AxE: Alliance vs Empire is an interesting mobile game. It's the type of experience that's fun and flashy at first, but its massively layered dynamics point to a heavily-monetized experience; in many ways, AxE feels like an engagement simulator that's confusing as much as it is fun.
I actually enjoyed my time with AxE and was surprised a mobile game could feel and look that good. I played as a Valkyrie from the Holy Darkhaan Empire, and was absolutely blown away by the versatility. She's a smooth mayhem-inducing lightbringer who can dish out tons of damage while also healing her allies in battle.
Combat is fluidly designed, skills are a blast, and there's an absolutely huge amount of customization to be made. It has all the major trimmings of an MMO: an intensely strategic and tactical skill system built around adequate rotations and synergies with other classes, an incredible array of loot all waiting to be grinded out, lots of quests and explorable locations filled with enemies, bosses, and random creatures, and a variety of activities from high-level raids to smaller dungeons.
The graphics are superlative and I'm still impressed Nexon was able to jam such a colorful and exotic world into a smartphone. Connectivity was great (although we were playing in a controlled environment) and I didn't notice any lag. Animations are very fluid and engaging, the combat feels explosive, and you feel like you're playing an MMO that's slightly compromised for mobile devices.
The touchscreen controls are a bit funny at first (using a smartphone screen as an analog stick takes some getting used to) but movement is crisp and tight, and combat is satisfying. There's an auto-attack mode that pretty much has the game playing itself, at least when it comes to smashing mobs and killing smaller foes.
Taking on hulking bosses like the great dragon Beliou takes lots of planning and strategic use of your skills, so the auto-attack mode won't really come in handy here. You want to be in full control of when and how you use your abilities in every second of the battle, especially if you're the Titan who buffs allies or the Valkyrie that can heal your team.
The drawback of mobile is the UI is immensely clustered and there's a lot on the screen at any given time. Skill cooldown indicators, mini-map, quest objectives, EXP bars, and other stuff smushes into the HUD. It's very busy and confusing at first, but seasoned MMO vets can acclimate with ease. The trade-off is that you can take AxE anywhere your phone is and play on-the-go.
Speaking of busy, the game's skill and inventory screens are all layered and nestled into one another. Things aren't explained all that well and I found myself having to navigate through different screens to do simple things like check my map, swap out items, or pick a new skill after leveling up. But all the while I was able to keep earning EXP thanks to the auto-battle system.
During my time with AxE, I tried out basic exploration and questing, a massively challenging raid, and some PVP. I also uncovered a lot about the game's massively monetized economy, but more on that later.
Exploration across the huge 1-2 square mile maps is made much more enjoyable thanks to fast-travel mechanic, alongside one of the most satisfying traversal systems I've seen in a game. Your character can auto-run to different locations, whether it be a quest marker, a PVP battle, or a group of allies taking on a world boss. But instead of just having to run the whole way, your avatar will float and zoom over like a mystical Iron Man, eliminating the need for mounts.
Combat is basically a series of button mashes that sees you rotating through your skills in any given order. Doing the rotation right means stronger synergy and success with a team, but smaller battles like mobs and dungeons don't require that kind of finesse. You can absolutely just spam your way through most things, but that deeper skill mastery is always there.
There's also an extremely helpful dodge-roll button that swiftly carries you out of harm's way. Sadly dodge-rolling doesn't interrupt your skill executions (and some of the can be rather long), so you'll have to brush off your Dark Souls skills and pay close attention to what you actually do.
I really enjoyed the game's raid system. Me and four other players teamed up to take down a massive dragon overlord. The battle itself was incredibly tough and required the utmost attention; everyone had to dodge AoE attacks from the beast, all while healing strategically and blasting out our abilities in timely manners.
The battle only lasts for 5 minutes, but we were unable to slay the winged wyrm even after four tries. I died a few times and was able to use a resurrection scroll to jump back in, but ultimately our skills weren't up to snuff.
PVP was my least favorite element of AxE, which is unfortunate given how intimately entwined it is with the game. I found PVP to be a confusing mess of frustration and gang-ups, not to mention weird lock-ons and awkward movement. Combat is fine when it comes to PVE enemies, but once you go against another player who zooms around, it's hard to actually attack them. There's lots of spawn killing going on, and overall it felt overwhelming and annoying.
But there's one saving grace: since I died so much in PVP, I was granted a protective bubble that negated all damage until I actually attacked someone. There's safeguards in place so people can't be continually griefed.
AxE: Alliance vs Empire has a wealth of items and gear to collect and equip. There's optional cosmetics that you can buy or earn in-game, alongside a variety of gear that's randomized Diablo-style. The gear is tiered in rarities like common, uncommon and legendary and each successive tier has more beneficial stats. You're encouraged to keep grinding events and quests to grab new stuff to wear and smack enemies with.
There's also an incredibly dynamic and complicated system of ways to boost your gear. Runes, spiritstones, and a codex all offer ways to enhance your inventory. Runes are basically a kind of astral skill tree that applies set bonuses when you match symbols and colors. Runes are earned in-game from higher-level events like raids, and offer a dizzying amount of customization and speccing for your character.
Spiritstones are basically like gems that can be socketed into items to give certain stat boosts. Mixing and matching these are essential for building an endgame-focused avatar.
The codex is probably one of the most interesting things about AxE's gear system. Players can enhance pretty much all of their gear at any time provided they have the materials, and gathering the mats is yet another pathway to AxE's massively grindy mechanics. The codex stores all of the set gear you've ever earned and allows you to equip certain stats without actually having to wear the gear itself
All of these features feed into one another to make a churning wheel of engagement, which Nexon Red is keen on monetizing with lots of shortcuts.
Like any free-to-play mobile game, AxE is monetized via optional in-game microtransactions. The game sports a premium currency called white diamonds that are both earned in-game by simply logging in, completing various objectives, or bought with in-game gold or real-world cash.
There are tons and tons of ways to spend white diamonds in AxE (and by extension, real money). You can buy resurrection scrolls that instantly revive you in battle, you can buy potions that heal, you can buy raid tickets that're needed to participate in big raid boss battles, and various material packages. There's also randomized loot boxes too that contain various rewards from like crafting materials and skins. You can even buy skills.
Honestly, the monetization felt like it affected gameplay a bit too heavily. The game itself feels like it was built entirely with microtransactions in mind (it likely was, like all F2P games) and this feeling often hampers the excellent mechanics the MMO has to offer--especially when you die or something goes wrong and the game prompts you with an opportunity to spend white diamonds.
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