INTRODUCTION

If you like Metroid, you’re in luck. Over the years, numerous video games have actually taken motivation from Nintendo’s timeless series, providing players an abundance of methods to check out linked maps, make upgrades, and discover secret products. But of all the tasks which contain traces of Metroid DNA, 2015’s Axiom Verge came the closest to rebuilding it. The initial Axiom Verge had a retro visual, a lonesome environment, and a range of creative capabilities that made the mystical world a delight to pass through.

However Axiom Verge wasn’t a simple copy cat; it developed on a strong structure with its own signature aspects. A heady sci-fi story and mind-bending meta aspects put a modern twist on the familiar formula – and with Axiom Verge 2, gamers will find out much more about this series’ distinct identity. After 5 years of work by solo designer Tom Happ, this prequel/sequel hybrid is practically done, and I played the very first couple of hours of an alpha variation to see how the Axiom Verge universe is developing.

 A COLD OPEN

A COLD OPEN

“Come to Antarctica if you want to see your child once again.” That’s the message Indra Chaudhari sees when she switches on a model ansible – a gadget efficient in faster-than-light interaction. Indra is the creator and CEO of a corporation called Globe, and her company just recently acquired a defunct research study station on the icy continent. So Indra heads south to check out the significance of the mystical message.

This backstory is discussed throughout a quick scroll prior to I even pick “begin video game.” Though the story and characters are essential to Axiom Verge 2, it isn’t a video game that depends on cutscenes and prolonged exposition. Instead, I am put in control of Indra as quickly as her helicopter lands, then set loose to begin checking out Antarctica. The snow-covered ground, blue sky, and blowing flurries are a shift from the alien and dark passages of the initial Axiom Verge … however the journey doesn’t remain connected to our world for long.

After browsing the deserted research study station, Indra discovers a secret space with what seems a typical freight elevator. But someplace throughout that elevator flight, Indra crosses over into a various truth. Like lead character Trace from the previous entry, she ends up being a complete stranger in an odd land. But Indra’s land is unusual in lots of brand-new methods; the occupants are more smart, and the world is more flawlessly linked. Even Indra herself isn’t the very same; after passing away in this unknown location, she is reanimated by a deific digital entity who was obviously restricted to a neighboring urn. This permits Indra to endure and continue her mission – and all this occurs prior to you battle a single opponent.

“One thing that’s various is where in Axiom Verge 1 you just ever see Trace’s life on Earth in cutscenes, in Axiom Verge 2 it takes you on the character’s journey from Earth into this other world, and after that her subsequent improvement that leads into her getting all these powers,” states designer Tom Happ. “So there isn’t any fight up until then. It’s a bit like the introduction to Link to the Past prior to you get the sword, or Super Metroid prior to you come across Ridley. At the start I made it too long – there was a huge robotic blowing things up and you had no other way to eliminate it – this only served to slow it down and likewise decreased the sensation of secret.”

While this initial series might still alter in between now and release, its existing state effectively develops stress while presenting the fundamental property and mechanics. Once Indra is restored after her very first death, however, the genuine experience starts.

CLOSE BATTLE

CLOSE BATTLE

If you’re familiar with video games in the Metroidvania subgenre, you have a standard concept how the action advances: You see a location you wish to reach, however you can’t arrive since of some barrier, like a barrier you can’t break or a ledge you can’t reach. Then you get a brand-new product or capability, which permits you to check out formerly unattainable locations, where the cycle ultimately starts once again.

One of my preferred parts of the initial Axiom Verge was how the barriers to development didn’t simply seem like “discover the keycard for a locked door” circumstances. The products and capabilities you acquired often affected your overall mobility and contributed to a sense of growing power. For example, when Trace gained the ability to phase through walls, it wasn’t just used once to reach one area; it opened up an array of new places across the map.

Axiom Verge 2 adheres to this satisfying model and adds its own surprises. Indra learns to grab ledges, climb walls, hack enemies, remotely control a drone, and more. I’m not going to run through every blockade and how I pushed through it during the three hours I played – especially since the sense of discovery is a big part of the fun. However, I am going to talk about the first weapon you find, because it represents an interesting new direction for Axiom Verge 2.

