Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
-Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
New Mexico, 2005. A scientist and his assistant are conducting an experiment when chaos erupts. An explosion roars, tears the facility apart. In his final moments, the scientist realizes his life’s work and his life itself are over. But then he awakes in a mysterious machine, some kind of egg-shaped pod. His eyes look upon a new, alien world. A frail voice calls to him out of the darkness.
Reaching out into that darkness and exploring the unknown is the principal joy of Axiom Verge, so I’m putting up a SPOILERS warning right here. This is the kind of game that’s best enjoyed before an in-depth review. If you’ve already played it or you have no intention of playing it, then read on, NPC.
I have been waiting to snag Axiom Verge for a long time and when better to seize the opportunity than with its recent release on the Nintendo Switch? Now going into it, I understood two things. Thing One: Axiom Verge is an indie charmer with a very favorable reception and dedicated fanbase. Thing Two: Axiom Verge is a Metroidvania.
Thing One set my suspicion on alert, as generally happens whenever I first experience something with an already established fandom. At the extent to which I believed the clarity of Thing Two, I came into Axiom Verge fully expecting to encounter the familiar blueprints of Metroidvania. For my fledgling moments with the game, getting into the gameplay, exploring its world, experiencing the presentation, all seemed to be fairly cookie cutter. I would be remiss not to mention how much like a clone of classic Metroid I considered Axiom Verge to be. The similarities are not astounding because we know they’re not coincidental.
Alien environs exude fear. Tube doors grant access to different rooms and accompanying screens. Creepy crawlies follow familiar patterns encircling platforms. Power ups and weapons await you at every corner of the map. The map itself seems visually structured around Super Metroid’s. That “every wall could hide a secret” mentality is ever-present, so you poke and prod at any fixture or tile that’s even the slightest bit unusual.
Axiom Verge’s deliberate design points beyond just Metroid, however. I caught whiffs of Eric Chahi’s Another World with the intro, the scientist and the accident, and Blaster Master (I played Zero) with the drone gameplay. Other notable comparisons and influences often cited include Contra, Bionic Commando, Shatterhand, Rygar, a variety of Nintendo games from our childhoods, a phrasing the solitary developer of Axiom Verge, Tom Happ, used.
The game was built taking the intriguing gameplay ideas from titles like these, deconstructing them and then putting them back together in meaningful ways. In this sense it’s more than just another Metroidvania. It seems to have been developed less as an occupant of a specific sub-genre and more as the result of bringing together exemplary parts. Ironically, Axiom Verge has only now appeared at last on a console made by the company whose games inspired it.
The prodigal child has come home.
If my review ended here (which of course it doesn’t, c’mon, this is The Well-Red Mage!), you might be misled into thinking that Axiom Verge is just another Nintendo clone. The gaming world is full of these: Zelda clones, Pokémon clones, Metroid clones. There are billions of Mario clones. With Axiom Verge, the player moves further and further away from maintaining this impression the deeper they sink into its universe.
The value of this distinction cannot be underestimated. Games that wear their Nintendo influences on their sleeve are a green rupee a dozen. I just played one earlier this year called Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas and I flat out did not enjoy it. Why? Because it flirted the line between rip off and tribute, ultimately crossing that line and feeling like a watered-down Wind Waker without advancing or innovating the ideas that it borrowed. Even though it was a new world wholly other than Hyrule, its air tasted stale.
When I think of Oceanhorn and Axiom Verge, there are really a lot of similarities in the backdrop of their construction but there is a vast difference between their results. It is Axiom Verge which builds upon the concepts of its spiritual predecessors. It comes up with new ways to play with old ideas. In this light, it may seem like a cheap Metroid knock off until you start to invest yourself into its world and, layer by layer, it reveals its uniqueness.
At first, you’ll think you have it all figured out. But do you? Of course, it’s a virtual reality that Trace, the scientist, becomes enveloped in. Is it? As you progress, you can’t be too sure. And who is the villain?
