In a sea of AAA blockbusters put out by studios comprised of hundreds of people, sometimes it only takes a single human being and a computer to deliver something truly special. It sounded incredulous before I started up Axiom Verge for the first time. After playing the game it’s even more so that developer Tom Happ was the sole creator of Axiom Verge. The game is a breath of fresh air in an era of open world games measured in miles (quite literally) and endless quests, first person shooters with set pieces and gritty realism, and modern eye melting graphics. Axiom Verge is retro action-adventure inspired by games of days gone by. Grab your Axiom Disruptor and head to Sudra, because this game is absolutely worth the trip.
This is usually where I begin talking about the premise of the game and possibly some underlying events that set the game in motion. I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going give you the bare minimum for the sake understanding the review: Trace, a scientist, finds himself in Sudra… a place that’s not Earth. There he is enlisted to help the Rusalki. Boom, there it is. That’s all you get. Axiom Verge is a game where jumping in and knowing little is the way to go. For older gamers, it’s reminiscent of being a kid in an era without an endless amount of information and gameplay trailers. For a retro game, I find this fitting.
The game itself works in the same way. It doesn’t hold your hand and give you answers to every question. It slowly reveals some over the course of the game, while leaving the player’s to interpret the rest. It is important to remember that you are a stranger in a strange place. You must explore and find information on your own to unravel the mystery of your surroundings. The only background information regarding Sudra comes in the form of notes hidden along the way. The game doesn’t punish you for not finding them, but they do add to the narrative and lore of the setting. I’ve seen too many games have collectables for the sake of collectables. Here, the notes add value and drove me to find more of them. Interpreting the notes (literally and figuratively) is up to you, as well as certain events including the ending itself. This works well with Axiom Verge’s context; the main character Trace knows nothing about where he is and what is going on. Similarly players should have as little information as he does. While I did enjoy not having everything spelled out for me, have a bit more clarification on plot points, or concepts would help in understand more of main narrative. What exactly is a “PatternMind” is one such example that would aid in narrative clarity.
One of my favorite aspects of the game is its non-linear map and the exploration that comes with it. However, Axiom Verge can be directionless at times in regards to what you should be working towards. For example, one of the first tasks of the game is to find the Power Filter. You don’t receive any other additional information. Now, I don’t mean we should have a waypoint indicating its exact location, or even how to find it given the context of the game (i.e. you have no clue where the hell you are in the first place). However, a little more information regarding what it is and what it looks like would be great. Without that information, my main tactic was to run around blindly and eventually run into it… which I did. Only, I didn’t even know I found the Power Filter… until after it hold me I found the Power Filter. There was an, “Oh, ok. So that was it” moment. As I stated earlier, the game doesn’t hold your hand, but due to instances like this it be a bit directionless.
How much you do and find in Axiom Verge is entirely up to you. Exploration is driven by the player wanting to explore the unknown. Players can go back to previous areas and find new things, such as items or hidden rooms. The enticing exploration is mostly due to its level design, one of Axiom Verge’s main strengths. Most of the items in the game are hidden within the environment, so exploration is key to Trace becoming stronger. With exploration up to the player choice and correctly determining the right places to go, playtimes can range from 8-12 hours to over 20. As someone who loves to collecting things, finding hidden areas, and so forth, I easily put in over 20 hours on the first playthrough. The map also helps in this regard. It tracks where you have been while making you question if you’ve managed to explore everything, due to its lack of a uniform and patterned area layouts (Pro Tip: take a really close hard look the details of the in-game map).
The game nails Trace’s jumping physics while aiming and shooting is smooth. Using the d-pad for nostalgia sake or stick with the more responsive analog sticks is up to you, either will do the job. Trace shoots in the direction he faces and players can lock him into place without moving to fire weapons. Don’t be deceived by the veil of simplicity. The game is filled with weapons and tools for you to use in defeating enemies and exploring areas previously inaccessible.
