Axion Review: Popular Korean RPG Comes West

Korean developer ZIO Interactive has released Axion for the iPhone. Axion is a port of the popular Korean mobile Action RPG Axion 2. Compared to its mobile counterpart, Axion has received a number of significant improvements for the iPhone, including updated graphics and interface, and gameplay adaptations to better suit Western RPG paradigms. The game is a top-down, two-dimensional hack’n slash Action RPG in the vein of the Zenonia franchise, with a heavy emphasis on combat. But the burning question most gamers will ask is, how does Axion stack up against the RPG fan-favorite Zenonia?

Zenonia and its sequel were ripped from mobile devices and slammed onto the iPhone screen, resulting in up-scaled graphics that appeared soft and stretched out on the iPhone’s larger, crisper display. In the case of Zenonia 2, GameVil made great effort to improve the game’s interface, and yet left the graphics untouched. By comparison, Axion is one of the best looking Action RPGs on the iPhone, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chronicles of Inotia: The Wanderer of Luone. Like Zenonia, Axion and Inotia share roots on Korean mobile phones. Unlike Zenonia, these games received graphical overhauls for their iPhone release, allowing them to become games of astounding beauty.

I’m going to say it again: Axion is one of the best looking Action RPGs on the iPhone. The game’s hand-drawn sprites and environments are beautifully rendered in fine detail and vibrant color. Grassy areas come to life with butterflies, flowers, mushrooms and tufts of grass. In town, birds scatter and take flight at your approach. As Com2Us did with Chronicles of Inotia: The Wanderer of Luone, Axion’s developers took the time to redraw the graphics for the iPhone, taking full advantage of the device’s display to create a game of exceptional beauty. It’s the sort of treatment Zenonia 2 should have received, but did not; GameVil ought to take notice, because their game visually pales by comparison. Axion shines.

Player’s take control of the game’s titular hero, Axion, and are given a great deal of flexibility in developing him as protagonist. To begin with, players select Axion’s job from Attacker, Defender, Adventurer and Ranger. The Attacker specializes in melee and critical attacks, the Defender in high defense and HP, the Ranger in ranged attacks and accuracy, and the Adventure receives monetary bonuses to increase his earning potential. Having chosen a job, players are then allowed to select three skills for their character; there are 12 skills to choose from, bestowing benefits such as improved attack or defense, experience bonuses, increased recovery and more. When you character levels-up, he receives skill points that can be spent to improve his chosen skills. Using this system of character creation, players may customize Axion as a powerful warrior, archer or magic user, or spread out their points to produce a well-rounded character.

Once in-game, players have yet more customization features. By accessing the A.C.S section of the character menu, players may customize Axion’s combo strings for both his sword and crossbow, choosing to utilize fast, light attacks or slower, heavy attacks in any order they choose. Sword options include quick stabs, various slashes, a jump attack and a 360-degree swing. Crossbow combos may be constructed of single shots, double shots and leaping attacks. From the skills menu, Axion can also equip a number of special abilities. Special abilities consume MP when used, but grant a number of combat benefits including character buffs and powerful special attacks.

Supplementing the robust system of character customization are several underlying systems, allowing you to forge weapons and weapon-enhancing crystals, create items, and grow pets to aid you in combat. Axion can equip a sword and crossbow, armor, boots and a number of buffing accessories, allowing characters to further define and constantly redefine his strengths and weaknesses during the game. Clearly, a great deal of thought has gone into allowing players to mold Axion in any manner they choose.

Unfortunately, Axion also suffers many of the pitfalls common to Korean mobile ports. These include unresponsive controls, shoddy translation work, a storyline of retread cliches, an inordinate number of fetch quests, lots of character grinding, and a musical score comprised of very short melodic loops that become very irritating, very quickly. Of course, anyone that’s ever played and enjoyed a Korean RPG in the past should be accustomed to such shortcomings, and may be able to overlook them … again.

