Axiom Verge 1 and 2

One of my goals for this summer was to knock some more games off of my backlog. That's one of the reasons I posted this list of games I should have played by now back in March. Despite my track record of playing the same old games over and over again without playing new ones, I did manage to make some headway into this list! I mean, when I wasn't playing through the entire Metroid series. Or playing through the entire Mega Man series. Or streaming Donkey Kong Country 2 for no reason at all. All right, maybe I didn't focus on this goal as much as I wanted to.

Axiom Verge, clocking in at number 6 on the list I linked above, is a game that I've been interested in from its launch but just never got around to. A one-man passion project heavily inspired by Metroid in both aesthetic and gameplay? "Sign me up!", I said, 6 years ago. But hey, better late than never, right?

Axiom Verge 1

I liked Axiom Verge. I didn't love Axiom Verge, but I really did like it. The 2010's were a decade heavy on indie Metroidvanias, and I think other games in that timeframe did the exploratory platformer perhaps a bit better or more elegantly than this one did: Ori and the Blind Forest, SteamWorld Dig 2, Hollow Knight, even offbeat entries like Yoku's Island Express. Those games just had some specific qualities that made them ascend in a way I didn't feel with AV; namely, their world design, their progression, and their stories.

AV's world design was sometimes more frustrating than intriguing. There were several points in the game where it was just super unclear where to go next. You might be saying in your head, "Well, isn't that the point of a Metroidvania?" You're right! But AV was, in my opinion, missing some of the visual and narrative signposting that pushes the player forward. Sometimes my only sense of where to go next came from squinting at the map to see if there are any tiles I hadn't touched yet. That's not a particularly good time. Metroidvanias are supposed to make you feel purposeful in your exploration, not aimless.

The progression had something to do with it, I think, because many of the upgrades in AV were just different guns. That was cool, don't get me wrong, but almost invariably the guns weren't actual progression items. I would work my way through a new area, expecting it to unlock my abilities to enter the next phase of the game, but instead I would just get a gun that shoots bullets while it shoots bullets. Neat! But it's still another dead end. I remember a stretch where I found 3 different guns before finding a progression ability, and I just quit the game for the night.

Finally, the story didn't exactly grip me. I won't go into too much detail so as not to spoil anything, but suffice it to say the Athetos plot didn't strike me as having a satisfying reveal or conclusion. By the end of the game I was mostly playing to finish the game rather than to see its ending.

Still not entirely sure what these things are, honestly.

I did end up thoroughly enjoying this game by the end, though, despite my nitpicking above. None of those negative points were enough to deter me from wanting to see the game through. I particularly enjoyed the way that this game leaned into its Metroid inspiration specifically. Most games in this style are a lot heavier on the Castlevania aspects, like melee combat and statistical leveling. Axiom Verge wears its Metroidness on its sleeve, from the environments to the ranged combat to the style of progression. This is probably one of the main reasons that this game grabbed people's attention so much in 2015, a time when Metroid was in a significant slump.

As much as I complained about the guns being progressionless before, that wasn't to say I didn't enjoy all the different combat options they presented. I messed around with the guns constantly as I went on, seeing which ones were particularly effective on certain enemies and which ones worked well in certain passages. This is definitely the most combat variety I've seen in a game like this, which is saying something considering how varied the weapons in Castlevania games can get.

Now That's What I Call Weapon Variety!

The thing that really struck me is just how gorgeous this game is. My word, it's amazing that one guy was able to create all of this. I'm not sure how he was able to make pixelated elements seem so...drippy. The backgrounds are striking, the tile sets are varied, the enemies are all distinct. My favorite part is easily the bosses, though. I was impressed by the initial few boss encounters, but then I was absolutely blown away the first time that the camera zoomed out to show a boss that took up multiple map tiles. If I ever do pick up this game to play again, it will almost certainly be to experience those amazing set pieces again.

The bigger bosses are actually somewhat easier, but who cares. Look at that sucker.

Overall, while there were definitely aspects of Axiom Verge that didn't click with me, I enjoyed my time with it. If I'm being honest, though, the main reason I wanted to play this game was because its sequel got a surprise release this past August!

Axiom Verge 2 had been announced and teased for a few years now, even delayed once or twice. We all knew this game was coming, but Nintendo got the exclusive scoop on August 11 to announce the sudden drop during its Indie World Showcase. I immediately started hearing the positivity surrounding the sequel, and I wanted to get in on it before I heard any spoilers or missed the zeitgeist. I figured it was finally time to plow through AV1, a game I owned twice over but hadn't played yet, in order to dive into AV2 with the rest of the world.

