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19 November 2016 @ 11:17 am
Game Review: Axiom Verge  
I wanted to play this game pretty much from the moment I first saw it, but it took me a long time to get to it. I didn't buy it until months after it came out, and then I just didn't get around to it. I've been watching more TV lately with softlykarou now that we have some YouTube channels we like keeping current on and are watching more anime. I've been tinkering with some RPGs that I may or may not ever run. And there were all the other games I wanted to play. That playthrough of Baldur's Gate II that I'm currently 132 hours into and still not finished with. The Zelda games that I've decided I want to chron-game through as many as I can before the Switch comes out. Playing through Mass Effect III even though I hated Mass Effect II because I had to finish the trilogy and see if ME3 really was good for the first 90% and it was only the end that was terrible (spoiler: no, it's almost all terrible). You know how it is.

Wait, that's just me? Oh. Um.

You can't jump on the bubbles.

Axiom Verge is a Metroidvania's Metroidvania. It's clearly designed by someone who loved Metroid and Super Metroid and wanted to recreate that experience, and in that, it succeeds with flying colors. There are items to pick up, health upgrades to find, long corridors to traverse, secrets to discover, and bosses to kill. It attempts to execute the formula competently rather than introducing any particular innovations, other than the one that it's most well-known for.

Super Metroid had its wall jumping and its shinesparking, and Axiom Verge has something similar to keep speedrunners occupied. Partway through the game is a powerup to fire an autonomous drone, and later after that is the ability to teleport to the drone's location. This can be done in midair as well, by firing up, teleporting to the drone, using any other ability to reset the drone, and firing again. Repeat for climbing long corridors. Combine that with the ability to teleport short distances, and I bet that speedrunners could accomplish feats that would astound and amaze me. Like this guy who beats the game in forty minutes. He has a comment that it's not actually that great for speedrunning, though, since the powerups that enable it don't come in until later.

I wouldn't know either way. It took me ten hours and I was much more concerned with exploring everywhere and getting as much as I could. I'm not the speedrunning target audience.

Graphics device driver error code 43.

The big part of Axiom Verge people remember--certainly, the part that I remembered--is glitching. Relatively early in the game, you find an item called the Address Disruptor that allows "glitching" enemies. The effects of this are widely varied. Some enemies become friendly and attack other enemies, some enemies float away into nothingness, some enemies gain utility such as being able to smash through walls and or help with puzzles, and some enemies are weakened and become easier or even possible to defeat. Later on, after an upgrade to the address disruptor, it's possible to glitch out walls and platforms as well, enabling access to secret areas.

The problem I have with this is that it's never a tactical decision. There's almost never any reason not to just spam the address disruptor literally everywhere you go, because while there are a handful of enemies who become invincible when glitched, probably the most common glitch result is that the enemy becomes slower, fires fewer projectiles, and drops a ton of health when it dies. Why wouldn't I want that to happen to every single enemy I can? And the answer is that there is no reason other than speed why I wouldn't glitch everyone, and that makes it less interesting. I admit that the glitches graphics look pretty neat, especially for some of the large enemies whose sprites fragment into unconnected shards, and for that reason I tended to run around with the address disruptor on full blast just to hit enemies or in case I was close to a secret area. I would have been happier if there had been some consideration of when to use Axiom Verge's most famous tool.

Not all of them are this obvious.

The secrets are often very annoying.

One of the criticisms I have about Doom is that finding all the secrets often came down to wall-humping, just spamming open while running around to all the walls and hoping you find something. Occasionally there would be a small tell, a tiny alcove or a light that wasn't lit up or a shadow that was different than the area around it, but sometimes it really was just chance. Axiom Verge often has the same problem, where sometimes there's a tell like the way the grass stops on the left in that screenshot, and sometimes it's taking the drill powerup and the address disruptor and using them on every single wall. Once you find the wall bypass coat, then this gets magnified because now some areas have walls at the edge of the screen that need to be teleported past with no indication that's the case. About three quarters of the way through the game, I just gave up and opened a guide in the background because I didn't want to spend the time checking every area everywhere for items I missed.  photo emot-colbert.gif

Super Metroid provided a scanner to find secret areas, but there's nothing like that here. I think it's sorely needed.

I will say that in play, I didn't care about this as much. The actual process of traversal and poking around was fun for most of the time I was playing, and it was only my desire to find those last couple weapons that really sent me to the guide. There was no need to do that--there's almost two dozen weapons in the game and I used maybe a third of them--but I liked having the giant weapon wheel complete and the option to use them.

 photo emot-gonk.gif

There's more of a story than Super Metroid, and it's more clever than I at first thought. When the game begins, the player character, named Trace, is a theoretical physicist performing an experiment at a remote facility in New Mexico. Something goes wrong--of course it does--and there is an explosion, after which Trace wakes up in a "Rebirth Chamber" on the world of Sudra and the game begins. It's a bit of Half-Life and a bit of Another World.

Of course, it's more complicated then that. The giant robots--Rusalki, as they call themselves--who tell Trace where he is that and he needs to find and kill someone named Athetos, who created a plague that mutated all other life on the planet, have their own agenda. Some of this comes out during the game, but a lot of it is revealed through notes found in secret areas. Some of these are written in other languages and can't be deciphered until a particular tool is found during the game, but while all this provides extra background, none of it is essential. The basic story reveals enough of itself through play that I feel that even if I hadn't found any of the notes, I would have been satisfied. The notes provided extra background and made me more suspicious of what Trace was being told, but there's nothing in there that fundamentally changes everything or means that you need to scour the map to learn the "real" story.

What are they hanging from?

The aesthetics of the game are pretty much exactly in my wheelhouse. Brooding music with occasional ominous chanting, for example. Pixel art, especially the kind that conveys a sense of scale. Almost all the environments in Axiom Verge seem deeper than the playable area, with massive structures barely visible in the background.

It's even more impressive because it's a unified vision. Axiom Verge is entirely the work of one man--Thomas Happ did the graphics, the animations, the music, the script, and the coding. I think the last game I played where that was the case was An Untitled Story, and before that, maybe all the way back to when I played Cave Story for the first time while I lived in Japan. And while both of those games were good, I like Axiom Verge better than either of them. What can I say? Giger-esque art and rhythmic electronica win out over peppy chiptunes and cute fluffy birds for me. I cannot escape my nature.


This game is great. I had some complaints about it, but they're more of a hindsight, "this could have been done better" complaint rather than a substantive complaint about the process of playing. The only thing that really annoyed me during the gameplay was the drill, which I feel like could have been replaced with just shooting the walls. Everything else all fit together pretty well even if it didn't fit me as well.

And I think, on the balance, I prefer Axiom Verge to Super Metroid!  photo emot-qfg.gif I suspect some of that is because I'm not a speedrunner and the way that Super Metroid allows shinesparking from the very beginning will never matter to me, but some of it is because I like Axiom Verge's variety of weapons and aesthetic better. As someone who likes finding secrets and jumping around interesting terrain, Axiom Verge provides a better experience for me than Super Metroid does.

It doesn't beat Symphony of the Night, but that would be expecting a miracle. It's still a fantastic ludic work.
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