In January of 2020, developer Tom Happ took the time to discuss his thoughts on the nature of sequels in video games. Knee-deep in the development of Axiom Verge 2 (and prior to a certain pandemic), it provided a precedent for what players could expect with the upcoming project. It will also serve as the basis for the foundation of this review. Knowing the mindset of the creator makes the quality of judgment one could attach to a subsequent project all the more complex. How one could analyze and appreciate the first may not necessarily apply to the second, assuming its goals are not the same.
2015’s Axiom Verge means a lot to me personally. On top of being one of my favorite games in the last decade or so, it single-handedly encouraged my trek into the indie gaming scene, which has provided in full-force to this day. Embodying everything that I love about metroidvanias, sci-fi aesthetics, and mental tomfoolery, suffice it to say that a sequel in development had me a smidgen excited. Upon a couple grueling delays, the game is finally here. The experience, if such was the goal, was incredibly alienating in a multitude of ways.
(This review will contain minor spoilers to the story and gameplay mechanics of the title.)
Story – Among the Clouds
One can tell the difference between first and second affairs from the opening alone. Whereas the first featured an in-depth (though bereft of context) cutscene elaborating on the origins of the main character, the second drops one into the game almost immediately. Indra Chaudhari swoops in by helicopter, with limited amounts of dialogue following. Ready or not, the game is real.
Much like the original, a large emphasis of worldbuilding is done via communicating with vague entities and collecting notes throughout the world. Where it differs here is that, per my view, there’s less of a focus on the greater narrative overall. In what I’ll get into later, Axiom Verge 2 is more engaging in a sense of “freedom.” Whatever story may be occurring behind the scenes, it seems almost inconsequential to the greater heights that the setting instills. The character of Indra, other intellectual beings she meets, and the major goal are occasionally detailed for the sake of player motivation. Only its implementation has less impact overall.
Per my thoughts years ago, the original Axiom Verge‘s narrative was more streamlined, though struggled to acutely detail the realistic ramifications of the major plot. Given the sci-fi veil, it’s easy to hide behind a variety of technical jargon and confound the player with astoundingly bizarre theorems (and many do so). Even characters admitting ignorance to the credibility of the whole ordeal is commonplace, as the original game showcases. Axiom Verge 2 does less of this, though generally through doing less of everything, narrative-wise. Less dialogue, fewer cutscenes, smaller emphasis on major characters. Far more isolating in general, even with the expressive openness of the setting.
To be blunt, I hardly care for Indra or her plight. The grander narrative of the game did little to emphasize her sympathetic qualities, nor does it focus intently enough on her as a person to leave much impact. Even if the ending was sufficiently satisfying from a general standpoint, it’s ultimately rather anticlimactic. Her relationship with the “Arms” she comes across—entities with personified traits used as tools—feels somewhat hollow, even with her circumstances. Perhaps more individual moments, or a greater focus on detailing their stories, would make it more than what it currently is: passable.
Gameplay – Everything’s the Same, Only Different
If I could describe playing the original Axiom Verge in a cliché fashion, it’d be like comfort food. How it plays, how it looks, the general options of maneuverability and combat; it’s such a splendid balance of simplicity and innovation. To reiterate, I knew going into this that it would be different. Digesting trailers and following Happ on Twitter, I knew his philosophy was to focus on striking the fine line between old and new. And yet…
Playing Axiom Verge 2 for the first two hours or so was grueling. “It’s so… strange,” I caught myself thinking a couple times. Memories of the Breach flooded the mind and clouded my judgment. It wasn’t as fun; it wasn’t as interesting or immersive. Indra was no Trace, nor did the game convey the same sense of darkened isolation that the bizarre world the original game featured from the beginning did. Lackluster. Not the first game. Different.
