Limited Run Games Blog: That Axiom Urge

By Jared Pettty

 

Let’s start with this. Axiom Verge 2 is really, really good.

Hell, I’m underselling it. It’s great. It’s an exploratory masterpiece. It’s a design thesis on reinventing Metroidvania. It does things I’ve never seen before. I’ve never played a game where it was more fun to go find stuff.

On the new episode of Runtime (The Limited Run Games podcast), I sat down with Tom Happ, the indie creator-extraordinaire who personally developed almost every aspect of Axiom Verge 2. I didn’t expect our discussion to get into Final Fantasy X Blitzball, but it did. 


 

You can listen above, or you can find Runtime on Apple Podcasts if you want to subscribe and get monthly episodes delivered to you through the mysterious magic of the sacred internet.

Some highlights: How Prey, Zelda, and Final Fantasy helped define Axiom Verge 2

I asked Tom about the how and why behind how radically Axiom Verge 2 deviates from its Metroid-inspired roots, and his answers were not what I expected.

Tom told me he focused on new innovations inspired by games outside the classic Metroidvania tradition and infused those elements into Axiom Verge 2. “As I was developing the game I was playing a lot of different games and trying to see what elements, you know, from other genres that I like... to see what I could do to improve upon or just change in a way that would make the game feel different.” He continued, “I was actually playing a lot of AAA large scale games like Horizon Zero Dawn and 2017’s Prey and many other games to try and settle on what elements I thought could help with the story.”

“So I just mentioned Prey. You know, one thing that really kind of blew my mind was that, (and it’s a simple thing): in the skill tree of that game there were parts where you can apply skills and be able to jump higher and further. In a Metroidvania-type game that’s always a thing that’s there to gate your progress. You only find the High Jump in the place you’re meant to find it. Whereas Prey was more like giving the player the choice of what skills they want to have, and as they do that they could apply more skills into their High Jump or being stronger and lift(ing) things out of the way or being able to crack codes and open more doors, and that was really fascinating to me because it doesn’t remove the exploration element. Because you still need to explore in order to find the Neuromods in Prey that allow you to get these abilities, it’s just that you get a choice of what ability you’re going to get at that time.”

Tom scattered Apocalypse Flasks across the map, each of which provides points toward customizable ability upgrades. The result is a game that rewards exploration, but which transforms traditional Metroid sequence-breaking into a player agency mechanic. Indra, the protagonist of Axiom Verge 2, will vary wildly in capabilities through much of her adventure depending on player choice. She may be stronger in attacking, more durable, better at hacking (and gate-breaking) or built around a variety of other variables depending on your preferences.

“To me that made it feel a lot more open and less linear,” said Tom. “Since in some regards a Metroidvania is a linear game that’;s just been twisted around into a maze but you’re still forced to do the same thing in a certain order. So I liked how that had been changed to now the order can be whatever seems important to the player, but is still gated by exploration.”

“And so that was something that kind of opened floodgates for me in terms of what I was thinking and how I wanted to go forward with the design in AV2.”

That explanation captures so much of what makes Axiom Verge 2 feel special. Not content with re-harvesting the same Metroid and Castlevania conventions, it experiments with and expands what’s possible within the genre, inventing entirely new approaches to exploration inspired by games of every kind. That extends to design debts to the Zelda series. “In Metroid and Castlevania both, the map is this kind of snake-like thing with many branches coming off of it,” explains Tom. I was trying, endeavoring to see how much of a Legend of Zelda type of take on it would work, where the map is continuous, and there’s no black spots. Every part within the whole map is reachable by the player somehow.”

“Another element, and this is also I guess related to Zelda, is the alternate Breach world where you’ve got the second world that overlaps with the main one, and that’s not something I’ve seen in a Castlevania or a Metroid-type game or really that many games period besides A Link to the Past.”

What other influences inspired new inventions in Axiom Verge 2? I asked Tom about the design decision to allow players to just walk past most bosses. 

“For the story I wanted to tell, there wasn’t a reason to have bosses.” said Tom. “Bosses are kind of like a tradition when you think of it. They’re like a minigame that is always at the end of each level of an arcade-style game.”

“If you remember, like, Blitzball from Final Fantasy X, it’s this kind of underwater volleyball game,” he said. “I don’t remember too much about it, I just remember thinking it was really hard, and why did they want Blitzball to be the thing that keeps me from progressing in the story of this game.”

“If you can imagine that Blitzball was put in the first arcade games, and then every game after that had to have a Blitzball segment after each level and it was just sort of an unquestioning thing: like did you get past the fifth Blitzball sequence in Super Mario 3?

He continued. “Forty years later people are so used to there being Blitzball in every game that it just has to be there. It does not occur to you not to have Blitzball in there.”

Mind blown.

Play this game. It’s terrific. You can get Axiom Verge 2, Axiom Verge 2 Collector’s Edition, the Axiom Verge 1 & 2 Double Pack, the Axiom Verge 1 & 2 Double Pack Collector’s Edition, and more right now at Limited Run Games. Don’t delay. Pre-orders all close Sunday, October 31 at 11:59 EST, so don’t delay. Buy yourself a little extra treat for Halloween this year with an Axiom splurge!

I’ve been waiting this entire blog to write that line.

October 28, 2021