Like most of you, my first question was, “why is he wearing that thing on his head?”
The answer to that and everything else here is, “because it’s unpleasant.”
I began looking forward to finishing this game almost as soon as I started playing it. Maybe that’s a testament to the potency of their creative vision, because I’ve gotta tell you: this is one of the most excruciating game worlds you’ll ever find. It’s like The Passion of the Christ meets Hellraiser meets that scene in the Silent Hill movie where the girl kills everyone with a room full of barbed wire.
Who even makes something like this? Did it spring from a terrible fever dream, the sort of thing listed under the bad side effects of a new medication? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
This is not an easy game in any sense. From start to finish it’s nothing but sharp edges. Every single aspect seems designed to challenge the player in some unique way.
The accursed world in which you find yourself takes its inspiration from the hair-shirts-and-self-flagellation school of religion. All atonement; no redemption. That means plenty of thorns and lashes, deformities, crucifixions and bleeding wounds as you navigate one Boschian panoply of torments after another. The setting serves as one great showcase of agony in all its miserable forms; and the enemy designs are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. At least, I really hope you haven’t.
The gameplay is just as harsh. I’ve been wondering whether those Dark Souls-type games really deserved their own sub-category, but after playing this I think they do. The combat has an entirely different feel than, say, Ritual of the Night. No button spamming or steamrolling through enemies with overpowered abilities. The difficulty more or less keeps you honest right up through the very end. They force you to play at a steady, deliberate pace, constantly blocking, dodging and counter-attacking, with death seldom more than a few slip-ups away.
Even as a metroidvania it can’t just settle down and behave itself.
To give you an example, you run into these rooms half-filled with poison gas. In a normal game you’d figure you’d kill the next boss and he’d drop a gas mask or something; but here it’s hidden in some random room off in the corner somewhere. And that’s not the only time they do that with an important item.
This place is so aggressively off-putting and counterintuitive to begin with, and on top of it they go out of their way to violate your expectations like this every chance they get. As a result, it’s not always very clear where you’re supposed to be, and when, and why, and what you’re supposed to do if you get there, which leads to more wandering around in confusion than you might like.
Then there’s the matter of the spikes.
They’re of the insta-death variety, of course, and I probably don’t even need to tell you at this point that there’s no relief from them, which makes the backtracking really interesting. Don’t even think about finding one of those things like in Ritual of the Night that could negate spike damage. If you asked them for one, they’d probably just laugh coldly and beat you with an iron rod.
In most games like this the exploration side provides most of the motivation. It’s really satisfying to stretch your wings with each new ability and poke around in every last corner looking for secrets, especially once you finally find that key item that gets you to the other side of the door that’s been taunting you the whole time.
Let’s just say this is not exactly the sort of world that inspires you to see what’s over the next horizon–at least not at first. It’s pretty much a guarantee that whatever you find there will be pointy and painful.
It all really takes a toll on you. By the time I was halfway through, the game’s antagonism had assumed an almost personal quality. I could feel it frowning over me like an angry nun, just waiting to slap me with a ruler every time I stepped out of line.
The most surprising part of all, though, was that somehow it actually won me over.
I don’t know, maybe it’s some kind of Stockholm syndrome, but by the end I was enjoying myself. I never would have believed it if you had told me early on.
The thing is, once you get better at the combat, learn your way around the levels and expand your health bar so you have a little more room for error, it starts to feel less punishing; and then you can begin to appreciate the stark, uncompromising majesty of the whole thing.
There’s nothing gratuitous about what they’re doing. It all serves a coherent purpose. Hold it up next to lesser games that just try to shock you with gore and violence, and they look puny and pathetic by comparison.
They hound the player here with a demonic relentlessness that’s completely sincere; and as a result, like it or not there’s a sort of seamlessness to this world–the visuals, the combat, the atmosphere, everything works together in perfect harmony to torture us. You can’t help but admire the twisted purity of it all.
Of course, that’s not to say that I understood it, either.
Yeah, there’s also a story here, for what it’s worth. Something to do with a terrible curse, which you probably already guessed. You can try figure it out if you want, but I had enough on my plate dealing with the rest of that stuff that I didn’t have the energy left over for deciphering their cryptic plot.
I don’t think it took much away from the overall experience, though. I mean, I didn’t really know what was going on in Axiom Verge either, although I could identify with a dead scientist more than some faceless masochistic weirdo with a cone on his head.
Maybe it’s hard to say that you really “like” a game like this; but it’s well-made, original and daring enough that you’ll be willing to forgive it for its sins, even if it won’t do the same for you.