Not until a certain point, when the variety of tools at my disposal grew to an impressive size, did I begin to grasp the vigor of this sequel. The proverbial rust and sludge that polluted my heightened expectations eventually evaporated, allowing for this game to adhere to its own standards. Much like the path of painful to glorious in similar games like Mortal Manor, Axiom Verge 2 is a test of patience that pays off gloriously well. All it takes is to see the world from a different perspective.
Though to backtrack just a tad, specifically to fans of the original, I cannot stress enough how different this game will feel outright. It may feel weird and alienating—I understand fully. Yet with patience comes realization, and an open and curious mind will do you wonders in appreciating how different the game is.
Freedom in the Vacuum
Among the original game’s phenomenal qualities is its cryptically isolating world. Alien and mysterious; the gorgeous shades of red, blue, and purple, adorning the darkened backgrounds of bizarre patterns. It is the polar opposite here. Much of the world featured in the second title is much like scenery of our own, found within a parallel dimensions of advanced technological gizmos. Quiet mountains with cascading streams and creeks; barren regions of burnt red, desolate and hot; underwater chasms, darkened by the absence of sunlight. These areas produce a different kind of feeling: a desire to be free; to explore the brighter, picturesque regions of a world (almost) completely natural.
To offer another comparison, Axiom Verge 2 is essentially Happ’s Super Metroid. It is the best comparison for how a game simply feels while playing that I can muster. While technically restricted to various areas until upgrades are acquired, there’s such a grand expectation to explore the map, instigated by how hands-off the story is and how non-linear the adventure comes across. While the original was more streamlined, complete with important dialogues and trials, this offers something closer to “true” exploration.
A variety of circumstances only manage to make this more true to form. Bosses, for example, are mostly passable. They’re simply part of the environment, free to wander and behave as they see fit. Defeating them yields rewards, but again, it’s optionable to even interact with them. Similarly, certain sections of the map offer a variety of interesting visual details to chew on. Whether they mean anything to the greater context of the story seems irrelevant; the prize is simply upon discovery. The Breach was mechanical, finely tuned to insinuate a certain path to take and things to take note of. This world rarely states anything. It simply is.
New Toys and Doodads
To set the record straight: Yes, there is no gun. To some, this immediately makes this game less appealing (my brother is among them). And though my appreciation for the title grew exponentially from beginning to end, there were certainly times where I said to myself, “Man, I wish I had a gun in this situation.” It simply quickens the pace and makes things easier, but again—different game, different goals.
Instead, you have a short-range and long-range weapon, generally consisting of an axe and a boomerang. These options, especially initially, end up making combat slower and more strategic. What weapon is better suited for enemies, based on their mobility and weaponry? It’s a far-cry from the efficiency and gratification that guns typically provide in similar circumstances, and such can, again, alienate incoming players.
Here’s an intriguing counterpoint: Why do you have to fight? The regions of Axiom Verge 2 are much larger, and many enemies now have a visible tracking device, which one can pass by with great acrobatics. Some areas certainly benefit from clearing enemies; you can’t get away with being a complete pacifist. Still, at a certain point in the game, I was more apt to either ignore or hack various enemies with a larger goal in mind: exploration. Much like the option to make boss baddies optional, there’s a lesser focus on necessitating violence. Not all creatures are created equal on a nuisance scale, though one is given ample opportunity to go about areas at their own pace.
Also new is an RPG-like leveling system to further improve Indra’s performance and equipment. One can collect these capsules that act as “points” towards upgrading specific details, such as overall health, strength of weaponry, and strength of the hacking field. My advice: Find as many of these capsules as you can and spend those points. It makes the game faster, the world more open to you, and overall more fun. The difference between the default damage capacity and fully upgraded is substantial. Be sure to also focus exclusively on the type of player you are, whether combat-focused, travel-focused, or a balance of all. The game provides the opportunity to play as you desire.
