Review: Axiom Verge

Right from its title screen, Axiom Verge makes it clear that it means business. It immediately starts scrolling down a vertical corridor that looks ripped straight from Super Metroid and kicks in with a mix of retro chiptune wails and crushing bass. It makes no effort to hide its aliasing, with chunky pixels cutting across every curve and diagonal line, and the low frame rate animation on the menu select icon dares you to scoff at it. This is a game of obsession, built by a Super Metroid fan for Super Metroid fans. Axiom Verge wears its inspirations as a badge of honor, but while it is absolutely slavish in paying homage to its inspirations, it’s also not a slave to them, either. For better and for worse, Axiom Verge diverges from its roots when it makes sense (and sometimes when it doesn’t) to create something a little unique, a little darker and a lot harder, making it all the more impressive that it was designed solely by one man, Tom Happ.

Unless you’ve never played the latter game, it’s impossible to talk about Axiom Verge without consistent comparisons to Super Metroid, and it’s a comparison Axiom Verge invites with open arms. While the story of Axiom Verge‘s Trace, a scientist killed in a lab explosion who wakes up in a strange world and must piece together what happened, is nothing like the tale of Super Metroid‘s intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran, its gameplay is near identical.

It’s a 2D side-scrolling game with a vast, open world divided into distinct rooms, an array of weapons and power-ups and a map screen laid out in a grid for easy tracking of where you’ve been and where you might need to go next. You can explore the world however you like, but certain areas will be gated off until you get new weapons or abilities, at which point you can backtrack and push farther into previously unexplored areas. Boss fights punctuate the experience every couple of hours and challenge you to use your accumulated skills to survive. Axiom Verge proudly adheres to this “Metroidvania” formula until the end; though of course anyone could play and enjoy it, longtime fans of the genre will get the most out of it. As for how it actually compares in quality to those games, Axiom Verge undeniably holds its own, even if it does suffer a few frustrating flaws that keep it from surpassing them.

First up is exploration, arguably the most important and defining feature of this style of game. You’re dropped into an alien world without much of a hint of where to go or what to do usually beyond a general goal. You can go where you want, do what you want, and in some cases, tackle areas in the order you want. The game is rarely explicit in its directions, preferring instead to let you figure out the particulars in how to get past that locked door or kill that new type of enemy. So it’s up to you to find that next weapon or power-up that will let you progress, or just go out and collect upgrades for your character. That’s where the map screen comes in, and that’s where Axiom Verge drops the ball.

In a game like Super Metroid, it’s easy to get lost and not know exactly where to go next or how to get there, but it’s usually not too difficult to use the tools available to you to figure it out. You can find a map room to download a complete version of the map to fill in all the gaps in areas you haven’t been to, or you can just check the map and its legend for any leftover secrets you haven’t collected or areas you haven’t explored. Usually, dots will mark optional upgrades or collectables and specific icons will refer to specific items or weapons; doors will be colored differently to signify what weapon you’ll need to use to blast it open and occasionally walls will be left blank to illustrate that a room extends beyond where you’ve already been.

It’s pretty standard for the genre to mark up the map in this way for the player’s benefit, and when games don’t do it — like Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora, a game that didn’t even have a map at all — it can be hugely frustrating. Axiom Verge is just such a game. It’s a little baffling given how well it respects the conventions of the genre otherwise, but Axiom Verge doesn’t offer any map rooms to fill in unexplored sections of your map, nor does it mark up the map at all; several times this design decision left us without a clue where to go next and wandering around for long stretches exploring every corner of the world in search of a new objective to complete. It won’t be nearly as much of an issue today given the prevalence of walkthrough guides that players can check their progress against to get an idea of what to do next, but pre-release and with no guide to fall back on, there were at least two occasions when we nearly resorted to contacting Happ himself for assistance before finally figuring it out on our own. If you’re a fan of collecting every last item and getting each and every secret in games like this without resorting to a guide, you might find Axiom Verge more than a little frustrating at times; it doesn’t give you the same level of information that other games of the same type do, and it suffers as a result.

Next up is the combat design. For the most part, the game is absolutely stellar when it comes to the basic feel of shooting its various weapons, using Trace’s abilities, and platforming in general. You will always feel in control of Trace in a satisfying way, and there’s a great variety of weapons to choose from to find the one you like most, all of which are extremely diverse in function. But all the same, you’re almost never actually required to use any of the weapons in specific situations, so most players will probably just end up picking one or two mainstay guns they like most and stick to those even though the game touts “over 40 weapons and tools” to choose from. There’s a handful you’ll need to use on a regular basis, like the drill used to cut through breakable blocks and damage armored enemies, but it’s hard to imagine players using most of the weapons more than once or twice just to try them out before going back to their favorites. Once we got a gun that shoots electricity that branches out widely like lightning that can therefore attack multiple enemies from safe distances and sometimes even from around corners, for instance, we promptly shelved every other gun we had unless a situation called for one of our two backup guns.

