I don’t often write about games I play mainly due to the fact that I actually rather play games than write about them but also due to the very little spare time I have. However, in this case, I wanted to make an exception, not because I have time to spare, but because Axiom Verge is so damn good.
Writing this post about a game which brings back memories of my early childhood, playing video games such as Metroid on the NES and Commander Keen on the PC, I realised I haven’t written a Past, Present, Future blog about myself either. Many work, much doing. Wow. Anyways, as said, I played many Metroidvania games in my early childhood, mainly because I liked side-scrolling combat action games, which had a sort of dystopian feel about them (of course I did not know that word back then), which also had refreshing gameplay elements and puzzle solving challenges. I also very much liked watching animés in this ‘uneasy futuristic’ setting. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching the Japanese Ghost in the Shell and, the, perhaps little less known but equally beautiful, Korean Wonderful Days (Sky Blue).
In more recent years, I still like playing games with a dystopian-feel, such as the Bioshock series, Fallout series and, of course, my all-time-favourite game from Naughty Dog: The Last of Us. It might have been more than 10 years, however, since I last played a Metroid-like game – until I started playing Axiom Verge and boy, was it worth the wait!
Released on the Playstation 4 back in March last year, Axiom Verge is designed (both the art and music) and coded by one single man: Thomas (or Tom) Happ. The guy spent 5 years of his evenings and weekends creating a game which would eventually receive an 84 critic rating (and 80 user score rating – we all know how difficult it is to get such high scores on Metacritic). One of the critics who reviewed the game called it an “excellent homage to Metroid”, which is, in my opinion, almost an understatement. The game later came out on PC, OS X, Linux, PS Vita and the Wii U and is to be released on Xbox One later this September, so if you run the latter system as your preferred one, hold on tight.
Axiom Verge’s story is set in a futuristic environment which is feeling the repercussions of a scientific lab experiment gone wrong. Trace, the scientist responsible for the catastrophe, suffered major injuries after the failed experiment and wakes up in an alternative, high-tech, but at the same time ancient world, called Sudra. Without spoiling the plot of the game, the player controls Trace on his quest to find his way out of this alternative reality, with help from giant war machine-like entities called ‘Rusalki’. With this name and in many other ways, the game actually steeps itself in (Slavic) folklore – in this case a ‘Rusalka’ is a water spirit. Even if they are based on myths, the visual style of these creatures can be compared to designs by H.R. Giger, best known from his work for Dune and the Alien films. The combination of 16-bit visuals, reminiscent of the games of yore, and the ‘uneasy’ design for its environment, monsters and bosses, means the game truly is a visual masterpiece. All the more impressive knowing this was created by only one person.
While the game has beautiful visuals and an amazing storyline, which gets deeper and deeper the longer you progress, the gameplay is what really makes Axiom Verge superb! As you venture your way through Sudra you discover a variety of upgrades, both to your trustworthy ‘Axiom Disruptor’ – the first gun you encounter during the game – as well as your character. Many of these upgrades provide new ways of interacting with the environment. The ‘address disruptor’, for instance, lets you corrupt enemies and glitch them into fighting each other or render them ‘invalid’ for a certain amount of time. That particular gun can also be used to glitch yourself through invisible walls and find hidden treasure. Other upgrades include the use of drones, the ability to teleport yourself or to shoot giant data bombs uncovering hidden walls and ancient artifacts. If only we could use those during archaeological fieldwork!
This reminds me of the fact that the game is actually quite interesting as an act of archaeology in itself. As the story revolves around finding the truth about this world in order to escape it, Trace has many encounters with cultural aspects of this world, including its, let’s say, ‘unfriendly inhabitants’. In one particular case you actually have to find and dig out an artifact which is needed to progress the game further. In addition, some of the level designs reminded me of ancient Egypt or the Middle East.
The further you venture into Sudra you begin to question the reality of the world you are playing in as Trace. You even begin to question your own existence within the game. I don’t know why exactly, but tin how the storyline progresses and is based upon this eldritch yet recognizable allegory of life itself, the game struck a philosophical nerve for me and has left me craving for more knowledge and insights into its philosophical concepts and viewpoints.
The game, as life itself, was actually quite hard; both its level design, as well as the bosses residing within Sudra, were challenging and the fact that the game allows for different ways to reach the end-boss (and has two different endings, based upon decisions made earlier) also considerably increased its difficulty. This is a good thing though because, just as my fellow friend and VALUE-colleague Jaromirr, I do think that many games released these days are too easy. That’s probably why we like Bloodborne so much. Come to think of it, this might be a game Jaromirr would like to play as well, since it has a boat-load of achievements to unlock; the game even has a special speedrun mode for it!
It actually has been some time since I played this game, but writing about it has me left wanting to play some more. Perhaps I’ll start a new game now. Megalithic out.