Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Look: Nobody was more likely to be in the pocket for ActRaiser Renaissance—Square Enix’s new remaster/re-imagining/retread of 1990 SNES launch title ActRaiser—than me. I’ve argued, in this very space, for more attention for, and a deeper critical consideration of, the original title’s beautiful strangeness, which blended standard sword-swinging action with an at-the-time revolutionary god game element that tasked players with guiding the peoples of various imperiled lands to success. (Or just casting the “earthquake” miracle repeatedly to watch all the crappy houses fall down. To each their own.)
So it saddens me somewhat to note that Renaissance, which got a surprise drop alongside last week’s Nintendo Direct, loses track of a major chunk of what made Quintet’s original game so special. The basic “kill the monsters, build the city, kill the monsters” rhythms are still there, admittedly. But they’ve now been “augmented” with a third gameplay style that periodically turns the game into a lackluster tower defense game. So it goes. But, more worryingly, Renaissance loses touch with the emotional core that made ActRaiser resonate with so many once-young players, fully three decades after its initial release: The lonely melancholy of being God.
If that sounds like kind of a heavy theme for a game originally aimed at 10-year-olds, well: It was. But it was also a key part of what made Quintet such an important early studio in the development of the medium. Working under the auspices of Dragon Quest developer Enix, the small studio made games (Soul Blazer, Illusion Of Gaia, Terranigma) that put players in the hands and wings of angels, gods, and their destined chosen—and then relentlessly emphasized, through both the minimalist writing, and the irresistible soundtracks, what such a lonely, isolated existence beings like that would have. You play shepherds in these games, forever at a distance from the sheep.
Never was that more clear than in the original ActRaiser. Outside of getting status reports from your personal angel—and stabbing various monsters—every interaction in the original game happens in the same way: With the people, in minimalist supplication, offering up their prayers to you from the gloomy spotlight of their temples. There are no conversations, no banter: Just the hapless stick figures, begging a god they’re only halfway sure is there for help, and the answering strike of lightning to smite the wicked (or a particularly bothersome rock). That loneliness only ratchets up with the game’s unforgettable ending: The threat defeated, the devil destroyed…and the temples empty, abandoned by a flock that no longer needs its protector.
Renaissance sticks to the same outline. But the game is so relentlessly chatty—putting tons of dialogue into the mouth of your angel, and filling your ranks with heroes whose personal stories now accompany each level—that the critical sense of loneliness is gone. I can forgive the game its padding, and the quirks of its art style. (The decision to update a SNES game’s action sequences to resemble… a PlayStation One game’s action sequences is certainly a choice.) But the loss of the loneliness is a far harder pill to swallow.
Renaissance isn’t a bad game—the basic beats of ActRaiser remain solid 31 years after its original release, and a few of the tweaks (including the updated soundtrack, and some additional rigor in the game’s combat that feels lifted from the otherwise regrettable ActRaiser 2) are actually additive. But it’s not a special game. As a follow-up to one—and many people’s first exposure to it—that’s one hell of a sin.