QCF: Axiom Verge

hether you love it or hate it, the renaissance of independently developed indie games is still very much kicked into high gear, and new titles like Shovel Knight and Hotline Miami are keep everyone on notice.

And with indie games still heavy hitting the scene of console gaming, the inevitable swell of side-scrolling love letters coming out of the mix, but none more frequent then the fan-favorite sub-genre that’s fondly recognized by the portmanteau that every gaming enthusiast has come to know: Metroidvania.

While the argument for if whether or not the sizable wave of these games is doing more harm than good to the genre is still up for debate, one particular title has uniquely approached the formula in a different direction. A direction that magnificently caters to both the culture of the titular design, and the fundamental dynamics that drive its appeal; Tom Happ’s Axiom Verge, a title that beautifully integrates what it homages into an experience that you’ll keep thinking about it, even after it’s over.

Embracing the Sci-fi clichés of a Mad scientist tampering with powers that’re beyond his understanding and control, Axiom Verge begins with Trace, an intrepid genius whose latest experiment has landed him into an alien environment of hostile and gross proportions in all of its pixelated glory. Moving from room to room, Axiom Verge succeeds in reintroducing an old sense of mystery and intrigue that used to permeate the early years of the Metroidvania archetype, that engaging sense of discovery that drives these sort of titles.

And the key factor behind this reinvigorated approach is the unique manner that it angles the trademark conventions of the sub-genre, implementing them in a way where they still serve their expected function without being so obvious and predictable about it.

Gone are the frequently typical intersections that occasionally house the occasional transparent barrier that requires nothing more than a simple double-jump or explosion, and now we have gates that’re structured around the guise of screen-tearing and visual glitches that represent some of the darkest parts of video game history.

This is mostly done with the Address Disruptor, a weapon that fires a cone-shaped ray of frequency that affects a majority of the enemies and world elements of the game, and it’s constructed in a manner where it gives off a number of reactions or counters that allow you to progress the game.

Say you were to enter an area where there are sectioned mutant grubs floating about in their private little prisons above you, while Trace is staring down the dead end of tunnel he’s standing in below, and nothing is in this scene is outright suspicious or exploitable. Using the Address Disruptor on those frantic alien insects above you will transform them into scrambled bits of pixelated code garbage that gives them the ability to destroy the cavernous walls that trap them.

This results in these menacing graphical errors to break free from their confines, allowing them to blaze a path of destruction towards the floor below you, revealing an entirely new route to the catacomb that you wouldn’t have been able to discover otherwise.

If this scenario was described in any other context outside of Axiom Verge, it would sound like you just described an NES game shitting on itself; This is just one of the many examples that can describe the versatility and freedom that’s afforded by the Address Disruptor and the interactions it can create and that’s the beauty of it.

Axiom Verge tears down a number of preconceptions about the Metroidvania formula in ways that concurrently work as fan service to gaming culture as a whole, creating puzzles and solutions that’re aren’t evident in the traditional sense, but still effectively interesting, and stimulating in execution.

And without being so cryptic in structure, the key to solving these specific obstacles revolve around various tactics that aren’t always so apparent, mainly because the solution is centered around hacking or even breaking these parts instead of the usual method of approach.

The other items and weapons all serve some sort of purpose or function that operates under the same sort of school of thought, with items that allow you to swing around like Bionic Commando to in-game messages that can be decoded like Game Genie codes, activating a hidden perk that affects the flow of gameplay. Axiom Verge is a melting pot of game design that’s on par with Shovel Knight.

Ironically, one of the shortcomings that does hurt Axiom Verge is that in spite of its excellent visuals, the sound design isn’t as impressive—in fact, it’s really hit or miss. The composition of the soundtrack is a weird juxtaposition of old chiptune arrangement and modern electronica, and while there are several successful examples of this mashup, the sound work goes in a direction that just doesn’t flow well. Most of the tracks suffer from this confused orchestration that muddles the rhythm of the song with all of the stereotypical samples of noise and buzzes that just does nothing but clash with one another.

If there’s one last complaint to be made, it’s definitely the lack fast travel; the world of Axiom Verge is quite vast, and to circumvent the brunt of travel by way of a cumbersome expressway tunnel in the middle of it all, was easily the poorest choice in design to address the issue.

Splitting hairs aside, Axiom Verge is rare work of magic at work. One of the symptoms retro-inspired games often suffer from is that they tend to get wrapped up in all of the tribunal mechanics associated with the age and nostalgia of retro gaming without a lot of consideration to modernize any of the elements that didn’t age so well. Now Axiom Verge walks a very fine line on the concept, and admittedly, it does teeter back and forth between excessive, and elegant in execution of it, but the direction and design is easily one of the best commemorative efforts to retro gaming to have released in some time. 

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