A short distance from the helipad – before she even crosses into the new world – Indra grabs an ice axe. She can swing this weapon to attack enemies and destroy objects such as wooden crates. It may seem like a basic tool, but the fact that the ice axe is a melee weapon has a major impact on combat, especially compared to the previous game.

In the original Axiom Verge, Trace’s initial weapon was a gun (the first of 25 players could acquire), which established his primary method of dealing with problems: He shot them. Similarly, Indra’s ice axe sets the tone for her approach. She does most of her damage at close range, which felt strange to me at first. Jumping into melee range to fight against lethal robots is more intense than firing safely at them from afar; I kept expecting to find a traditional gun that let me chip away at enemies from a distance, but the closest thing I got in the opening hours was a boomerang. That ranged weapon is useful, but a bit too slow and weak to fully substitute for something like Trace’s Axiom Disruptor.

Though the ice axe isn’t Indra’s only offensive option, it certainly is her primary one early on. Even though you find other products, don’t expect to manage a sprawling arsenal, because Happ is implementing a smaller and more focused toolset for Axiom Verge 2. When asked about what drove that decision, he says: “One of the biggest criticisms of AV1 was that there were too many guns, so that definitely played a part. The other is that going with melee attacks, and the fidelity I wanted (you can attack in eight directions while standing, jumping, and crouching), there are a ton of animations that I had to pixel by hand.”

The other component that makes the melee combat more layered is the heightened intelligence of the foes you face. The hostile drones of Axiom Verge 2 aren’t confined to static and easily predictable routes, and many of them are able to detect and pursue Indra with surprising efficiency. They react to your presence in different ways; some charge you, some create distance, and some blast you with lasers. Learning these behaviors and adapting to them – especially when facing an encounter with a diverse assortment of enemies – makes combat feel dynamic and dangerous. But for Indra to succeed in her mission, you need more than an axe and a boomerang.

TOYS WITH A TWIST

TOYS WITH A TWIST

Even with battles punctuating almost every step of the journey, the ways Indra moves through the world feel more important than the ways she fights its denizens. Axiom Verge 2 gives players a variety of ways to influence and explore their surroundings, leading to secret items, hidden shortcuts, and an overall sense of progression. Some of these may seem familiar if you played the original Axiom Verge, but a closer look reveals significant tweaks with major effects.

Take the hacking ability, for example. On the surface, it’s a twist on “glitching” from the first game; it allows Indra to alter the environment or change an enemy behavior, much like the results of Trace’s glitch gun. But the important difference here is the player’s level of control. Unlike the predetermined effects of the glitch gun, when Indra hacks an enemy, she is able to choose from a list of available outcomes that vary depending on the target. I flipped the allegiance of one steam-spewing foe so it attacked other enemies in the area instead of me. I slowed down a bipedal assault robot so I could more easily dodge its blasts. I made a component of an airborne sentry emit health. Each of these actions draws from a total pool of points (like mana) that prevents you from firing these powers off constantly, but hacking is an invaluable tool for creating openings in tricky situations.

Another familiar-looking ability is Indra’s drone, a small and remote-controlled proxy that you can deploy to check out areas Indra can’t reach herself. You can activate the drone at any time – even toss it out mid-air – for combat and recon. The drone can squeeze through narrow passages, and I also found a grappling hook upgrade that lets it slingshot up to ledges that are too high for Indra. It also has access to hacking, which makes it perfect for opening up certain blocked paths. In one area, I found a closed gate with a command console on the other side, but the console was beyond the range of Indra’s hacking nano-swarm. So I deployed the drone and took a detour through a few screens (fighting enemies with the drone’s buzzsaw and jumping from one ledge to the next) until I reached the other side of the gate. Once there, the drone deployed the nano-swarm and opened the gate, permanently opening the path for Indra. The drone also plays into another new and unique facet of exploration, but that was the one thing about my time with Axiom Verge 2 I’m not allowed to talk about yet.