As well, many of the enemy designs, like little flies that divebomb you and prove to be the most dangerous enemies in the game since they tend to retreat behind pieces of the level where you’re unable to shoot them, are flat-out more annoying to deal with than fun. In the same vein, almost all of the game’s boss fights feel cheap and tend to rely on the same gun choice every time. The first few bosses aren’t too bad, but some of the later bosses get pretty maddening as they’re so aggressive that they leave you with very few strategic options to consider and become a race against your rapidly depleting health bar. The final boss fight in particular was one of the most physically exhausting boss fights we’ve ever played, requiring prolonged stretches of extremely fast button presses to the point that our hands would actually hurt after 20 minutes of repeated dying and would require us to take a break — the way we finally beat the final boss was to toss any semblance of interesting strategy out the window as we simply stood motionless in the corner of the arena and switched between two weapons, firing as fast as we could, never once moving from our corner. It’s the kind of game where you won’t feel accomplished after a boss fight so much as relieved you’ll never have to do it again. On the other hand, there’s a contingent of players who really get off on tough-as-nails boss fights, so your mileage may vary on this one.

Beyond those flaws though, Axiom Verge is great. Its soundtrack alone is worth the price of admission, an album’s worth of incredible bass-heavy chiptune grunge tracks that will get stuck in your head and do wonders to distinguish each new area you explore. In particular, the boss fight music is fantastic, full of frenetic drum fills and air raid sirens and a wonderful mechanical roar. Some of the sound effects, like the ding when shooting a metal enemy, are annoying to the point that by the end of the game when most of the enemies are metal, we had to either turn the sound almost all the way down or switch to headphones at the request of everyone else in the house, but by and large, the game sounds awesome, right down to how the low health beeping often syncs to the beat.

The world you’ll explore in Axiom Verge is colorful and organic and grotesque, sort of like taking Super Metroid and injecting it with a healthy dose of H.R. Giger. The vibe the game cuts with its dark sci-fi tone is often enough to make some quieter moments of exploration genuinely nerve-wracking at times and there’s just a great sense of atmosphere overall. Some of the designs, like the quasi-organic biomechanics of the sleeping face you can see in most of the game’s promotional materials, are just sublime. Not all parts of the aesthetic hit the same highs, and some the environments can get a little sparse or redundant, though, especially if you’ve been wandering aimlessly for hours because you’re not sure where to go; you’ll probably get pretty tired of the look of a few of the areas in that scenario. Still, the game manages to establish a unique look that will definitely appeal to fans of retro games and gritty sci-fi alike. As well, the way the game adheres to an old-school pixel aesthetic only to occasionally subvert it with much more modern effects, like the voxels that explode outward when a boss or some stronger enemies die, looks incredible and diverges wonderfully from the game’s inspirations.

Axiom Verge is a lengthy game, taking us over 15 hours to complete, though obviously this time would shrink a few hours with the addition of a better map screen. It never felt overly long, just occasionally confusing, so its length is a point of value, not exasperation, and the fact that parts of the game are randomized makes it a prime candidate for subsequent playthroughs that feel fresh. It also offers a harder difficulty and a speedrun mode built specifically for crazy people; it cuts out the game’s dialogue and randomized elements to keep the experience consistent for everyone. The story in the game is interesting and grim in all the best ways if you’re the type of person who likes stories like Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, but the option to skip it is a welcome touch of humility that will benefit the game’s replayability tenfold. It’s also a relatively bug-free experience, which unfortunately needs to be applauded at this point. We managed to hit a repeatable bug that allowed us to transport some tough enemies from one room into the other instead of having to deal with them, which was actually much appreciated, but everything else was rock solid.

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Closing Comments:

Flaws aside, Axiom Verge is a stunning achievement for one man to have developed entirely by himself. It’s not as good as Super Metroid, but it’s close. Some of its more annoying flaws, like the lack of crucial information on the map screen and the frustrating boss fights, hold it back from being one of the greats, but don’t hold back a recommendation at all. Axiom Verge looks, sounds and plays great. It carries a lot of value for your buck, and it’s the kind of game you’ll be happy to own so you can hop back into it from time to time. Axiom Verge is absolutely worth your time if you’re a fan of old-school Metroidvania games, but even if you’re not, it’ll still be a lot of fun.