestra and recorded like the rest of the soundtrack of Renaissance, so that players can choose between the two, even in the case of the new tracks. This kind of dedication deserves to be applauded.

Setting aside the side-scrolling sections, the top-down God Sim sections that see the player directing the population in the rebuilding of the world play very much like in the original, or so it seems at first. This overall part has indeed been dramatically expanded upon. Thankfully, the art style here looks a bit more pleasing to the eye, especially in portable mode, and seeing the more detailed towns with more little villagers going about their daily lives is certainly charming - but this part of the game has just as many performance issues on Switch, not tied to scrolling bugs, but simply to poor optimisation and in this case there's no option to toggle off certain effects to make things run more smoothly,; it will run poorly especially on larger maps or as town get more developed. The action there is more laid back and doesn't require accurate reflexes, so performance dips are not so harmful but they are distracting and there's no shaking the feeling that nothing is happening on the screen that the Switch shouldn't be able to breeze through.

Moving on from that, every little event in the original is included here but given a lot more context and dialogue from both the inhabitants and the angel. The story has indeed been greatly expanded upon. In fact, it can be overbearing at times, as the God Sim part is already rather slow-paced and a good part of it consists in watching the people go about their daily lives and building things, only to be interrupted at times when something happens... except now there is a lot more text to go through. The writing is good and the dialogue not uninteresting but the careful balance of the original finds itself upset somewhat by the expanded script. The latter introduces new town heroes: each land visited by the lord has its own prophesised hero who plays heavily in guiding the townfolk to fight off the monsters that plague them.

Screenshot for Actraiser Renaissance on Nintendo Switch

The protagonist still uses "miracles" like sunshine, lightning, and earthquakes to shape the terrain or force the townspeople to let go of their older straw huts in favour of log cabins or brick houses that can accommodate more people. A defining aspect of the original is gone however: population does not serve as experience points anymore: this is replaced by a 'Faith' meter. This resource is acquired by fulfilling quests for the people, many of which were simply roadblocks that stopped town progression in the original but some of which are new. For example, the fields and bigger workshop buildings produce materials and food that the population requires so the angel has to collect them when they pop up, which adds more to do during those segments than just waiting around while the people build their town. However the angel's MP does not replenish over time anymore like in the original. MP has to be collected from the fields as potions. During times when miracles have to be used to destroy older buildings, with miracles costing a lot of MP, there can be a lot of downtime waiting for potions to pop up or having to kill demons with arrows to collect meagre amounts of MP and those demons also seem to spawn a lot slower.

This can get frustrating in the earlier parts of the game. Things overall feel like they drag more than they should over the original, in spite of the fact that people seem to build (and breed) quite faster here. The game overall feels longer to play: 24 hours for this reviewer to fully complete it compared to just 4 to 5 hours in the original. Some of that can be attributed to newly created quests, the need to re-explore the side-scrolling acts for magic scrolls, and the introduction of a wholly new segment not present in the original. More content is definitely a good thing, but much of the longer play time is also down to the aforementioned issues slowing things down. Then there is... something else... something new. Oh horror! Oh tragedy! They had to include new demon horde raids. A disclaimer is due here: this reviewer avoids the tower defence genre like the plague because he finds no fun in it. Sadly, Actraiser Renaissance forces such sequences on the player to even be allowed to continue playing.

In fairness, these do make sense in the context of it all, and for those who enjoy that sort of thing, the real-time strategy of it will definitely feel enjoyable. For the sake of objectivity then, it gets a pass, but bear in mind, if coming from the original, these exist and may not be to everyone's liking. Resources picked from workshops by the angel can be used to build town defences like roadblocks, palisades, bell towers to lure monsters towards them, as well as towers for archers and mages to shoot at incoming monsters. The town hero is the only unit who can be instructed to move around to fight the monsters off while the angel just sits by and does nothing. The lord of light is allowed to use miracles but during those raids, they require a cooldown period and moreover, MP is very limited because fields take ages to randomly generate potions and since monsters will destroy fields and workshops if allowed to, in addition to the lord's own temple, reliance on miracles is all but prohibited. Careful placement of roadblocks and defence towers is therefore the only way through these parts.

Screenshot for Actraiser Renaissance on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 6 out of 10


The rearranged soundtrack coupled to new compositions is stunningly awesome, as Yuzo Koshiro recaptures brilliantly the spirit of the original and the gameplay of the side-scrolling sections is even better than in the original. However, the questionable choices in the art direction, the bugs, poor performance and the, at times, way too wordy expanded script, mar the experience in such a way that what should have been the masterful return of a masterpiece instead turns out to be a nice introduction to the classic for new audiences, but not much more. There's no shaking the feeling that this re-release was not treated with all the care that such an important landmark title deserved. The extra content sweetens the deal somewhat, and encourages fans of the original to come back for more, but the price of admission for such an end result is a bit too much perhaps.

Review copy provided by Square Enix


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C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  6/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

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