I watched the trailers for Axiom Verge with a lot of interest. The game looked amazing - incredible art style, gameplay reminiscent of the Metroid series, ridiculous enemies - it was a game that was high on my list of things to look forward to. But as soon as I started the game I almost rolled my eyes. Somewhere in the back of my mind I'm starting to draft a rant against indie games being so reliant on references. My last couple of reviews have been on games like Guacamelee! and Retro City Rampage, which have been built at least in part on you recognizing what they're trying to do from other games, and instead of subverting it or evolving it, just leaning right in and going 'remember this game? Let me just misspell the word from it, because that's HILARIOUS!' It's starting to feel creatively bankrupt. It's awesome that you guys played those games. I did too! And the beauty is that I can still go back and replay those - you don't have to make a new game that does nothing to push games forward narratively, mechanically, or conceptually.
And despite how awesome the trailers were, Axiom Verge looked like it was about to be the same thing. Just like in Metroid, you run left to get your first upgrade, which is just lying there on the floor, and it's full of little enemies that roam around on platforms. The map is a series of squares, recolored to show if it's an important room, with little arrows showing crosses between zones. I like Metroid a lot, but man, the last 3 games I've reviewed (aside from RCR) have been riffs on that exact formula, and I think I might go crazy if another indie game that uses the term 'metroidvania' crosses my computer.
Then I found the glitch gun.
Actually, let's back up before that to the point where digital corruption elements blocked me from a certain path. It's part of something I've loved watching games do in the past couple of years, which is embracing their artificial nature and a history of discovering glitches and weird digital artifacts. I suppose if you were inclined you could throw back in my face that these are also references, but I'd argue that this is actual an important step in games - to understand they're not just interactive films, but their own medium with visual language that can go far beyond reality.
So as I'm platforming up, I'm suddenly confronted by a pulsating wall of green blocks, bizarre chunks that seem to sometimes have ASCII symbols or environment art from other areas of the world, as though the world itself is corrupted, that part unable to properly display itself for whatever reason. If I'd had questions about the world before, now I was flooded with more than I knew how to process.
It's a very fleshy looking world, pulsating and alive... the sort of place that if you were there and you shot randomly, it would make the wall or ceiling bleed. And yet here was this thing blocking my path that could be nothing but artificial... where the hell was I? I know the game starts with me blowing up, so where, or what, this world is is completely unknown.
Questions continue to mount as an unknown voice tells me where to go, until I might the source, a large AI. Her eyes are shut, her power low, but she gives me a mission to help save her. I run into more along the way, and I have to wonder if there are many, then what are they for? Why do they exist? What's going on with these guards, bizarre amalgams of flesh and robots, who call me a demon?
Even your first death just adds to the questions- your body collapses, and a bunch of red things come out of you. You're reborn at a save station, confused as to what happened, and the AI says that they saved your 'mind robots.' Needless to say, at this point, I was pretty interested.
And then that glitch gun. This is where things REALLY took a turn.
Calling it a glitch gun is just a good short hand for what the game describes as the ability to "encrypt and decrypt weaker enemies and blocks." I stopped as soon as I grabbed this and just stared, kind of thinking 'well surely they're not just GIVING me this ability, are they?" Then I walked a few steps, pressed the button, and yes. They gave me that exact ability, and I corrupted a simple bubble that would pop otherwise into a platform that let me rise to the top of the level, and it just continued from there.
But what was extremely cool about it was that every enemy type corrupts differently, making it something to experiment with and determine whether it's actually useful in a situation or not. One set of enemies, for example, is tied together when they encrypt, so they all change at once, and all die when you kill just one. Another becomes a destructive ball that destroys certain blocks in its path, where others begin to behave like other enemies instead.
My preview build ended a little after that, but from what there is so far, it seems to be smartly layering a mechanic of experimentation on top of the usual exploration aspect you get from a game of this type. On top of that, it's also just a completely solid addition to the "item-gated adventure" genre, with solid platforming, and interesting-seeming story in a great looking world, and a map that's set up so that it teases you with later places you can go and keeping items just far enough out of your reach.
I do have a couple of things I'm worried about. The controls are fine, but the way they're set up feels a little less than ideal, though that might also be because I was using one of the 360 controllers with those old, terrible d-pads. There's just something about the weapon switching that I found myself fumbling with. And while the areas certainly look different enough, oftentimes it felt like it was just another area filled with platforms that had little buglike enemies crawling on them. The bosses are cool, but perhaps the moment-to-moment enemy encounters might start to feel a little samey.
I'm also super worried that the story won't follow through. It's set up an interesting looking world and has raised a lot of questions, and I hope it's smart enough to answer the right ones, if not all of them. I also don't know if I'll like looking for some of the answers - already I've seen notes hidden around, which I'd assume would be text logs, and I'm not the biggest fan of going around to collect those just to get the story.
Only when the game comes out later this year will we truly know, but the game's done a lot to set up something awesome, and still hasn't even revealed all of its mechanics. That glitch wall I ran into (and the others that I ran into later) still remains, there are multiple buttons on the control screen that just read 'unknown', and there's 2 more levels for that encryption/decryption device to get to before the end of the game. If they can build it up more and grow on that glitch aesthetic, while delivering a solid story, Axiom Verge will be a must have.