Is it the wizened Athetos, who released a plague that wiped out the inhabitants of Sudra, this strange alien world?
Is it the Rusalki, the gigantic machines that are the only surviving residents of the planet, who are constantly telling Trace what is what, coercing him to obey them?
In the world of Axiom Verge things are not as simple as good and bad. Even Trace himself, vaguely pacifistic but willing to kill to defend himself, is repulsed when he discovers that the boss monsters he’s been defeating were once people, the mutated servants of Athetos. He’s not a soldier. Trace is a scientist but his hands are no longer clean.
He even hallucinates empathetic visions of himself as a freakish mutant, confronted by a familiar man with a gun. The pathogen infection sequence is one of the most memorable and most mind-bending moments in the game. Axiom Verge likes to play with your head.
Interpretations and theories surround this game. Of course I went exploring for these, even after playing through the game twice. What I found was that there is no consensus. There are those who believe Axiom Verge is about time travel or that it’s about a multiverse. Though there are ancient hieroglyphic writings in the game which can be exhumed and deciphered, these shine only a frail light on Sudra and its history, on Athetos, the Old Machines, the Breach, and the Rusalki. For all the questions Axiom Verge raises, there’s not enough information to reach any conclusions.
Some of the central themes of the game are curiosity, having your expectations defied, finding oneself at the edge of established knowledge. Its goal is to make you question everything. This is bound up in the title Axiom Verge: Truism Border, Adage Brink, Proverb Boundary, the verge of axioms. Everything you know is wrong but what lies beyond it?
Life. Afterlife. Real. Virtual. Dream. Nightmare. It’s a thin line.
It’s Axiom Verge.
This game combines them all and you’ll never know where one ends and the other begins. You’ll question what is real and what is virtual, what is life and what is afterlife. No matter how vehemently you shout your questions into the emptiness, there are no answers. At least none that I’ve found in Sudra.
When Trace first runs out of health, instead of a game over, you witness strange lights rise out of his crumpled corpse. Is this his life force? His nanogates or mind machines? His soul? You’re taken back with him to the rebirth chamber where he “arrived” on Sudra. He awakes again out of the egg-shaped pod and wonders what happened.
“Am I still… me?”
What is your Self, right now as you’re reading these words? Is it just your body, your flesh and bones? Is it the unique memories you’ve accumulated? Is it your personality and your consciousness? Who are we? What happens if your body dies?
Axiom Verge knows that the ultimate answers to these ultimate questions lie beyond its reach. It plays with philosophy and theology, science and cosmology and metaphysics like a cat toys with a mouse. It is after all “just a video game”… or is it?
Axiom Verge is not one of the prettier pixel art games I’ve played but I don’t think that that was ever an intention for the noxious landscape of Sudra and its alien inhabitants. There’s a kind of dark beauty to this world, an allure that shimmers through the repulsive spiders and spores, the machinery and the egg sacs. The biomechanical nature that Trace finds himself lost in will undoubtedly recall H.R. Giger to mind.
Giger, the Swiss artist who famously lent his nightmarish imagination to the Alien film franchise, is a clear influence here. The admixture of bone and flesh with stone and metal in elegant but horrifying shapes evokes the exact response of dread and horror that we need to feel with Trace in this world. This is perhaps clearest with the Rusalki, the softness of their feminine features contrasted against the harshness of wires and armor.
It’s highly detailed pixel art like this which proves that the 2D era never ended. It may be difficult to dismiss Axiom Verge on the allegations that it’s just another indie game trying to capitalize on the nostalgia many of us feel from the 8-bit and 16-bit generations. There’s more to it than that. Certainly, Axiom Verge has much more to offer than graphical throwbacks to a bygone age.
I even thought that the use of color and texture, as they changed throughout the game, represented the NES, the SNES, and the Genesis in isolation. Some areas distinctly look like they belonged to one retro console over the others.
