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Ex Bethesda dev’s “giant” new horror game is 5x bigger than Skyrim

Take a walk on the wild side in The Axis Unseen, a primeval immersive sim where you hunt cryptids with a bow in an oppressive open world.

The Axis Unseen preview: A hunter takes aim with a magical bow and arrow against an immolated tree-like giant,

Bigfoot. Mothman. The Loch Ness Monster. I have to admit, I’m partial to a cryptid or two. Slender Man and the SCP Foundation are all well and good, but there’s something to be said about the real-world mystery and cultural heritage behind cryptozoology. However, while the likes of Pacific Drive and Control incorporate close encounters with supernatural creatures and objects, traditional cryptids are woefully underrepresented. During my exclusive preview of The Axis Unseen, I discover that’s all about to change.

Ex-Bethesda developer Nate Purkeypile is set to wade into this undiscovered country with The Axis Unseen, a horror game that drops you into an open world populated by old-school cryptids like the Chupacabra with little more than a bow and a knife to defend yourself. We sat down with Purkeypile in an exclusive GDC interview to get a sneak preview of The Axis Unseen ahead of its official release later this year.

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Let’s get one thing out of the way first: The Axis Unseen is only focused on the hunting aspect of a traditional hunter-gatherer survival game. There are no hunger or thirst bars to manage, which comes as a welcome relief in a release year chock-full with the likes of Palworld, Nightingale, and Dune Awakening. Likewise, there are no menus, tooltips, or reams of exposition here, though the pared-back approach makes the world feel intuitive enough that it doesn’t need it. The most essential UI elements like sound and magic meters are represented in minimalist lines carved on the back side of my bow.

There’s also no map that I can pull up at a moment’s notice, which becomes a daunting prospect once Purkeypile tells me that The Axis Unseen’s map is actually five times bigger than Skyrim. “I actually placed it all by hand,” Purkeypile says. “I toyed with [procedural generation] but it’s honestly kind of a buggy workflow.” However, The Axis Unseen’s vast scale isn’t just a bid for bragging rights over Bethesda – there’s a very simple, practical reason behind the decision. “I needed a lot of space for hunting creatures. Honestly, I was not super concerned about doing a giant open-world game because I’ve done six,” Purkeypile laughs.

The Axis Unseen preview: The landscape stretched out ahead, characterized by a row of humanoid statues, an enormous skeletal structure, and a beam of light stretching into the sky.

The Axis Unseen’s first-person perspective and sweeping landscapes might invite comparisons to Skyrim, though Purkeypile’s influences are further afield. “I played The Hunter: Call of the Wild,” he imparts. “I also grew up in the middle of the woods in Oregon thinking about monsters all the time, so it was an obvious leap.” In many ways, this opening region is not so far removed from the landscape of Purkeypile’s home state. I’m told that a later region is treacherous and thick with poison, but even this disarming landscape of blue skies, open woodland, and gentle slopes has an undercurrent of danger running through it. The open landscape flirts with agoraphobia, whereas taking shelter in the trees has me mistaking shadows for predators.

Purkeypile’s bid for hunting sim realism entrenched in such an oppressive atmosphere creates the perfect conditions for emergent horror. Loose gravel crunches underfoot, disconcertingly loud and liable to draw the attention of creatures lurking nearby. The relative silence that comes from traversing dirt trails comes as a relief – though Purkeypile is quick to point out the footprints I leave behind, which other creatures can track for miles. As I continue to creep through the undergrowth, the rain starts to come down in sheets, reducing my visibility until every step I take is a loud, wet splodge. I turn at the slight sound of movement behind me and almost jump out of my seat as Bigfoot – yes, actual Bigfoot – charges down the hill toward me.

The Axis Unseen preview: Bigfoot charges through a fire trap as the hunter takes aim.

The transition from simulation to full-fledged horror is palpable, though the shift runs deeper than the terror of a hirsute giant running full-pelt at the screen. Purkeypile has tried to capture the biological response to fear through dynamic sounds and visual effects. “There’s a whole heartbeat system,” Purkeypile explains. “Your vision starts to constrict, sounds are muffled – nobody hears birds chirping when you’re fighting a werewolf.” This explosion of sensory stimulus is accompanied by a pulse-pounding metal soundtrack by post-metal musician Clifford Meyer.

