Gameplay, Story and Value:
Humanity is young, and monsters roam the earth. As a god, it’s your job to both protect your people from evil and aid them in establishing their civilization, becoming self-efficient.
Actraiser is really two games in one, broken up into six “stages”. Each stage starts and ends with a side scrolling action (or “ACT”) sequence where you rid the area of monsters and a couple bosses. Between these sections is the city building (or “SIM”) part of the game where you help the current village expand and close monster portals while you fly around performing miracles and killing monsters.
Sim mode starts out easy enough, and is fairly interesting. You’ll fly around shooting down monsters and clearing obstacles with your powers, while directing the townspeople to build roads. Building roads will spawn homes and villagers, and building up to a monster lair will close that lair and prevent monsters from spawning from it. As your population increases you’ll gain levels, so you’ll want to completely clear out every map and build on every possible location.
Different maps have different monsters to deal with and different obstacles to clear. You’ll be using your lightning to burn down bushes, beams of sunlight to dry out marshes and rainfall to wash away sand. This is fun at first, but every map is effectively identical in this regard, and after a while the process can get somewhat tedious especially when you’re clearing out entire deserts or melting away maps covered entirely in snow. There’s also a lot of waiting around involved, as in order to level up you’ll need to wait for villagers to appear to begin construction, wait for the construction, clear away low level buildings and wait some more, etc. All the while you’ll be bombarded with various messages from villagers about one thing or another. It’s not a horrible system, but it quickly becomes predictable and boring. One nice touch is that you can access a status screen at any time which will tell you the level and population of each village, and whether or not you’ve maxed them out.
The action sequences are much more straightforward and, in my opinion, the better half of the game. Your level dictates how much HP you have and you’ll want to have a lot due to the above average (but not unmanageable) difficulty of these stages. You’re able to move left and right, jump, swing your sword and use an equipped magic attack, and it all mostly handles pretty well. You have a high amount of control over your jumps, but attacking takes some getting used to. Attacking in the air is very slow and there’s some timing that needs to be learned, and every once in a while the D-pad inputs are either slow or don’t respond at all. There were more than a few times where I’d be attacking the air because my character didn’t change directions when I told him to.
At the end of every action stage is a boss, and these bosses are all fun for the most part. They’re all very well designed in the sense that once you learn their moves and patterns, it’s possible to take them down while avoiding damage completely. This is very satisfying. The problem is that early in the game you’ll learn a magic attack that rains stars across the screen, and all but a couple of bosses just completely fold to this ability. Add to this the fact that you’re invulnerable while channeling it and it quickly begins to feel cheap.
Presentation, Music and Sound:
While the visuals during city building leave a lot to be desired, the action sequences sport some decent graphics. Sprites are large and movement is smooth, and every new dungeon feels feels distinct. There’s really nothing too bad to say about the graphics here, so let’s talk interface. The action interface is perfectly serviceable, reminiscent of Castlevania. In city building mode it mostly works but there are some quirks that make it annoying. Some items could be named better, such as the save option being referred to as “Progress Log”. Sure that makes enough sense, but in a game with a lot of progressing and logs it wouldn’t have been the first place I look to save my game. Most grating is the fact that you can’t cancel out of selections. If you accidentally select a menu option and try to back out, you’re first prompted with “Are you sure you don’t want to do this?” followed by the menu being closed out completely. It’s nothing gamebreaking, but it can wear on you after a while.
The audio is pretty middle of the road. There’s nothing bad here, all the music tracks and sound effects are perfectly fine, but there’s nothing really standout either. I think the best thing that can be said for the music is that it never gets hard to listen to, despite the fact you’ll be spending a lot of time in the game’s city building mode with the music playing on repeat in the background.
So, Actraiser didn’t end up being the 16-bit Dark Cloud I was hoping for, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it. While the overall experience was surely unique, the game more or less just screams “average”. City building starts off interesting but immediately becomes systematic. The action stages are fun but they always feel held back for one reason or another.
It was an enjoyable playthrough, and I’m glad I beat it.