While the game technically has a single ‘gun,’ the Axiom Disruptor, players can come across different weapons that change what is shot out from the Axiom Disruptor. Players can change weapons on the fly while the game briefly pauses. The weapons range from short, medium, and long, come with different bullet spreads, and fire at different rates as well. Most of the weapons are fun to use, but from a practical stand point some will get passed over due to stronger guns, or those that are more applicable to a wider range of situations. For example, while I highly enjoyed using the something like the Voranj (fun, cool effect) I would use tend to use Kilver (probably my most used weapon) as it allowed me to take down a wide range of enemies relatively quickly. Take that with a grain of salt, as playstyles do differ. Also, what weapons you use depends on if you actually find them. You may be better accustomed to using the Voranj, while never using the Kilver. Well… if you can find the Voranj that is. However, the underlying fact will remain the same. While you are partial to some weapons others will likely go untouched except for their initial trial-period.
I’m going to avoid talking about the tools in depth, as they do some with some puzzle/exploration spoilers. How the tools are used and implemented within in the game combines the obvious with a dash of cleverness. Getting a new tool often came with a ‘eureka’ moment, where you realized you can now do something you couldn’t before. The tools and level design should be taken as a whole rather than two separate parts within the game itself, due to their influence on how you traverse the environment.
The game also has various powerups to find as well. Players will get stronger as the game progresses fighting stronger enemies and bosses along the way. Although, it is important to remember that exploration will lead to many of these rewards; you’ll naturally run into some powerups over the course of the game, but many are tucked away out of site for the player to find. There is a true sense of progression here and its felt facing enemies earlier in the game. There’s nothing really out of the ordinary with powerups; longer range, more damage, etc. Trace can also find health increases throughout the game as well.
The Address Disruptor is what really puts the gameplay over the top separating it from other retro action-adventure games. This isn’t a traditional weapon with the intent to kill enemies. It allows for Trace to effectively manipulate the environment around him. This does include enemies as well. The address disruptor used in the right places can help with environmental puzzles to find secret areas, or nullify enemies before engaging them. I did find that not every enemy was made easier to defeat using the disruptor, there were a few that are harder to kill after using it.
Axiom Verge features quite a few boss fights. They’re difficulty is scaled relatively evenly, however I did find it more difficult to kill earlier bosses rather than later bosses due to the boss’ mechanics. The later few bosses were more straight forward; with less of an emphasis on finding the correct positions within the environment, determining which weapons to use, and where to inflict damage on the boss. Regardless of the exact mechanics all the bosses where fun to fight. The boss designs are definitely top tier within the game, despite some cool looking monsters. They gave off a threatening vibe, while others also had a great sense of scale.
Axiom Verge has fantastic art design. The environments are split up into sections with each having their own color and design scheme. The backgrounds are simply great to look at, with great depth that provokes a sublime feeling fitting for this mysterious land. The environments are constructed mostly through blocks. As the, dare I say it, building blocks (pun intended, yet again) they are diverse in both their range of colors and designs supplying each area with their own identity. Although the game is not just square blocks, there are also other objects and accents in the world, from bubbles to vegetation, and pipes that shoot steam to name a few. With the sublime feeling and the way the backgrounds and foregrounds game together to truly deliver a strange unknown world, it built anticipation towards what I would see and find next.
The music is somewhat the unsung hero (second pun?) of Axiom Verge. It melds with the aesthetics perfectly. It is not soundtrack comprised solely of old retro ear (i.e. 16-bit) sounds, although you can hear retro influences. It’s mostly an electronic OST with solid beats, with unique blend of sounds, and at times incoherent chants. I can’t state how well the soundtrack works within the context of the game, and it’s a pleasure to listen to outside of it as well. As much as I can try to sufficiently deliver descriptions through a review, this soundtrack is an example where words are simply inadequate.
Coming into Axiom Verge knowing it was created from the mind of a single person, Tom Happ, I realized the review would be one of the more difficult ones. I didn’t want to overlook things due to the context of the game’s development. As I played through the game, I realized I didn’t have to worry about that. Everything just fell in line together. Chalk it up to lack of creative disputes between the team… because there wasn’t one. Tom didn’t have to argue, or convince other people these ideas were good and these were bad. Its’ the creative freedom and it shows in the game. The environment’s design, music, setting, and narrative work so well together. As well as game’s unique weapons and functions. Axiom Verge is fun to play, explore, and experience.