Developed solely by Tom Happ, Axiom Verge is a gentle nod to the inspirations of Metroid and many others that came after it, but only that. Axiom Verge then runs away with the idea to become something better. With a plethora of weapons, tons of exploration, massive boss battles, and a deep progression system makes Axiom Verge the result of a successful take on the “Metroidvania” style that succeeds in being more than just a clone of Nintendo’s popular franchise.
Editor’s Note: This review has been updated on May 13th, 2015 to reflect the impressions of playing the Steam version of the game, which releases on May 14th, 2015.
You play as Trace, and he is on a journey not unlike Gordon Freeman’s, where a simple laboratory experiment has gone wrong. And he is at the center of it as things go awry. Trace has been transported to an alien world, trying to make sense of everything’s that happened, and this place must be explored for Trace to survive and make it home. Along the way you’ll begin helping AI who aren’t perfect in communicating in our language, but do so that Trace understands them.
Beyond the opening cutscene, the story beats were too far and few between to keep my interest, and I constantly forgot what new information I was given, such as what I was tasked with to help the AI. Without a way for me to go back and review dialogue, it was a struggle to remember what I was supposed to do until I stumbled upon it. And I suppose that’s the right way to approach it, so that I just explore to uncover that next bit of the map to continually increase the map percentage on the stats screen.
As you do in a “Metroidvania”, you explore this vast world in nonlinear fashion, only limited by your abilities at the time. And often you’ll be returning to areas to reach previously inaccessible sections to get a new powerup or ability, only available now because of recently acquired ability or powerup. Traversal holds secrets, such as hidden pathways only opened by your curiosity and willingness.
Death is pretty forgiving in Axiom Verge, so much that even items and map exploration is saved. The only progress you actually lose, your place on the map. You’ll resurrect at the last save station, and you’re off to try to get back to where you were. Axiom Verge is not what I would call an easy game, but it scales appropriately as you navigate through the labyrinthine map.
The weapons of Axiom Verge are aplenty, and while I often returned to the trusty Axiom Disruptor, the first weapon, it is not alone. The Nova allows you to shoot a projectile and detonate it much like the Shock Rifle in Unreal Tournament 2004. There were times I had received the long jump, but I still came short to reaching a platform. So I thought, “okay, there’s a double jump out there for me to get” – there’s no double-jump. There is a grappling hook that does the job. You often see a space too small to walk through, and you assume you’ll acquire a morph ball of sorts. What you actually get, is even better. It’s just things like this that show how developer Tom Happ went out of his way to make Axiom Verge not be a clone of game’s past.
The Address Disuptor is the hook to the game. When traversing the world, you’ll see “glitchy” areas that are seemingly inaccessible due to “bad code” or something. But then you acquire the Address Disruptor, which allows to break through the glitch spots. This leads into further strange worlds to explore in new areas of the map, disconnected from the rest.
The boss battles of Axiom Verge are massive encounters, often feeling a bit samey in scale, where even one particular boss battle forces the camera to zoom out to capture the entire boss on screen, making you microscopic by comparison. The bosses are all pattern-based, and you probably will kill them on your first go, but they feel right when it comes to difficulty in relation to what powers you have at your disposal at the time.
As one would expect, the look and sound of Axiom Verge is reminiscent of Super Metroid, if not for a bit mute on colors. But it’s all great as well as it plays. But the sound was often a nuisance, where the sound effects are a bit “tinny” and ear piercing in uncomfortable ways that I had to turn down the volume. Thankfully the game’s music more than makes up for rough sound effects.
UPDATE 5/13/2015: While the Steam version releases on May 14th, I’ve had a few weeks with Axiom Verge on Steam already. There’s no surprises here, it plays well (at 60fps), controls well, and is the exact same game, save for a few added features here and there. There’s the standards of it being a Steamworks title which gives it Cloud Saves, Achievements, and Trading Cards to earn just by playing the game. It was stated that the game received tweaks to the boss battles, which I didn’t notice. But the big feature, and one I wish was on the PS4 version (at least not yet), is being able to mark the map with two reminders. This allowed me to mark locations that needed a weapon or ability to get past, or giving me the location that would return me to another map I wanted to revisit, it’s very helpful and needed later in the game.
Buying Axiom Verge is just a matter of preference, they’re basically identical in terms of content and quality.
Tom Happ’s vision of nostalgia doesn’t end with just nailing the look and sound, but rather infusing new mechanics and utilizing glitches in new and exciting ways that makes Axiom Verge stand out. I wish the story was something a bit more memorable and entertaining, but the exploration is in a class all its own. And you’ll only be limited by your curiosity and willingness to move forward, even if you’re not sure it’s the right path. Axiom Verge is the PlayStation’s very own Metroid: it’s dark, mysterious, and hard to put down.
A PlayStation 4 and Steam code was provided by the developer for review purposes