Axiom Verge and the Difference Between "Formulaic" and "By-The-Numbers"

Axiom Verge and the Difference Between "Formulaic" and "By-The-Numbers"

2015 IN REVIEW: How two takes on the metroidvania concept highlighted the perils and potential of working within a genre.

People often use the word "formulaic" in a disparaging manner, as if it were synonymous with creative bankruptcy. Yet that attitude is neither true nor productive.

Formulas exist because they work. You bake bread according to a recipe because people have taken the time over the course of centuries to experiment and perfect the chemistry that goes into creating recipes that rise quickly, taste delicious, and manage to develop a crisp crust on the outside while remaining fluffy and soft inside. A master patissier doesn't disregard the years of others' trial-and-error to learn about the properties of things like yeast, heat, and sugar that have gone into the accepted processes of creating pastries. Instead, he uses those standards as a jumping-off point for implementing his own tweaks and refinements. There's no shame in using formulas that work; the trick is to find interesting ways to make the formula your own—to make it feel exciting and new.

How you remember Metroid looking, not how it actually looked.

The metroidvania genre—that is, exploratory platform action games with a heavy emphasis on character empowerment that doubles as a key to further exploration—has become one of the most formulaic expressions of gaming over the past few years. It's right up there alongside the Ubisoft open world formula as a standardized method of designing games, in large part because it works so well. Nintendo perfected the game style with Super Metroid (and, really, with A Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past), and for the past 20 years countless developers have returned to that well to try their own hand at it. The recent rise of indie games over the past five years has transformed metroidvanias from "rare pleasure" to "ubiquitous fixture," and perhaps not surprisingly two of the first notable indie releases of 2015 adhered to that format: Thomas Happ's Axiom Verge (for PS4 and Steam) and Moon Studio's Ori and the Blind Forest (for Xbox One).

Both games draw heavily on the classic Metroid series for inspiration, but each goes about it in a very different way. Axiom Verge drills deliberately into the past, adopting a visual style reminiscent of the original Metroid for NES, while Ori looks the other direction, featuring some of the most gorgeous 2D graphics ever crafted and fixing its gaze on Super Metroid's play mechanics. While both draw heavily on the Metroid games, Axiom Verge's approach feels inventive, while Ori copies its inspiration's design perhaps a bit too closely.

Ori doesn't duplicate Super Metroid note-for-note, but the few places where it significantly diverges from the 1994 classic are perhaps not coincidentally the worst parts of the game: Manic linear rush sequences that appear to have been inspired by the worst parts of the recent Rayman sequels. Ori is all leisurely platforming and exploration, except when it's blisteringly difficult and demands rigid trial-and-error and rote memorization. Still, at least those portions of the game feel like an attempt to differentiate the adventure from Super Metroid. The remaining bulk of Ori clings tenaciously to the rules and features of Nintendo's masterpiece, and even the customization of the hero's skill tree can't disguise the fact that progression through Ori's world is meted out with the same structure, rules, and pacing as a 21-year-old platformer.

Ori is pretty, but also incredibly predictable.

This isn't to say Ori is a poor game, merely a predictable one. Its mechanics seem all too familiar. Moon Studios focused on creating beautiful graphics and a melancholy narrative, and in those areas their efforts paid off brilliantly. Ori manages to be evocative with sparing use of verbal narrative, a feat that remains one of Super Metroid's greatest strengths—and, sadly, the one least often imitated. Likewise, it really does boast some of the most incredible visuals of any game this year. But binding together these disparate elements, you have a game that marches carefully in the footprints of a giant. Anyone who's spent any amount of time with Super Metroid or descendants like Shadow Complex will find Ori prefers to retrace a path laid down by numerous predecessors rather than striking out on its own, and that's a shame. As I journeyed through the game, I could spot each and every hook for gameplay elements I would be unlocking, and predict with remarkable accuracy not only what mechanics I'd need to acquire but also the approximate sequence in which I'd be gathering them.

Certainly Ori isn't the only metroidvania adventure to have suffered from its overly literal devotion to Super Metroid in recent memory; its offenses seem almost minor beside those of Guacamelee, which even used the exact same color-coded door system that appeared in the older game. However, where Guacamelee made an admirable effort to break away from the moment-to-moment play mechanics of the Metroid series by basing its dual-purpose combat/exploration elements on wrestling moves, Ori rarely strays from direct analogues for Samus Aran's elderly arsenal.

Therein lies the curious nature of Axiom Verge: While it looks much more the part of Metroid clone than Ori, it designer didnt adhere to his inspiration to anywhere near the same degree as Moon Studios did. Despite its fake-8-bit visuals, some of which could have been traced directly from Metroid on NES—indeed, perhaps that's where protagonist Trace's name came from—Axiom Verge focuses less on the specifics of the older games and attempts instead to recapture their spirit.

Weird doors and objects laying nearby means some sort of advancement is in the cards in the near future.

