Sunday, November 22, 2015

Axiom Verge - Thoughts

Axiom Verge is a very competent Metroidvania, quite possibly the best (non-Castlevania) one I've played since Shadow Complex. Looking at screenshots you may be fooled into thinking it's some kooky NES Metroid ripoff—the end-screen doors, power-up pedestals, blocky health bar, etc. are all obvious nods towards Samus Aran's original interstellar quest. But Axiom Verge easily comes into its own as the game progresses, establishing a story and weapon system that is unique to its brand of run 'n gun gameplay. The hypnotic opening beat of the first area sets the mood of your strange journey to come; Sudra is an alien world where only those willing to fight survive.

The emphasis of the setting being an alien world cannot be understated—the atmosphere is unnerving and strange. Colors and corridors are unnatural, your enemies even more-so, and the various bosses you encounter are massive and mutated. Some of the outdoor environments feel the most comforting because of how closely they tend to resemble Earth in their familiarity, while indoor corridors with their grotesque, throbbing interiors make the player feel outright terrified. It's easy to say that the designer Tom Happ was inspired by Geiger, but rather than mimic his style outright, he fuses it into the world... it's sort of like exploring Contra's final stage if it wasn't so blatantly based off of Alien.

Speaking of Contra, the gunplay is far more important in Axiom Verge than many of its brethren. The sheer quantity of armaments you obtain echo this; rather than stack your upgrades as in Metroid, your bullets merely change property and you can flip through their variations on the fly. A lot of them are surprisingly useful, as you will need to adjust your attack based on your enemy's position, health, number, and speed. The main blaster is the MVP of the game, but plenty of other styles have their situational advantages from time to time. It's a bit of a shame that some cool weapons come near the end of the game, but I was also glad that continuing to explore Sudra's hidden caverns was a worthwhile endeavor.

However, the weapons you gather pale in comparison to certain powerups you obtain, which cement Axiom Verge as "not another mere Metroid clone". While the Address Disruptor—which takes the concept of "glitches" from the NES era and giving them a ludonarrative purpose—is the frontrunner for the game's innovation, the Lab Coat and its iterations are my personal favorite. Once you master the Lab Coat and where to spot its "application" in the world, it changes how you see secrets and is a ton of fun use. I'd go as far as to argue that it's the best traversal mechanic added to a 2D game since the dash in Mega Man X. The remote drone also deserves some kudos for how clever it's used throughout the game as well, especially once you gain its essential upgrade.

At first I felt Axiom Verge would've been better off with less story (like Lords of the Fallen), as what was written felt somewhat generic and intrusive. However there was a lot more depth to the plot than I initially saw as I trudged deeper into Sudra's labyrinthian core. What started as a simple "turn back on the machines and kill the nasty bad guy" became a far more complex web, riddled with mysteries about Sudra's culture and purpose, going as far as to discuss the nature of algorithmic consciousness. The plot itself is a bit too dense for me to personally unravel, but it's interesting enough that anyone looking to decrypt the history of this foreign civilization will have their hands full. That, and the story doesn't quite unfold as you might expect, which is a pleasant (welcome) surprise.

At times the enemy placement can feel all over the place (climbing up the cliffs of Kur multiple times is quite tedious), but since the game is hinged on being strange, its questionable placement is admittedly thematically consistent. But what I can't overlook is how the game botches the last boss fight. Simply put, it's a chaotic, nonsensical mess where random health drops dictate the pace of the fight, making its climactic finale an utter chore (at least it was for me on Hard). What makes this especially egregious is just how solid the rest of the game is in executing on its mechanics and gameplay—it's like eating a scrumptious seven course meal just to receive freezer burnt store-brand sherbet as your dessert. The last level also doesn't feel all that crazy or tense compared to the rest of the game, but that's merely a nitpick compared to the final encounter.

Axiom Verge hits on nearly every mark: its visuals, story, music, atmosphere, and sense of progression are all fantastic. It's one of the few games that almost feels like it wasn't designed by a human: the warped world, enigmatic Rusalka, and foes clad in an organic carapace will make you eager to return home. But the longer you stay in this world, the more you will grow to understand its underlying laws—and how to break them. Axiom Verge is a must-play for those looking for a classic—yet evolved—Metroid game.

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