Axion takes place in a land where the gods walk among men and take direct interest in their day-to-day lives. According to the story, the demon Balinor terrorized the lands 500 years ago. To bring an end to his reign of terror, the gods created Axion — a demigod and living weapon — as their champion. In their struggle, both Balinor and Axion passed through the Door of Abyss and became trapped. With Balinor imprisoned in the abyss, Middle-Earth enjoyed 500 years of peace. But now Balinor’s followers have freed him, and he once more seeks to wipe gods and humans from the world, creating a paradise for evil. Monsters have begun to roam the lands again, and fear and worry have shattered the longstanding peace. Needed once more, the gods have recalled Axion from the abyss to fight Balinor. But he too is weakened from his long imprisonment and must regain his strength. Commence experience grinding, fetch quests, etc.


Visual Presentation: As previously mentioned, Axion is stunning to behold. The hand-drawn sprites and environments are teeming with life and color, and exploring the world, encountering its inhabitants is a reward unto itself. Anyone who appreciates the intricacies of pixel-based artwork will go nuts over this game. While I’m not immensely fond of the art direction for the character portraits, everything else in the game — from forests and deserts, to snow-capped peaks — is simply gorgeous.

Interface: Axion’s interface, while imperfect, is well-designed and easy to use. Item and skill quick-slots are arrayed around the edges of the screen, and Axion can easily switch between sword and crossbow by swiping right-to-left over the attack buttons. I love that you can switch attacks without having to access the equipment menu. The on-screen buttons and indicators are attractive and complement the game’s excellent art direction. Accessing the inventory brings up a Secret of Mana-style radial menu allowing quick and easy access to all of your menu screens. A quick save button makes it easy to save your game regularly without having to dig through menus. The menus themselves are also very attractive and easy to take in.

My only gripes against the interface are that the radial menu is somewhat slow to deploy, and the movement and attack controls sometimes obscure important map locations. It’s sometimes difficult to identify entrances and exits because the controls sit atop them.

Map: The in-game map is very well designed, easy to read and extremely helpful. Tapping the map icon once brings up a view of your immediate surroundings. Tapping it again brings up the overworld map, which clearly shows the game’s many locations and the pathways to each. With this map in-hand, getting around the world is extremely easy to do.

Character Customization: Players are able to customize Axion in essentially any way they choose, creating a character well suited to the way in which they prefer to play. Whether you favor brute attacks or heavy magic use, you can do it. The game’s creators boast that while different character types may approach situations differently, there is no one right way to play the game.

Forging, Creation and Pet Rearing: The systems in place for creating weapons and items, and raising pets are very well implemented. There are two types of shops in the game — the General Goods Shop and the Compounding Shop — each containing separate merchants for arms, items and pets. Base equipment, items and components can be purchased in the goods shop or collected from slain opponents. In the Compounding Shop, weapons may be strengthened, enchanted or fitted with empowering orbs, materials may be combined to create new items, or pets may be hatched and reared. Players are not required to remember complex recipes, or even to track such things in their inventory. It’s all in the shop and easy to access and use.


Controls and Pacing: Axion’s greatest flaws show its mobile roots. The virtual d-pad used for movement feels restricting and unresponsive, and to a lesser extent so do the attack buttons. Coming from mobile phone platforms, the controls lack the fluidity of older Action RPGs on the SNES and Gameboy. The input feels as if it were designed for a keypad, which is exactly the case. The other half of the problem is the lugubrious pacing of the game, which is in part due to the nature of the controls. The game’s action feels as if it were taking place in slow-motion or underwater, another limitation imposed by the game’s mobile origins. Updates could probably improve the situation, though I doubt the likelihood of a 100% solution.