“The spawns are random, so some are more likely than others,” Purkeypile says after Bigfoot makes absolute mincemeat out of me. One playtester was unlucky enough to find themselves fending off four Bigfoots (or should that be Bigfeet?) at once. I’ll admit, as a seasoned horror fan I was sceptical of just how horrifying The Axis Unseen could be, but trapped in this unnerving sandbox devoid of choreographed sequences and obvious ‘tells’, I happily stand corrected. Needless to say, I’m left paranoid by my initial encounter with Bigfoot, and spend the rest of my preview constantly looking over my shoulder.

The Axis Unseen preview: THe hunter strikes out with his knife as a werewolf attacks through a haze of fire and rain.

Purkeypile tells me that there are 24 unique creatures in The Axis Unseen, with an additional 42 variants that are bigger, meaner, and scarier than their regular counterparts, though finding them can be a challenge in itself. This cryptozoological bestiary draws from a wide range of cultures, though some creatures are a curious amalgamation. The Axis Unseen’s werewolf borrows elements from common representations of the Chupacabra, for example. Purkeypile teases the existence of creatures that may not even seem like creatures – and possibly the scariest of all, a creature that can only be seen out of the corner of my eye.

However, I’m also reassured that not all creatures are as aggressive as old Sasquatch. I stick a few arrows into the werewolf and it decides to flee with its tail between its legs, leaving a blood trail for me to track if I want to finish the hunt. “I didn’t want all these creatures to just be reskins of the same encounter,” he explains. “I want them to act and look completely different.” Some creatures might give up the chase relatively quickly, while others might continue to track you for an extended period of time – which can make for a hair-raising moment once you finally turn around and realize they’ve caught up to you again.

The Axis Unseen preview: A tree-like cryptid stands stationary in a forest choked by poison fog.

Conversely, I’m free to engage these cryptids on my own terms, whether that’s taking it slow with stealth or opting for a more high-risk, high-reward approach by throwing caution to the wind and fighting the creatures head-on. It’s also apparent that players who engage and experiment with The Axis Unseen’s systems can expect to be rewarded. Case in point: an arrow shot through the flames of a fire arrow also ignites, allowing me to get additional fire arrows at no extra cost. Purkeypile likens it to an immersive sim, and I’m immediately on board. We’ve seen horror games adopt immersive sim elements to great success, most recently the acclaimed Amnesia the Bunker last year, which we celebrated in PCGamesN’s best games of 2023 list.

“You don’t have to fight them if you don’t want to,” Purkeypile says, hinting that a Shadow of the Colossus-style moral quandary may lurk behind the decision to hunt these cryptids down rather than trying to escape. I’m surprised to learn that none of the magic abilities at my disposal explicitly hurt the creatures. “It’s all about changing the play space,” Purkeypile explains. One such ability summons a giant rock pillar between the player and a creature, to allow for some much-needed breathing room to line up a killing shot or, alternatively, flee. “I want more of those moments of drama. If it’s just another way to do more damage, it’s not terribly interesting to me.”

Purkeypile has also taken a leaf out of SOMA’s book and built a pacifist mode into The Axis Unseen’s difficulty selection, so combat-averse players can explore without fear and take photographs as their ‘trophies’ instead. “Hey, if someone wants to be an evil monster nature photographer, go nuts,” Purkeypile laughs.

The Axis Unseen preview: The hunter checks their arrows as Bigfoot prowls nearby, silhouetted by the full moon overhead.

As our conversation draws to a close, I have to address the triple-A developer in the room. After spending 14 years as lead lighting artist at Bethesda working on big-budget RPG games like Skyrim, Fallout, and even Starfield, Purkeypile decided to strike out on his own back in 2021. He actually handed in his notice on April Fool’s Day, which made for some awkward conversations with colleagues who assumed it was a joke. After three years flying solo, I ask why he decided to break away from the studio. “I mean, [Bethesda] got very, very big,” Purkeypile says, referring to the copious meetings necessary to make creative decisions in a studio that size. “I wanted to focus on just making games.”

“It’s certainly a leap. When you’re in a big studio like that, there are all these support structures,” he continues. Without a marketing department and triple-A resources on hand, Purkeypile is forced to do all the heavy lifting himself, from trailers to outreach – but he takes it all in stride. “I was never going to be one of those developers who was like, ‘I’m gonna be the person who does just this one thing.’ Honestly, it gets kind of boring for me.”

For my part, my time spent with The Axis Unseen at GDC was anything but boring, and has given me a deeper appreciation for hunting sims in the process. If you can’t wait to take on Bigfoot yourself, why not pass the time with our picks for the best PC games of all time? We’ve also got a list of the biggest upcoming PC games to mark on your calendar, too.