I love retraversal games — games where, as you explore and gain powers, new areas open up. Metroid, and later Castlevania, refined the genre to an exceedingly high degree. Knowing that this indie game Axiom Verge, was made by one lonely dev named Tom Happ — including the incredibly atmospheric Geiger-like graphics and Metroid-influenced music — I should be fairly lenient on the parts of the game that I found to be less polished. I can’t help but fixate on some of them, though. They were few and far between, but there were several moments that seriously took me out of the game.
Huge spoiler warning for Axiom Verge. Can’t be helped, though.
(Notice how people won’t freak out about a spoiler warning, but might about a trigger warning? Yeah, that’s not lost on me either.)
Your word for the day is “ludonarrative“. It is important to know in this post, because the ludonarrative dissonance in this game is one of my main complaints about it.
Axiom Verge does a good deal to set up the idea of a parallel world, populated by giant AI aliens and a lot of biological and mechanical menaces run amok. The main character is a young genius named Trace who ends up in it after a laboratory accident — an accident involving laser beams or something, because it’s described as a “laser lab” at one point. My first problem with the game is it does a lot of “tell, don’t show” about how smart and good and moral Trace is. From the game itself, the protagonist is indistinguishable from any other action hero. He can jump a lot, and he (well, you) wastes no time in pulling the trigger on every creature you come across. Only in the case of boss battles does Trace seem to try to negotiate his way out, and you as a player are granted a choice only in one of the very late boss battles to slip out the back door without actually engaging in the enemy (earning you an achievement and skipping a bullet-hell and out-of-depth difficult boss). So, the player actively undermines the ludonarrative that Trace would prefer not to have to kill all these creatures every time they press the fire button.
This dissonance is especially noticeable when Trace comes across an incomplete clone of himself that’s in a great deal of pain — you can fire on them to put them out of their misery, but you get an achievement for letting them die of their own accord. Prolonging suffering is the “pacifist” way in this case, which is seemingly anathema to the core of the character as portrayed by the narrative. What’s more, though, is that your choice has zero impact on the dialogue thereafter. And the same kindness that would have you kill a suffering homunculus encourages mercy in the end boss fight — where Trace argues for Athetos’ being spared, but the Rusalka named Elsanova who’s been helping you since the start ignores your wishes and blasts him to oblivion with an attack that makes you wonder why she didn’t just do that in the first place. Oh, right, something about a force field thing, sure sure. Might as well just say “because plot”. Since you destroyed the force field with a much less powerful gun and all.
There are multiple endings in the game, triggered in ways that are very much homages to Metroid rather than through any meaningful choices committed in the game itself. Getting stats that are worth bragging about, e.g. 100% map completion or item retrieval, time under a certain mark, etc., give you green statistics in the end tally. Getting multiple green statistics gives you an extra scene that depicts Trace’s denouement, including one impossible scene with Athetos shooting him with a pistol (you’ll have to play the game to get why this is significant though). Also, there is a nod to the original Metroid in the password function which I found particularly endearing — you can enter passwords as prompted by the game to trigger certain effects. Entering “JUSTIN BAILEY” puts you (and the end boss!) in a skimpy pixelly bikini, which is mostly notable because your protagonist (unlike in Metroid, the source of this password) is male.
A few of the mechanics really took me out of the game. The grappling hook, very much a reference to the NES Bionic Commando in how it controls, is the only way to get across some gaps. Most of the time, it’s essentially useless to try to time it appropriately and you’ll whiff on the grapple and go plummeting, unless you hold in the direction and keep jamming on the button, making very tiny grapples across the whole expanse. For one item, it’s a very silly and time-consuming process. The item could have been polished more.
I also found myself marvelling at how square many of the supposedly organic areas look — like, the cave area just above the long “quick travel” tunnel, or pretty much any other area designed to prevent travel if you don’t yet have a phasing item. The symmetry and intentionality to the design, built explicitly to prevent you from travelling further unless you have a set of items commensurate with that progression, really took me out of the game because it was clearly designed with little effort made to hide that fact. In many cases, in previous areas, effort is made with respect to hiding some of the chunkiness, so the absence of polish is really evident. It’s maybe not a very fair criticism, but it felt very jarring to me.
And then, there’s the glitching mechanic.
If this was a game about being pulled into a digital world, glitching enemies works in that context. If you were playing a game where the alien world was actually a NES game, shooting a glitch gun at an enemy and having it look like a corrupted version of itself is completely sensical. But according to the narrative of the game, this is actually an alien world as real as our own, and the real world is every bit as pixellated. The glitch gun only makes sense in the context of this being a game, but the game itself makes no effort to portray it as such. It’s a fourth-wall-breaking game device and it makes me take the rest of the plot way less seriously.
Not that there’s terribly much plot. What you can glean about the old race that used to exist on this planet is scant, pulled from notes hidden in the ruins, and it reads like a tale of court intrigue in a religious society that is suddenly beset by technological nightmares from a “rift” between worlds, but they apparently created their own race of Rusalka — the giant Geigeresque robotic creatures — to combat it. You also learn that Athetos effectively singlehandedly committed genocide on this planet in order to take its wonders for Earth. I’ll save the one shocking plot twist for you to discover, but it’s honestly not that shocking. Especially not if you actually manage to dig out all the notes scattered about the map, notes which include a bunch of nonsense from one of Trace’s “science” papers that reads like Time Cube and that may only serve as a lamp-shade for the glitch gun. Regardless, there’s a comment about “good” and “evil” runs on games, the concept of which is undermined by said plot twist, in a sort of meta-commentary on the prevalence of such systems.
Despite my gripes, I think the game is worth a purchase. Axiom Verge is incredibly atmospheric, with beautifully composed music and graphics evocative of its 8-bit predecessors. The plot felt tacked on in a way that even Super Metroid’s wasn’t, probably mostly because of the narrative dissonance between several aspects of the gameplay and the narrative proper. The game is well worth the money if you’re a huge fan of retraversal games, or want to support indie devs, but I’d caution that the game is maybe slightly more difficult and maybe slightly more of a slog, despite being significantly shorter, than your average Metroidvania.
So, my next game review is going to be a big one. If you’ve been watching my Twitter feed for the last little bit, you know what’s coming. And you know that to give it a thorough review, I’m going to have to have a bad time.