Lost in Space: A look at Axiom Verge

I missed out on Axiom Verge first time round. Its release in April 2015 coincided with me purchasing a PlayStation 4, but the PS Vita version (the version I was holding out for) would not see daylight for another year. The game was obviously wearing its heart on its sleeve: the mechanics and level design of Super Metroid fused with the visual sci-fi tones of Alien and Prometheus, and wrapped up in retro-pixelated art style – all the sexy sort of words that will peak my interest.

Another reason for my interest in the game, though, was the revitalization of the genre two years earlier with Drinkbox Studios’ sublime Guacamelee! A game that was both in tribute to the likes of Super Metroid, but also one that had lofty ambitions to take the foundation of that game and expand on it. Now Nintendo, you could argue, had already achieved this with Metroid Prime: taking the core mechanic and transitioning from 2D to 3D. But the format of a 2D metroidvania-style game has remained the same. Some would argue Konami’s seminal Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or the many, many iterations of that game afterwards as the advancement of the “metroidvania”, but that game was only an advancement of the series – taking it from a simple ‘left to right’ platformer, into a sprawling open castle (in fairness, flipping the castle upside down is pretty fucking spectacular).

Two years later and finally I have finished the game, with 94% of all items found and 99% of the map complete – and I can’t help but feel ever so slightly underwhelmed. Now I’m not coming here with a #hottake that Axiom Verge is no good. For anyone who is a fan of the genre, it is worth playing through. But I couldn’t help notice a few glaring issues that popped up during my play through, that has only enhanced my fondness for Guacamelee, on reflection.

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Axiom Verge is indebted to Super Metroid – a love letter to that era in a way that almost becomes distracting. Every inch of the game takes from the source material without any sense of irony, and only rarely does it subvert your expectation. One great exception is the narrow paths you see throughout the early part of the game, clearly similar to the ones in Super Metroid that require the morph ball technique. You’re tricked into thinking a similar technique will be required here, but the item that you eventually pick up: the drone scout, acts in an entirely different way, and its usage expands beyond this, eventually allowing you to teleport yourself to the drone’s position. The frustrating thing about Axiom Verge is it doesn’t do this enough; it hints at being capable of more, but never fully realizing its potential.

Guacamelee manages to take the source material, draw inspiration from it, and turn it into something that feels fresh. The core example of this is in exploration and the mechanics in place. The game is awash with bright colours and unique environments, from the central town hub of Santa Luchita, the vast Desierto Caliente with its overground and underground sections, the verticality of Tule Tree – they all feel unique, and demand the player master the abilities given throughout the duration of the game. Guacamelee leans heavily into platforming, much more so than Super Metroid or SOTN. This had been explored with 2010’s excellent VVVVVV, but there are so many more mechanics in place here. Discovering a Choozo statue will unlock a new technique for Juan to use. These range from a standard double jump to hurtling yourself horizontally across the screen, and they all explore the space of Gaucamelee fully. A notable feature is the colour coding of each technique: use the uppercut and a red streak appears from behind, with the headbutt unleashing a yellow flash from behind. The frequent use and the colour co-ordination is a simple but effective technique, as it plays a part in both knowing the right ability to use when a coloured shield surrounds an enemy, or when a giant stone is blocking a particular path. For as indebted as Axiom Verge is to Super Metroid, it is Guacamelee that draws the biggest influence in terms of level design – and does the best job with it. Super Metroid has colour-coded doors, specific areas of interest (the big alien/gargoyle door that requires the double jump), or clear indicators that a specific item is needed to progress, all things that Guacamelee understands and implements with its own unique take.

 For as indebted as Axiom Verge is to Super Metroid, it is Guacamelee that draws the biggest influence in terms of level design – and does the best job with it. 

Axiom Verge has its hidden areas; some of them can be discovered with the drone’s beam or the drill to break through walls, but you will need the red coat, an item that lets you teleport short spaces and is acquired late in the game, to help find many of the hidden items. A good number of these items require you to hug a wall with the drill or repeatedly slam into it with the red coat to find them, which turns exploration into a chore, or more likely, sees you resorting to a map.

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The coloured blocks in Guacamelee! draw influence from the colour coded doors of Super Metroid

You might make the argument that Guacamelee is overly simplified in its approach of using obvious colour-coded barricades, but the platforming techniques required to reach some of these areas is where the challenge comes from. Instead of asking you to blindly shove a drill into every wall in the game, the game shows you the obstacle and demands you master the abilities given to overcome it. The map overview helps with this, showing you any barricades you have come across and the colour they are, meaning you know exactly when you need to go back to area once you have the correct ability. Again, you could argue that Guacamelee overly simplifies this, but even without the map, the areas are so clearly defined and different, and the blocks obvious in their separate colours, that remembering places you need to backtrack – or even making notes of these places – means the map is not entirely necessary.

The parallels between Axiom Verge and Super Metroid run together tightly in regards to this, with no indicator on the map of secret areas, other than showing you when an area does not have a border, meaning another room or part of the map is accessible. But here is Axiom Verge’s biggest issue: each individual area does not have enough of a unique feel, nor does the game do a good enough job of indicating inaccessible areas – relying on pretty cheap tricks at points.

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This may look familar. 

Another frustrating aspect of the game is its usage of items and their greater incorporation over the map – specifically in regards to finding secrets. Their introduction works well, finding an item will typically see you stuck in that room, and you need to figure out how to use your newly acquired item to escape. It’s 101-type game design, but being introduced to a new weapon, without being beaten over the head on how to use it, is still a struggle for some designers.

One key issue with Axiom Verge is its inconsistency on items and their application across the world. The address disruptor is a visually interesting tool, though as a mechanic, its implementation is no different from any other metroidvania of “use obstacle to clear path”. In areas of the game, you will find your path blocked by a wall of glitched out pixels, the one time the game shows a clear, memorable obstacle that the player will need to return to later on with the disruptor. Sounds simple enough, and it fits within the tone of the game. The item ends up having two flaws: there is an upgrade to this tool, plus the address bomb, and no clear indication is given on what areas require what upgrade of the tool, meaning you’ll be returning to areas several times as your first attempt to progress past a glitched wall fails. This is mainly an inconvenience due to exploration around the map not speeding up until acquiring the grappling hook and the red coat, which is late into the game. The bigger issue is its application on enemies. Every enemy in the game can be transformed with the disruptor, changing how they behave and their function with the environment. Some enemies will still attack, albeit much slower, some can be used to your advantage, and some aimlessly float/move around with the added ability of destroying parts of the environment.

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You know the ‘Blast Away the Wall’ star in Whomo’s Fortress? It’s a bit like, and that star pisses me off. 

One secret item in particular asks you to disrupt a worm-like creature that moves around by clinging to the wall. At no point does the game notify you these creatures have this ability, and the game does no attempt of noting this part of the wall can be destroyed. You know the ‘Blast Away the Wall’ star in Whomp’s Fortress? It’s a bit like that, and that star pisses me off.

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