March 30, 2015 8:00 AM | Joel Couture
Axiom Verge has perfected backtracking. Seems like an odd thing to start a review with, but if you've ever played a Metroid or Metroidvania before, I can guarantee you've found yourself lost, annoyed, and bored at some point. You know, that moment where you can't remember where that one route was where you needed the tool you just picked up, so you're hitting every wall and going through every single corridor in the game looking for it? Somehow, Axiom Verge doesn't have that. Somehow, a single man has perfected exploration in this genre. And narrative, bringing in thoughtful storytelling that does interesting work weaving player-driven events into itself. And visuals. And sound. And effects. I originally came to this game expecting a good Metroid-styled game. Now, I feel that this is the game to which all other entries in this genre will be compared.
Trace, a scientist, is working on some unknown project when his lab unfortunately explodes. These things just happen when game scientists go to work, I guess. He doesn't take it especially hard when he wakes up in some sort of egg pod in a nightmare world filled with colossal machines and weird alien life afterwards, either. Just starts shooting critters while they mumble at him about Athetos and demons. I mean, what else can you do? Still, he is a scientist, and while I'm sure his company includes a gym membership with his health plan and he does try his best, eventually something will get him (well, you). And then he dies. But then he comes back. Now, maybe Trace isn't handling things so well.
Axiom Verge introduces common video game occurrences, mechanics, and issues as part of the story as well as the gameplay. Glitches, respawning, and other typical aspects of video game life are brought into a complex, creative sci-fi narrative that's told through environmental clues, carefully-paced dialogue, and hidden notes. It's hard to discuss without spoiling some small and large shocking moments in the game, but it does load your own behavior within the game with meaning. I don't often feel like part of the narrative of most games beyond having to shoot and explore enough that I get to a place where the game hands me a piece of story, but Axiom Verge made me feel that my successes and failures were a part of the tale. It had me questioning my behavior, and worrying about things that I normally took for granted as normal for a video game. It's an incredible sci-fi story for video game fans.
It's an incredible-looking one, too. Happ spared no effort - created no fluff - while building his world. Walls pulse with mechanical and biological life, changing from frozen caverns to steel walkways that quiver with fleshy growths. The world looks like one where machine and life have become twisted together, lights and eyes blinking at you from the backgrounds and walls. It's a surreal, symbiotic world straight from nightmares or science gone mad, and it tempers the excitement of exploration with an uneasy fear. You can see that a lot has happened here before you arrived, and the walls themselves hint at some terrible, or possibly amazing, events. Every area has its own unique personality and visual scheme, each giving a tone and sensation through colors and pixel placement. You can feel an emotional power coming from these places, from the sterile cold of the gray beginning areas to the oppressive stuffiness and heat coming from areas that are heavily colored in pink - throbbing flesh stuck to every surface. This is also where, while its visuals may bear similarities to Metroid, it seems most divergent from it. Metroid's cavernous worlds feels naturally-occurring, but Axiom Verge's feels like the purposeful work of someone doing something terrible. It looks unnatural, yet alive, turning biological and mechanical into one being whereas the natural and the mechanical of Metroid were separate.
The creatures never stop changing, either. Weird things run through the halls, lost and wandering with no set purpose and no logical biology. You could accuse some of these creatures of being too video game-like, like the circles that just sort of float through rooms, but with the video game-focused narrative and the strange mechanical/organic backgrounds, the weirdest things make perfect sense here. A flower with bladed leaves and a floating caterpillar make as much sense as the hostile humanoid creatures and large, screaming tentacled beasts that lunge at you. This also means that you never know what will be coming at you as you walk the halls, so every room and creature is a new surprise for you to figure out.
Learning a new creature keeps combat fresh. You're always finding something new to fight, but Axiom Verge is very good about giving you a few seconds to watch something and study its behavior before you smash into it. You're a scientist, so act like one, right? Most of the enemies move slowly, but attack quickly when something enters their threat range, so with every new discovery comes a good opportunity to figure the enemy out. This is handy since there are so many different foes in the game, and it helps keep the constant changes in enemies from getting unfair. You always have a good shot at figuring out a new creature before the game starts tossing them at you in challenging ways.
You have many means to fight them to choose from, after all, so it's good to have that time to figure out what's the best tool to use. Weapons have been carefully designed to provide several unique functionalities beyond acting like certain real world weapons. More thought has gone into these than just whether they're rapid fire or if they shoot lasers or bullets. Some of them allow you to split your shot by pressing the trigger again, while other penetrate walls or cut through certain defenses. Your weapons feel more like a toolbox for exploration than a pile of guns for you to choose a favorite from, and using the right gun (or maybe even not a gun) means just as much for combat as choosing the right tool does for exploration. Sure, you can lean on ones you like, but Axiom Verge often has a right tool and gun for every job.
But yeah, using tools on enemies. It seems obvious that the drill you use for digging through walls can be used on monsters, especially more durable ones, but the less-obvious one is the glitching gun. This strange tool clears up glitches in the environment, but also has chaotic effects on the monsters by changing them into entirely new creatures. If something is giving you a hard time, say by filling a small area with bullets, you can hit it with this ray and just see what it does. It often completely changes an enemy's behavior and offensive capabilities as it turns them into a stuttering mess of pixels. It can make your life much worse in places, but it also shows just how many things in the game have dual purposes, and how many avenues are open to the player in combat.