Speaking of the past, Axiom Verge utilizes one of the more unmistakable features of retro games: glitches. The glitches in this game are a metaphysical and meteorological part of the story. Trace even becomes capable of manipulating glitches in order to progress or morph the bodies of enemies. Turning an unfortunate but familiar, even endearing, byproduct of older games into a purposeful gameplay mechanic is unusual genius.
These glitches were inspired specifically by those caused by screwing around with Game Genie codes. I remember messing around with my Game Genie on the SNES. Zombies Ate My Neighbors is clearest in my memory. I found out you could modify the strength of the Game Genie codes by changing specific values, like taking the code for five extra lives and swapping the ‘A’ in the code for an ‘E’. Sometimes this could change the function of the code for the better. Sometimes it just turned the game into soup. Either way, it was fun and very much a different experience from what you see in gaming today, where glitches can take the form of crashes that are no fun at all.
Coincidentally, my digital copy of Axiom Verge on the Switch crashed consistently after the credits roll, so I couldn’t view my final results. Or is that glitch supposed to be there? How self-aware is this game?
What’s a smart way to critically describe the coolness factor of this soundtrack? I have no idea but I’m utterly convinced that this is one of the best variations on chiptune music that I’ve heard. As with the visuals, it can seem like there’s a tendency to pander to those pining for the “good old days” in games that look back to the golden age bloops and bleeps, but I didn’t pick up on that with Axiom Verge. It seemed to me that it took these essentials and ran with them, similar to what the game does with its other conceptual influences.
I think that the song which plays over the title screen, appropriately named “The Axiom”, represents in a nutshell what Axiom Verge achieves. Its first few seconds feature only two audio tracks (to my ears): a droning buzz and an echoing melody. My immediate thought was that the entire soundtrack would sound like this. That’s fine but unambitious. It would work for an homage but Axiom Verge has its own identity, evident in the thumping bass, the synthetic layers of sounds that build upon the original chiptune foundation.
No way this soundtrack could play on an older system like the Super Nintendo or the Genesis, but you’re reminded of them anyhow. Somehow, Axiom Verge’s music manages to capture a sound that seems quintessentially 80’s to me without getting mired in merely treading old ground.
Axiom Verge seems like a Metroidvania which contains more options for navigation thanks to the utility of its weapons variety, though this also dramatically raises the opportunity for getting lost or stuck, as well as having to backtrack. I played about an hour in and actually got stuck because I didn’t experiment enough with my surroundings and my armaments. I thought I’d missed something so I started a new game.
I don’t believe that’s the normative experience everyone has had with Axiom Verge but if we can set aside any semblance of a “git gud” conversation, then I’ll have you know I’ve played more than a handful of Metroidvania games in my time. It’s not as if I’m unaccustomed to them or to the mechanisms of exploration in games at large. I actually view this as a positive in terms of the quality of Axiom Verge itself. In order to progress, you’re going to have to experiment and come up with new ways to use the weapons Trace uncovers throughout Sudra.
The game encourages you to make choices through its large selection of weapons, many of which you don’t even need to find in order to complete the game. Most of the weapons have multiple uses, meaning you can progress with different assortments of them used in unique ways. The easiest way to describe this is with a weapon you pick up very early on called Nova. Firing it launches a large, spherical projectile but you can also detonate the projectile at any point, causing it to split apart into smaller blasts. Not only can you use this to take out groups of weaker enemies but you must also learn to use it to reach switches that you couldn’t otherwise activate. If you don’t experiment, you’ll find yourself stuck again and again and again.
What I found throughout Axiom Verge was that I kept switching my guns. I found one I liked, the original Axiom Disruptor always remained reliable, but then I soon found another that I liked better for different situations. Enemies that tend to close in on you quickly or latch onto you are better taken out with the short range, electrical Kilver. Weapons like the Lightning Gun can be used to attack enemies around a corner from a vantage of safety. Many Metroidvania games focus on upgrades to a small selection of basic weapons but Axiom Verge heads in the other direction with minimal upgrades that enhance the attack power and size of your projectiles without ever fundamentally changing them.
