Platforms: PC, Steam, PS4 | Developer/Publisher: Thomas Happ Games LLC | ESRB: T | Controls: Keyboard/Controller
Axiom Verge is the Metroidvani-ist of Metroidvanias. So much so that you almost feel you can see the trace-lines of the the bubble-filled walls as you blast through them. As your reach the end you half-expect Mother Brain to be behind the whole thing. While the gameplay may be decidedly Metroid, the story shares some traits, at least in the beginning, with another classic side-scroller, Out of this World (Another World). The view through heavily nostalgia-tinted glasses is sure to excite many players, but how long do those warm fuzzies last? The answer will probably lean heavily on how much you wanted or needed a game like this, and/or how often you go back and play the classics. [pullquote align=”right”]Axiom Verge begins it’s Another-Worldy spin with a lab experiment gone wrong.[/pullquote]
Axiom Verge begins it’s Another-Worldy spin with a lab experiment gone wrong. Trace, a scientist find himself in the strange half-organic, half-machine world of Sudra following a disaster. It’s not long before he encounters the husks of the hulking bio-mechanical beings known as the Rusulka. They task him with releasing nano-machines which will repair their kind. The ultimate goal here is a bit of 8-bit redemption of their world, destroyed by the evil Athetos, the being who as destroyed this once thriving world and allowed it to fester with enemy inhabitants.
One of the best traits of Metroid, and in particular I am thinking of Super Metroid here, is that the world and the general pacing of progression in the game serve the story. Bosses have a specific purpose and, in general, a specific strategy for being defeated. Axiom felt a bit more random to me. Rather than learning set patterns for boss fights, most of the time you just spam your way through. Some of them don’t feel like they have a necessary purpose other than obstruction and are only tertiarily tied to the story.
Moreover, the big “twist” of the story is nowhere near subtle. You’ll see it coming a mile away, which may seem any attempt at build-up, and the conclusion, inconsequential to your gameplay. Admittedly it’s a bit of jaded-gamer syndrome here; I’ve seen this story in different forms before, and the blueprint, or in the large sense, the mish-mash of a handful of blueprints is evident. I can’t fault the designer for taking bits and pieces from the era to which he is unabashedly paying homage. [pullquote align=”left”]The core gameplay of Axiom Verge is again, distinctly Metroidian.[/pullquote]
The core gameplay of Axiom Verge is again, distinctly Metroidian. However it diverges through some key tweaks, which prove to make the game more interesting. Most chiefly of these deviations from the formula is the way Trace is going to get into the smaller spaces. There’s no morph ball here, Trace must gain the drone companion to crawl through those half-height spaces. Upgrades to drone distance and eventually the addition of a ‘teleport-to’ function make it the most useful pick-up in the game and a required one for progression.
I had almost forgotten the grapple beam in Super Metroid. No, instead I compared the grapple function in Axiom to Bionic Commando, and indeed its functionality is much closer to this game as well. You don’t swing from key, grapple only points as in SM. Instead, most any ceiling surface is suitable. Pair a long grapple swing with an upgraded drone launch distance, and then add in the teleport functionality, and Trace will be able to reach the far corners of any map space. This is key because the game relies on the random, hidden upgrades to a heavy degree.
Basic scanning and blasting at all the walls in any given room will get you part of the way through the upgrades. The rest will requires some tricks and some creative thinking; many using the teleport functionality. Three different lab coast will allow you to pass through single segment walls, two segment walls and several more respectively. This requires you to think in new ways as your “lab coat” is upgraded. It will also help you find more of those power-ups which are essential if you don’t want to have a difficult time defeating late-game enemies. [pullquote align=”right”]The weaponry makes the game both more interesting and more frustrating. [/pullquote]
This may be a big problem for casual players who aren’t wanting to spend hours back tracking and blasting at each pixel, looking for upgrades. The late stages of the game have a truly ridiculous difficulty spike. A late-game boss may leave your head buzzing with frustration, and the final challenge without a fair dosage of powered up weapons is going to have the same effect, until you figure out how to spam your way through with one or two weapons.
The weaponry makes the game both more interesting and more frustrating. There are way too many weapons, though many are optional. You’ll find space for three rows of them in your inventory screen. Each one has a variation that may be helpful in any given situation, but the reality is you will probably find yourself coming back to the same ones over and over again. If you have the patience and the thumb-speed, there is usually a quick way to defeat most foes. This is especially true when you mix in the Address Disruptor.
Playing on the digitally-programmed theme of this strange machine-organic hybrid world, the Address Disruptor will rewrite the code behind various walls and enemies, distinctly twisting them into something different. This may open up new paths when applied to surfaces, or drastically change how an enemy acts, and thus how you fight it. Upgrade hunters and completionists will alternate between randomly launching drones sky high, blasting at each pixel on the walls and running around with the address disruptor pointed at every surface, visible or otherwise.
Axiom Verge never quite feels like it has the depth to match the gravitas of its greatest influence. A lot of the extra items, especially the weapons, feel like distractions at times. Yet, until the weird difficulty switch near the end, it did a good job of catching my attention. I think my main issue was flow and pacing. Some things faded into the background too much — for example, level variations felt like just that. Variations with no truly distinct worlds within worlds. Other items in the game were too present — one of the greatest strengths of Metroid and Super Metroid moreso, was the consistency, yet distinct and well-timed used of music. Axiom has some really interesting tracks, but once you start to hear them on repeat you realize they may be too distinctive, and too in-your-face. They overpower the rest of the game at various points.
It’s a tricky balancing act to both emulate a style and a specific game so closely as to match its feel, yet also create enough uniqueness to allow the new title to stand on its own. Axiom Verge does this to varying success. Obviously a thirst for this style of game, especially with in the speed-running community, will probably help rate the game more highly. That get’s back to those rose-colored glasses… but then again, having grown up with those Metroid games, maybe my own nostalgia brain-freeze is making me expect more.
Whatever the case, Axiom Verge is an interesting title, which does an admirable job of creating a new title from a very old blueprint. It’s a strong foundation to build from. One of the over-riding strengths of this game for me, will always be the impressive feat of having spawned from the brain and skills of one man, Tom Happ. An industry vet of franchises like NFL Street and Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Happ’s biggest recent title was Grey Goo. He has worked on Axiom as a side-project over the last 5 years. It’s completion and release at all is an impressive feat, let alone the fact that the game is of good quality.
Axiom Verge is definitely worth a go — a loving tribute to a by-gone era that does it damnedest to be unique and continue to bring an older gameplay style to a new audience. How successful it is, that’s up to you, but I am glad to see more games of this style. Perhaps a refined sequel, moving towards the slightly more modern Super Metroid style is in order? The game was first made available on PS4 March 31, 2015 and receives a PC release May 14, 2015.
Review copy provided by the developer.