Character Grinding and Fetch Quests: Character Grinding and Fetch Quests are the hallmarks of the Korean RPG, mechanisms to artificially extend the life of your game by distracting you from the primary story and preventing your moving forward too quickly, and the greatest reason that I usually tire of these games long before reaching the end. While the amount of grinding required has been reduced to cater more to Western gamers, it has not been reduced enough. The game’s weapons all have experience level prerequisites, and so barriers will always exist to cap you character strength until you reach the necessary level to advance. Meanwhile, townsfolk will send you on exciting missions to gather grass in the forest, start a bug collection and kill things they find icky. Grinding and fetch quests also largely contribute to all of these K-RPGs feeling exactly the same. There’s only so much of this crap that I can take — revisiting the same areas to kill the same monsters over and over and over and over again, making only the most miniscule amounts of progress at a time — before I get utterly sick of a game and want to quit playing altogether. Tedium = Fun, really?!

Narrative: I adore Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, counting it among the best pieces of literature ever written. The tale told of the return of the dark lord Sauron and the small band of heroes whose quest it was to defeat him. But if I have to play through this story in just one more Korean RPG, I’m going to travel back through time and bludgeon Tolkien in his sleep before he’s ever able to pen his magnificent works. I only hope that were I to do so, RPG developers might finally decide there are other stories to be told …

Of course, the story is only of minor importance to the game, taking backseat to the fetch quests and day-to-date travails of the towns’ helpless peasants. Being on a quest to save the entire world from complete and utter destruction, you’d think the villagers might understand that I have more important things to do than to round up their escaped chickens, or to fetch them berries from the forest so they can bake a cake. As is common in Korean RPGs, however, you’ll find the yourself so distracted by these endless, tedious requests that the only reason you’ll remember the story even exists is that the game will constantly remind you by interspersing your adventures with pointless cut-scenes to show you the intolerable evil of Balinor. Even the very gods who summon you to defeat Balinor seem more concerned with you bringing them cookies than with you completing your quest …

Music: So repetitive, it makes me want to jam chopsticks into my eardrums. It’s only saving grace is that it’s not as tinny or grating as the music in Zenonia.

Vibrate: The phone vibrates every time you swing your sword, which is actually pretty annoying. The developers need to include an option to disable this effect. Really.

The finest Action RPG I’ve ever played is Seiken Densetsu on the origial pea-soup screened Gameboy, released in Europe as Mystic Quest and in the Unites States as Final Fantasy Adventure. The translation was poor, but those were the times. Otherwise, the game featured incredible pacing, an excellent story, and some of the finest Zelda-inspired combat ever to grace a video game. The music was rife with memorable and epic melodies, and the graphics were just perfect. That was 1991 … It is now 2010, and I am constantly and utterly at a loss to explain why iPhone game developers have not yet managed to produce an Action RPG as good as Seiken Densetsu: a game nearly 20 years old, entirely rendered in four shades of gray pixels and designed to play on a vastly inferior device.

But where does that leave our stance on Axion? And that brings me full circle to the very first paragraph of this review, in which I explained that Axion is an iPhone port of a Korean RPG originally developed for mobile phones. And honestly, once you’ve played one of those, you’ve played them all. If you’ve played and enjoyed Zenonia, then you will also enjoy playing Axion. Just be prepared to overlook many of the same flaws that plagued that earlier title. If you didn’t care for Zenonia, or tired of it before completing it, then Axion will offer you little.

Sitting the two side-by-side, Axion is by far the prettier game and offers greater possibilities for character customization. Despite the game’s heavy emphasis on combat and action, however, the action plays out more sluggishly than in Zenonia. I’d be hard pressed to tell you that one game is better overall than the other, so there are really two ways of approaching Axion. Either you love Zenonia and you’re going to be completely amped that there’s another good Korean RPG in the app store, or you’ve played Zenonia and will find Axion to be something of a “been there, done that” experience. It sure is pretty, though, and loads better than SEED.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for the iPhone Action RPG of my dreams, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be ported from a mobile phone …

ZIO Interactive‘s Axion is currently available at the introductory price of $2.99. Reviewed at version 1.0 on an iPhone 3G.

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