Man, I'm glad I did that.

Axiom Verge 2

I had praised Axiom Verge for leaning heavily into its Metroid inspiration while most other games went in the Castlevania direction. It became immediately clear that this would not be the case for its sequel, which relies far more on melee combat and statistical progression than the original. Even though I considered the Metroidness of AV1 a point in its favor, I have to admit that the Vanianess of AV2 is so well done that it ended up taking the series to the next level. I think this difference can be conveyed pretty clearly by just the music, which is great in both games. AV1 has a pumping, electronic, downright grimy soundtrack. On the other hand, AV2 goes in a more acoustic, vocal, tribal direction. (Vocalist Mayssa Karaa delivers an unforgettable performance in this game, be sure to check out all the tracks with her featured.)

Pretty much every issue I had with AV1 is addressed in 2. The world is much more elegantly designed, signposting well and pushing you in the right direction when you need to be. Even when you need to explore in the clear opposite direction of the objective, the robust fast travel system makes it a painless experience. The map also has two world states, a la Link to the Past's Light World and Dark World, and the concept is utilized beautifully. The Breach, the "Dark World" of the map, is where the Metroid-style aesthetics creep in a bit more, so it's almost like you're bouncing back and forth between inspirations as you go. Even the music in the Breach sends you back to the world of AV1 and its Zebesian roots.

The Breach looks and plays a lot more like the first game, including a lower resolution that adds to the aesthetic.

The progression is more elegant, too. There are weapon upgrades as you go, but they always felt like a nice bonus rather than like a replacement for a progression item you wish you could have gotten instead. You also get to follow an upgrade path for both the main character, Indra, as well as her drone. In fact, the drone progression ended up being so enjoyable that I played as the drone almost exclusively for the back half of the game.

Even the story grabbed me so much more than it did in the first game, despite taking place in the same world(s). In fact, the AV2 story was so interesting to me that it made me go back and clarify details from AV1. It takes a pretty great sequel to make the first game better retroactively, but that's exactly what happened here. I left AV1 thinking I didn't care one single bit about the universe, but then I left AV2 going to my computer to read Reddit posts and Wiki entries about lore. They got me, dang it, they got me!

Without spoilers, I can tell you that there are some very interesting theories about how the games connect.

I really only have one complaint about AV2, and that's the way they handled the boss encounters, which I found the single greatest point in AV1's favor. Axiom Verge leaned heavily into its boss encounters, giving their entrances a distinctive color, traditionally blocking your exit, granting progression items upon defeat, all that good stuff. The bosses were so lovingly crafted and meticulously detailed, leaving a serious impression on me as I came away. AV2 has a markedly different approach. There are still large, impressive, pixel art masterpieces throughout the game, but they're almost entirely optional, as far as I can tell. They just sorta wander around in various parts of the map seemingly at random. You can even leave the room, heal up, and come back if you ever need to. Boss-type enemies don't gate progression in any way, whether by traversal or by item drops. In fact, it's hard to call anything in AV2 an actual boss. They're all still pretty awesome looking, but throughout the entire game I was wondering when I would have a traditional boss encounter. It didn't happen until the very end of the game.

The new philosophical approach to the game's world, its two states, and its various bosses ends up making AV2 a more sedate experience than the first. However, as much as I miss the traditional bosses of the first game, I have to say that overall the sequel is just all-around better. It's more subdued, but better for it. AV1 appropriately felt like a fun passion project; AV2 felt like a prestige game. I'm glad they both exist, because they both bring something different to the table. Anyone who was disappointed by the direction of 2 always has 1 to fall back on; those, like me, who were a little underwhelmed by 1 are in a position to be truly blown away by 2.

I'd recommend both games to any fan of the genre. If the original sounded like it's not your bag, I'd say without hesitation that you can just jump right into the sequel. I was told this same thing, and I cast the advice aside--"Those fools, of course I'd play the first game before going into the second!"--but honestly, it's true. Yes, the game takes place in the same universe (well, uh, multiverse), and the stories are connected, but there's literally nothing in the sequel that is dependent on the first game to understand or enjoy.

I can guarantee you I'll be talking about Axiom Verge 2 more at the end of the year come Game of the Year season. I said I liked AV1 but didn't love it. I loved AV2. If you like making a yearly Top Ten list like I do, I'd advise getting on this game sooner rather than later.

Traditional bosses or not, the larger enemies are still stunning.

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