Make no mistake: Axiom Verge definitely sticks to a formula. That much becomes clear from the beginning of the adventure, which copies a famous Metroid level design gimmick within its first three screens: Blocking your forward progress to the right by forcing you to backtrack to the left in order to collect a tool that can break down the barrier. The next segment of the game builds on this, offering you a clear path forward lined with passages that you'll obviously have to revisit but which initially sit behind gates that you're initially incapable of activating. Within 10 minutes' time, you not only have the default blaster that can blow through fleshy organic walls, but also a second weapon capable of launching energy grenades that can be manually detonated to splash outward on command (thus triggering out-of-reach switches), as well as a laser drill capable of grinding through certain blocks.

Initially, these hooks seem just as obvious as the ones in Ori. The grenade-activated gates glow in hot pink and sit adjacent to shiny red orbs that beg to be fired upon. Walls and floors that can be broken down with the laser drill appear in a lighter color and feature a cracked texture. But even in the early going, you encounter far less obvious barriers: One room above the main path features a single devastatingly difficult enemy, and the upper portion of the chamber appears to be obstructed by a graphical glitch that damages protagonist Trace if he makes contact with it. It's foreboding enough to offer a clear indication that you have no business being there yet, but the particulars of the methods you'll eventually use for traversing it initially pose a mystery to players. Throughout the game, you'll spot countless collectibles to grab and doors to explore, all isolated behind enigmatic barriers and obstructions. While you'll clearly need to backtrack to acquire these things, the precise mechanisms by which you'll be able to collect them rarely fits the obvious rubric of metroidvania design.

Fittingly, the powers Trace accumlates rarely map directly onto those of Metroid, or any other action game for that matter. There's no double-jump, for example; instead, Trace gains the ability to pass through physical barriers by warping through walls. This allows him to reach previously inaccessible areas, but it's at once more limiting and more versatile than the classic double-jump and requires more considerate deployment. Later in the game, you'll acquire a remote drone that can allow you to scout around and perform a limited number of tasks via an out-of-body experience of sorts. Eventually, Trace even gains the ability to warp himself to the drone's location, essentially gaining the ability to go to many new places—and even toward the end of the game, you'll encounter areas that continue to be out of your reach. Unlike most Super Metroid derivatives, Axiom Verge doesn't abandon its exploratory aspect in the latter half of the adventure in favor of pure action—it retains its alienating strangeness to the very end.

Way more fun than buggy wall-hopping.

Many things about Axiom Verge have impressed me, but perhaps nothing so much as the fact that several of the powers you collect feature secondary functions that the game doesn't go out of its way to explain. This flies in the face of modern game design thinking, which demands that the learning of essential details of the play process should never be left to chance, and honestly I tend to agree with that mindset more often than not. Still, Axiom Verge lets players sort things out by their own devices, and by and large it works. I found myself stumped a couple of times and probably wasted an hour total trying to sort out how to reach an obvious next objective or find a decent alternative, but eventually I sorted things out on my own. It would have been a simple matter, for example, for the game to include a sentence of tutorial text to explain that you can launch remote drones vertically as well as horizontally, but instead Axiom Verge left that for me to discover—and the sense of satisfaction I expected once I did made that realization infinitely more memorable than if the game had told me about it straight away.

Axiom Verge also stands apart from its countless peers by virtue of its intelligence. It's a smart game, but not in the usual sense of having an intellectual narrative. The plot is fairly standard sci-fi stuff, despite its numerous twists; it even begins with shades of Out of This World and Half-Life, as if to make clear its intentions of traveling a well-trod road. Instead, its cleverness comes in its fundamental understanding of the metroidvania genre and the appeal of old-school games. Not only does Axiom Verge constantly put new spins on familiar skills and powers, its entire premise revolves around the metagame aspects of the original Metroid. As NES designer Masayuki Uemura mused when I spoke to him a few months ago, the glitches that let you peer at the seams and limitations of the NES hardware gave its games a special quality lacking in modern works (except, I suppose, Fallout 4). Axiom Verge attempts not only to recreate this sensation, but to harness it; those glitched graphics you see early on become a part of the game's essential fabric. Every time they threaten to lose their allure, Axiom Verge puts a new spin on them to keep you off-guard.

Granted, Axiom Verge isn't without its failings. It desperately needs some sort of Castlevania-style teleport system to facilitate backtracking, and the level design isn't always as disciplined as it could be about preventing players from wasting huge amount of time in irrelevant zones if they become confused or hung up on an environmental puzzle. Nevertheless, Axiom Verge quickly became one of my favorite games of 2015, a distinction it continues to hold. More than that, though, it helped reinvigorate a genre I've always loved but which increasingly has been at risk of growing stale and predictable as more and more indie developers throw their hats into the ring. While Ori and the Blind Forest demonstrates how beautiful a traditional take on the formula can look, Axiom Verge proves there's still new life to be found in a well-worn style of game.

Images courtesy of HG101

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