Axiom Verge: Life’s a glitch and then you die - Games Weekly

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Axiom Verge: Life’s a glitch and then you die

The term ‘METROIDVANIA’ is chucked around a fair bit in the discussion of modern indie games, and with good reason many pay tribute to both the Nintendo and Konami classics, after all. In this instance, though, you can pretty much do away with the ‘-vania’ suffix. Axiom Verge is just a pure, old-school Metroid game in all but name, and we’re absolutely fine with that.

That’s not actually entirely fair on the one-man development ‘team’, since there’s a lot of things you’ll see and do over the course of the game that simply wouldn’t have been possible in those old 8 and 16-bit games, visually, mechanically and just generally.

Actually, rewind a second… let’s go back to the part where we said that one guy was responsible for everything in this game. Think about that the next time you’re watching an hour-long Ubisoft staff roll sure, this isn’t some sprawling open-world epic (well, it sort of is, actually…) with super-detailed
1080p 3D visuals, but Axiom Verge has direction, coherent style and moderated progression, all things that are so much harder to nail with sub-teams working on every individual aspect of a large project. Happ has hammered home a key point that so many triple-A titans so often miss with this solo effort, and just as Miyazaki’s influence is clear on Bloodborne and Kojima has made Metal Gear his own, the rest of the major players could learn a thing or two from this inconspicuous indie coherency and vision count for a lot, even in today’s big-budget world where larger teams are seemingly a necessity.

So while its 8-bit exterior might not tell you as much, Axiom Verge is a bloody smartly built game. The more you play, the more you come to realise that Happ has been willing to twist and break design staples for this kind of game as much as he has adhered to them.  Like all great games of its ilk, it’s cleverly designed to be something that can be explored at a leisurely pace and cleared in around 15 hours and blitzed through at top speed there’s a Trophy for doing it in under four hours, plus an entire mode devoted to speed-runs that does away with all dialogue, prompts and unnecessary extras, with a built-in timer to keep your stream viewers on the edge of their seats. While that’s classic Metroid design (well, apart from the obvious nods to the Twitch generation), the closest modern analogue is the Souls series, where most players toil for weeks just to reach the credits while the elite can clock the games in under an hour. It’s here that the game’s value beyond the first run truly lies and while it’s certainly worth playing even as a one-and-done kind of deal, leaderboard addicts might well find that this is the perfect gateway into speed-running.

It’s tight enough mechanically, that’s for sure. Again, like in the Souls games (that’s another shot, if you’re playing the Modern Games Journalism Drinking Game), we didn’t die once where we saw fit to blame controllers or make other excuses. It was all on us, whether failing to judge things properly or accurately read enemy patterns. Many are the tools at your disposal, but we’d imagine anyone failing to make much progress isn’t abusing one in particular quite enough. As well as guns, lasers and drills, you’ll soon come to be the proud owner of your very own glitch beam, a weapon that can disrupt obstacles to make them passable but that can also be used on enemies to frazzle them and alter the way they function. Tiny foes can have their hit boxes increased in size; speedy enemies can be slowed to a near halt; lurkers can be sniffed out and debuffed before they’ve broken cover. It’s a potent tool and one that you should look to abuse, if only to see what it actually does to each type of enemy. Any game that promotes this kind of experimentation is fine by us, especially since there are
clear rewards for doing so.

In this graphics-obsessed age, it’d be easy to dismiss Axiom Verge as ‘just another retro-style indie game’, but to do so would be to do both game and creator a huge disservice. While it may be intentionally styled to look like a classic game, that makes it timeless it’ll still hold up in a decade or so when we’re all shaking our heads at games like The Order and wondering how we ever thought they looked good, just like we do after every generation. That’s the easy part, mind. The hard part is creating a game that pays homage to the greats yet still employs this timeless pixel art style to create a new experience, and that’s a second tick for Happ and his tea... oh yeah, right... just for Happ. It’ll keep you guessing on your first run both in terms of where to go and what is actually going on and yet still manages to hold up to repeat plays, even to the point where people will be one-upping each other for the fastest run for years to come. While it might not be the kind of game you bought a PS4 to play, it’s one that perfectly highlights just how much most modern games still have left to learn from those of the past.

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