The most unique weapon in the game is certainly the Address Disruptor, the glitching gun, which “corrupts or de-corrupts weaker blocks and enemies”. It has uses as a navigational tool for bypassing glitched walls or glitching platforms into existence, but it can also be turned upon the biomechanoids inhabiting Sudra. Exactly what a new enemy type will glitch into is unknown until you try it and the results are typically unexpected. Some glitched enemies move slower, fire slower, dispense health instead of dealing damage. They can even affect their surroundings in order to open up secret passages.
Even if three quarters of the other weapons in Axiom Verge didn’t exist, the Address Disruptor alone could provide a wide array of gameplay variety.
There is so much to discover and explore in Axiom Verge, it can be a bit overwhelming and this leads to the only significant complaint I had. There is a ton of backtracking. The in-game map does not show you little icons or dots representing hidden items. You are allowed to place two reminder icons, but the game’s areas are huge and there’s simply too much to navigate. Memory will have to serve in place of in-game aids but the connective tissue between Sudra’s realms is less apparent then what we’ve seen, say, on the planet Zebes in Super Metroid. This means that your end-game wrap up, trying to find all the items and secrets, is going to be an uphill battle if you don’t intend to use a guide. Even with a guide, how do you know what upgrades you’ve picked up and which elude you?
If this talk of backtracking is worrisome to you, maybe you consider backtracking to be a thorn in the flesh of any Metroidvania, you should at least know that you can complete the game without having to find everything. It’s the directionless-ness which makes reaching that conclusion difficult. There’s a lot of wandering in Axiom Verge. For those who eat up exploration and discovery, this game has it in spades.
Are there any benefits for a game in choosing an 8-bit style of graphics? I think so. It’s more than just an arbitrary design choice. Axiom Verge’s pixel graphics are best for this kind of ambiguous story. I think of modern pixel art as a kind of impressionism. In art impressionism was about the subtleties of changes in light and movement, and I think there’s a kind of subtlety which unrealistic pixel art maintains. Its images only outline and hint at the real descriptions of what the game is presenting. We’re not seeing Trace as a human being. He’s little more than an icon running around and his dialogue portrait is similarly scaled down.
This allows the player the freedom to cast their own ideas about what these characters look like and what they ultimately would resemble. Pixel art impressionism, if we’re to call it anything at all, makes the suggestion that you can project your own ideas upon the comparably featureless visuals. You don’t actually see in full disgust what Trace turns into when he mutates into a monster in the hallucination scene but your imagination is able to fill in the gaps, quickly and automatically.
Working in tandem with the human imagination is something which pixel art throwbacks to 8-bit and 16-bit uniquely allows, rather than leaving no opportunity for it with the complete descriptions of HD graphics down to a character’s hair follicles.
Anyway, as mentioned, the story of Axiom Verge is fairly ambiguous. Here’s what I could piece together.
After the lab accident, Trace is wounded, paralyzed and blinded but he’s able to put together a new branch of theoretical physics that shocks and even repels the scientific community. His peers turn against his theories as too radical a departure from established science (remember, axiom verge), and Trace is nicknamed Athetos, from the Greek ἀθετέω which means “without position or place”.
At some point, Trace/Athetos is able to figure out a way to cross “the Breach” and travel to Sudra, a whole new world, probably using his own theories about physics (multiverse theory?). There, he’s apparently healed through any number of miraculous machines and he discovers that there’s an even greater civilization of technology beyond Sudra, wonders that could end famine, sickness, war, and death for humanity.