Then there are the Breach sections, only accessible via the returning drone function. These are an alternative existence that Indra can access that greatly alters the shape of the world, as well as harkening back to creatures and tunes of old. More compact and intentionally pixelated, these are a fun excursion from the main trek that embody slightly more of what the original game provided. Though not entirely complex, their inclusion is a fun treat for fans of the franchise to reminisce over. “Hey, I remember that enemy!”
All A-drone in the World
This section may either be complimentary or detrimental, depending on how you look at it. At one point in the game, a certain incident makes it so the player can only take control of the drone. What follows is a somewhat arduous process of getting used to a new playstyle and capabilities. Through this process, however, the drone is given a mighty selection of traversal augmentations and utilities that end up making it far more bearable. More than that, though, it led me to make a realization:
Playing as the drone is way more fun than Indra normally.
Being able to breeze through the sky with a float augmentation; to lasso onto sharp edges in quick succession; spamming the attack button that shoots a short-range buzz saw at adversaries. The pure simplicity to it is almost more appealing to me, while also more apt to explore as I see fit. While the initial incident was a shock and struggle, I ended up scared at the prospect of having to go back to normal. It ended up being a nice middle-ground, though from that point, I was the drone about 80% of the time. If I could do everything as a drone, that would’ve been 100% of the time.
Tom, if you’re reading this, spin-off game only featuring the drone. “Axiom Diversion.” Please and thank you.
Graphics & Audio – “Wait, Is This Sci-fi?”
Much like the overall tone and feel of the game, Axiom Verge 2‘s overall aesthetic took quite a bit to adjust to. Going from dark and mysterious to open and bright, it’s not exactly the type of environment one would attribute to a sci-fi metroidvania. Even still, like others of the genre, the map is wonderfully varied in its tone and aesthetic, depending on location. A new type of isolation not always covered: isolated in nature, of non-occupied regions and areas like mountains, cliffs, underwater chasms, and secret shrines. Discovering these new types of zones only further invigorated the great sense of discovery and exploration the game encourages.
Exploring the Breach as the drone gave off a completely different tone, slightly more akin to my personal tastes. Vibrantly colorful and more simplistically designed, it was almost retro-esque. Almost as though it further insinuated the absurdity of the world in comparison to the more “natural” one. As stated previously, it’s also a nice wink, nod, and nudge to the prior game in its enemy implementation.
Pixel quality for the game itself, in terms of environments and enemies, is a steady improvement over the original. A natural evolution of what enemies should look and behave like, taking inspiration from the environment they inhabit. A noticeable amount of re-skinned enemies, though, which may have some players squinting. Even still, with the supply of enemies both old and new, as well as larger, more volatile boss creatures, it’s an open world of life that’s destined to be combed over multiple times.
What likely threw me off the most out of everything was the musical style. Sci-fi, this certainly is not. No typical beeps and boops of mechanical synthesizers and video-game-esque instrumentation reminiscent of the Atari era. Instead, Tom goes for a more… spiritual vibe. Full of melodic cries and howls; a distinctly nomadic energy that is probably the furthest away from the original game’s soundtrack as imaginatively possible. For some time, it was, like most of the game’s initial hours, another confounding choice I questioned. By the end, it’s yet another thing I praise.
Axiom Verge‘s soundtrack was moody, tingling in a sense of generally slow and methodical ebbs. Like the gentle murmur of a pond under a moonlit sky, reverberating upon the feedback of natural discourse. Axiom Verge 2‘s soundtrack is similar in tone, only in a completely reworked fashion. More “passionate,” more evocative of sounds only producible by instruments of old. It effectively connects the world and brings it to life in the same way as the original. How fascinating it is that something so uniquely within the past can have the same effects as a collection well in the future, invigorated by emotional highs and creeping lows.
Should you really miss the technological appeal of the prior game, the Breach segments feature that in spades. Remixes of prior tracks and new, upbeat tunes bombards the ears as much as the cries of slain enemies. Loud and borderline festive, they better distinguish themselves from the more calming presence of the larger world.
Axiom Verge 2 was reviewed on Nintendo Switch.