Actions like hacking and using the drone evolve as you play; you don’t see everything they can do when you first acquire them. In some cases, that means finding dedicated upgrades, like the drone’s grappling hook. But players can also guide their progression manually thanks to a skill system. You find special blue urns in hard-to-reach places, and each one acts as a skill point that you can distribute at will among Indra’s various capabilities. Some of the upgrades are straightforward, like increasing health or melee damage. Others are more utility-focused, like increasing your hacking level so you can affect more complex devices and open higher-level gates. I didn’t get to sense the full effect of this system in my limited time playing, but my initial impression is that it adds a fun and fluid layer of player-guided progression that complements the more linear process of obtaining new items to reach the next zone.

THE NEW WORLD

THE NEW WORLD

One of the fundamental joys of Metroid-inspired games is finally being able to reach a part of the map that was previously closed off to you. Satisfying your inner cartographer and surveying every corner of the world is a strange thrill, and that thrill is enhanced in Axiom Verge 2 thanks to the way the environment is constructed and presented.

The first things you’ll notice are the visuals and music. Just because the graphics have a retro aesthetic doesn’t mean they can’t look great; smooth animations, varied surroundings, and cool enemy design mean that you almost always have something neat to look at. And behind all of that is the striking soundtrack (which Happ composed himself), hitting strange and foreboding sci-fi notes that feel appropriate for the otherworldly setting.

One big upgrade over the original Axiom Verge is how the areas of the map flow into each other. For one thing, the environment is no longer tile-based, so the world simply looks more natural and believable. But even more importantly, the zones aren’t all separated by doors that funnel you from one room to another. While you still experience screen-to-screen transitions, the areas are less confined and more continuous. It may seem like a minor detail to many players, but in fact, this change presented one of the biggest development challenges for Axiom Verge 2.

“Since the world is largely not connected by pipe doors anymore, it means that if you were to transition vertically between rooms, it’d be jarring, because it’s scrolling the screen over to the new room mid-jump.” Happ says. “I didn’t realize this until I’d already designed the whole map layout and I had to change everything to make sure it doesn’t happen. It was a big puzzle for me to solve.”

This approach gives Indra’s surroundings an open and connected feeling in the zones I explored. Though she still finds herself in tight corridors, the general sense of Axiom Verge 2’s world is one of a single, large space that contains several biomes – snowy peaks, watery ruins, grassy plains – rather than being separated into discrete, self-contained areas. But that doesn’t mean that everything is just obvious and out in the open; I still encountered plenty of breakable walls, hidden passages, and other secrets to encourage thorough exploration.

A BIGGER UNIVERSE

A BIGGER UNIVERSE

As a fan of the original Axiom Verge (and Metroidvania games in general), my introduction to Axiom Verge 2 left me excited and intrigued. It seems to be taking the right steps for a follow-up; it builds on success without repeating itself too much, and it takes surprising turns that add depth to the series’ lore. How is Indra’s journey connected to Trace’s? What’s up with all these alternate worlds? What are the goals of the god-like entities in each reality? While Axiom Verge 2 definitely invites players to ponder these questions, it doesn’t spend the opening hours belaboring its points or bombarding players with overwrought explanations.

“In a lot of ways, the more mysteries you reveal, the less interesting it becomes,” Happ says. “But then on the other hand, if you don’t plan ahead for what the answers are, you can have a story that meanders and contradicts itself and makes no sense in the end. So I think there is a balance of making sure there is always something you don’t fully reveal, but give players enough info that they could guess the answer without being fully certain.”

 

It’s also likely that players won’t have the answers to every question by the end of Axiom Verge 2. The story was initially conceived as spanning multiple installments, and though we aren’t guaranteed future entries, it still leaves players with a compelling mystery and the sense that the universe is much bigger than the slivers we have seen.

“When developing AV1’s story I made this big outline of the salient plot points that included overviews for six to eight other games, with the events of AV1 being towards the end and the events of AV2 being towards the beginning,” Happ says. “I did it this way since I liked the idea of how your perception of a story changes as the context changes.”

While the destiny of Axiom Verge as a whole remains fuzzy, its immediate future gives fans plenty to look forward to. Axiom Verge 2 will be released on Switch and Epic Games Store sometime prior to the end of June (with the exact release date still TBA), with a likely move to other platforms in the future. In my time playing, I was impressed by its attempts to merge its old-school sensibilities with modern innovation – and I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface area of what Axiom Verge 2 needs to provide.


This short article initially appeared in problem 334 of Game Informer.