However, it appears the Sudran race believed that contact with that other civilization, whatever it is, was taboo. They actively prevented Athetos from traveling to this other world through the Breach, this barrier between themselves and other worlds. The game does not describe how many years passed but eventually the peaceful scientist that was Trace becomes the Athetos that unleashes a pathogen on the Sudrans that wipes them out, all in order to obtain passage to that distant civilization, obtaining heaven by creating hell.
Athetos successfully kills all the inhabitants of Sudra and mutates variant clones of himself for his own private army, but he remains opposed by the Rusalki, giant war machines and super computers. Elsenova, Ophelia, and Veruska fight Athetos to a standstill, removing his protection against his own pathogen. To remain alive, Athetos retreats to a special machine high in the Sudran atmosphere, using his Breach Attractor to bring the Breach close enough to where the remaining Rusalki cannot reach him without putting themselves at risk. He eliminates the remote drones that enable the Rusalki’s self-repair and then it’s just a matter of waiting it out, allowing the Rusalki to degrade out of existence.
The Rusalki hatch a plan to create a clone of the original Trace from the DNA that Athetos first left in Sudra when he was healed by the egg-pod. This younger copy of Trace would be a kinder, less sociopathic Athetos and the Rusalki suspected they could bend this copy to their will. This is when Axiom Verge begins. The player plays as the copy of young Trace, who doesn’t know he’s a clone until later in the story.
One of the harshest moments in the game comes when Trace realizes this fact. He witnesses first hand what a failed clone of Athetos looks like. He seems to recognize that he’s being used by the Rusalki to destroy Athetos and he asks how they’ll make him do what they want when he doesn’t want to kill anyone. Elsenova promptly kills him by shutting down his functions remotely and he wakes up in an egg-pod rebirth chamber in excruciating pain.
Realizing he has no choice, Trace agrees to confront Athetos, saying he wants to talk with him and insisting that there be no killing. Elsenova agrees. Trace finally reaches a withered old Athetos but a battle is unavoidable. Trace succeeds in disabling the Breach Attractor, rendering Athetos helpless and defenseless. With the Rusalki free, Elsenova immediately kills Athetos despite Trace’s pleas. Trace is thanked for his service and returned to the moment after the lab explosion, except now he has no injuries at all.
Embittered, Trace becomes obsessed with learning about Sudra and figuring out all he can to try to return there. In the “bad ending”, Trace’s obsession seems to be leading him down the path to becoming Athetos, in some kind of temporal loop that the Rusalki inadvertently created. However, the credits sequence shows Trace lying prone on what appears to be the body of a Rusalki. Is he dead? Is he only dreaming?
The final ending, achievable by finding most of the game’s items, finds Trace nearly at a breakthrough. He’s close to finding a way to return to Sudra when his lab door swings open and Athetos fills the doorway. Athetos tells him that Trace cannot outrun himself and that it’s time to wake up, then he shoots him.
The end. Have fun trying to shut your brain off at bedtime tonight!
Overarching themes are interesting to me because it’s easy to get caught up in the details and the theorizing of a game. Whereas the narrative changes depending on whether the multiverse theory or the single timeline theory is factually true, if that’s even capable of being discovered, themes on the other hand describe the underlying ideas that the game presents. These are not as slippery as the details of Axiom Verge’s vague storytelling. We might not know where the Athetos of the final ending came from or why he was there, but we do know that thematically he’s an outcast, fallen from grace, because of his name and history. Trace seems so named because he’s just a “trace” of the human that Athetos once was. Is that even Athetos’ real name? Was he ever called “Trace”? Or was that just something the Rusalki came up with.
Speaking of the Rusalki, I’m quite confident that their feminine appearance isn’t coincidental. Rusalka (alternatively spelled rusalki or rusalky) were female water spirits in Slavic folklore.
They were occasionally connected with mermaids. Apparently, the concept of the rusalki changed over time, where originally they were associated with fertility and the harvest, they eventually were viewed as spiteful entities, the unclean spirits of women who drowned themselves, committing suicide. These latter rusalki haunted the waters where they died and would lure young men into the depths by their beauty and by their voice only to drown them. Some of them alternatively tickle men to death instead of drowning them. I don’t know which is worse.