There's just as many open pathways for exploration. Dozens of tools become available to the player over time, and not just stuff that lets you double jump or break down walls. Over time, you gain the ability to move through walls, cross glitched expanses, and grapple off of any surface, steadily opening up more and more new areas. While many tools work in traditional ways for the genre, wall phasing and glitching made me look at the environments in new ways. I had to teach myself to look for cues that I hadn't seen before in the genre despite all of its popularity lately. I have played a lot of Metroid-styled games lately, but Axiom Verge is the only one that seemed to be innovating in how the player looked for secrets. Its tools feel unique in what's becoming a crowded genre, and add a richness to the video game themes of its storyline.
How these tools open the world for you shows a care and attention to detail that is astounding. When you find a new tool in this genre, it typically opens a path or two that you saw before. In Axiom Verge, that tool opens a few major paths and several smaller ones. Every new tool feels like it has more applications in the game than they do in most other entries in the genre, and in more surprising places. There were endgame items that opened up paths I'd completely forgotten at the beginning, so a new tool is often a source of constant delight instead of something that only opens a thing or two. Each discovery also often leads to several more, smaller items that boost your power or weapon supply, so I was much more excited at finding tools than I normally am in this genre. I typically just want new weapons, but these new sources of discovery and locomotion felt like great treasures.
This is helped because backtracking has been so carefully planned in this game that you're heavily rewarded when you go back. The game has been painstakingly planned out, with several routes containing handfuls of new goodies based on what tools you should have when you find these paths. It also achieves this by prohibiting backtracking too early or too far by requiring a major tool to get back, so by the time you can get to really old areas, you tend to have several new abilities and can get a lot of items in those places. Even backtracking in the smaller places you're trapped in have a lot of hidden stuff, so the secrets never seemed to stop coming.
By breaking the game down into these chunks by trapping the player, it cuts down on getting lost, as you know your solution is someplace close. It narrows the player's search down, and considering every area is full of stuff, you're typically still finding new things even when you're stuck. It helped maintain my excitement as I played with a constant feeling of discovery, and also didn't let me broaden my search unnecessarily, so it avoided getting lost. The game is very carefully set up to maintain the wonder of exploration and not the aggravation of not knowing where to go. You always have at least a small idea of someplace you can go, and that small discovery there often slowly guides you to where you need to be. Happ guides the player to the right path by lining it with minor and major goodies, carefully creating a path when it feels like the player is finding it through their own discoveries.
Instead of providing warps to get around the game when it starts to get pretty expansive, the world cleverly wraps around itself, with passages from many areas all leading back on each other. There were several means by which I could get to an old location, so I never really felt like I couldn't go where I wanted to go quickly. Also, the game's map is just so well put together, its secrets all specifically placed so well, that I never felt like a trip was wasted. I could just go for a walk to wherever I needed to go and find countless treasures along the way. Not all of them are as major as a tool (many provide an increase to health or weapon damage, or require multiple small pickups to provide those increases), but they all provided that joy of discovering something new while you explored. You never feel like there's nothing to do and nothing to find as you wander.
Even when you pick up something small, that effect you see when you grab an item makes it feel worth it. Your character quivers with a a white pulse, the screen warps as this powerful tone booms from your speakers, and you just feel like you've done something important. The sound and visual effects give this game a real power when something happens, adding significance to your actions. Enemies burst apart in clouds of pixels with a hard, explosive splat. Bosses are even more catastrophic, filling the screen as their bodies burst into pieces that means so much more than a flaming explosion. Even smaller things like the burst from breaking a glitched area or the flaming castoff to your every gunshot make things look powerful and meaningful.
The sound effects have a weight to them when they go off. When something blows up, it has a deep bass to it, giving you the sense that you could feel the enemy break apart if your speakers were turned up loud enough. Guns boom out with every shot (especially the Kilver), loosing a thundercrack from your sound system every time you shoot. Enemy cries shriek and howl, animalistic cries mingling with strange, distorted machine-like sounds that again reinforce the mechanical/biological themes and the narrative connection to video games. The sound effects are incredible, and just lend your actions and the world a weight that makes everything feel alive.
The music, though. That music, somehow shifting from lonely to catchy to driven to unsettling, carries you along with each area's tone, granting the game an emotional resonance. So much of it captures this sense of deep loneliness and unease, and yet within a few screens it can easily shift to something more positive. It never quite becomes uplifting, always scored with a bit of menacing undertone to remind you of how much danger you're in, but it always sounds really good. It just captures the full tone of the piece in each place, creating an audio personality for the game while reinforcing its themes. Truly great stuff (and you can go buy it here. Just sayin')
Axiom Verge is a masterpiece - a testament to the heights one can reach. Happ did not come to this genre to create a neat game using its conventions, but to surpass everything that had been done in the genre before. His narrative, carefully combining gameplay conventions and sharp sci-fi writing, tells a deep storyline that enhances the game without interrupting it. His careful map planning and attention to detail has done away with the boredom of being lost without a clue. His sound and music design grants his world a richness and scope that make its events powerful and its moments meaningful. His visuals tell a story with speaking a word, and grant emotional resonance with a sweep of the eyes. Axiom Verge is not just an incredible entry in the genre, but the new standard by which all other games in it will be judged.
And all the work of one man, Thomas Happ. At that - after all I have said - I have no words. I am in awe.
Axiom Verge is available for $19.99 ($17.99 for PS+ Members) on PSN. The PC and PS Vita versions will follow in the coming months. For more information on the game and Thomas Happ, you can head to the game's site, the developer's site, or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.