As for the Rusalki war machines in Axiom Verge, I think it’s interesting that we’re told “Rusalki” is Elsenova’s name for themselves. They are women and their gigantic, mechanical bodies resemble marine animals: a huge snake (eel?), a lobster, a squid. The Rusalki initially seem like the innocent victims of Athetos but as the game goes on you begin to see some of their ruthlessness and resentment. Elsenova hates Athetos and lies about killing him. In addition, she’s willing to torture Trace, a young man, through repeating deaths in order to motivate him to do what she wants. The Rusalki may have been women who watched their world collapse as they “stood by the rivers of Babylon and wept” but their past suffering doesn’t give them to right to threaten Trace with suffering.
So Athetos and the Rusalki both have skewed moral spheres: Athetos is willing to kill an entire species in order to obtain advanced technology for humanity, and the Rusalki are willing to torment Trace, their creation, their “child”, in order to force him to confront Athetos, disable the Breach Attractor, so that the Rusalki can survive. In both cases, Trace’s individuality is irrelevant. He’s just playing a part as a deliberate pawn. If he had free will at all, his only choices would be between aiding a genocidal idealist or a race of selfish war machines.
Another theme I’d like to take note of is how this game handles fear. In the vein of the Metroid franchise, fear and horror are important for how Axiom Verge operates. I would say that there’s a distinction to be made here. A game like Super Metroid is frightening but it’s heroic and even adventurous at the same time, and the sense of fear comes from the scale of the unknown and Samus’ loneliness. With Axiom Verge, there’s no real sense of loneliness as Trace remains in communication with Elsenova and the Rusalki throughout the story. However, there is a palpable sense of dread, much more significantly than with Metroid.
That’s because in Metroid we know that everything will turn out alright. We have our hero to see us through. Trace is not a hero like Samus Aran, though. He’s just a clone, a pawn, a device to be used and discarded. The further he gets involved in Sudra, the less convinced we are about what’s going to happen. It’s that sense of what might be waiting around the corner that really makes Axiom Verge a game about anxiety. That makes it all the more difficult to pick apart and get out of my head.
Trying to analyze Axiom Verge is like trying to find the seam in an egg without breaking it. It’d be easy enough to just smash it open and lay out all the pieces and say “this is what it is” but you won’t be able to discover what held it together by doing it that way, so you’re stuck trying to get into a closed universe without knowing what you’ll find inside.
I don’t know what this is, but it fills me with dread every time I see it.
Thematically, there’s a lot to come back to Axiom Verge for. I played it through a second time right away, no problem. Additionally, there are two difficulty modes (though Hard isn’t really so bad), as well as dozens of power ups and weapons you probably missed in previous playthroughs. There are many secret areas that I haven’t completely discovered. There’s even a built in speed run mode for streamers and challengers that disables dialogue for those who want to test their skills.
I really enjoy these shorter games that stay with you for a long time. Axiom Verge, like the Slavic rusalka, is haunting. It’s tough for me to stop thinking about it, to stop trying to crack it gently open without ruining the illusion that this is just an indie game. I have played many games like it but few games are its equal. How long until I start dreaming in its language?
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Axiom Verge. It’s a game I am glad to have finally played. I went in suspicious of the favoritism of fandoms and I came out thinking about things I didn’t know there were questions for. I came out thoroughly impressed by the singular vision of one man. These sort of one-developer games benefit from a clarity of vision and direction that you simply don’t get nearly anywhere else. It isn’t easy, however, to describe what the vision of Axiom Verge actually is. With so many hours clocked in, I still have to wonder what this game is even about. All I know is that I hope it never gets a sequel. Less is more. That’s Axiom Verge.
Aggregated Score: 9.3
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Categories: Game Review