I’ve been eagerly anticipating Axiom Verge ever since it was first unveiled as a PlayStation title early last year. Developed entirely by one man — industry veteran Tom Happ — this apparent love letter to Super Metroid looked to be hitting all the right notes in regards to my gaming tastes. Stylish retro graphics, Metroidvania game design, a mysterious sci-fi setting, and a dark, thumping soundtrack inspired by the games of yesteryear combined to give me the same kind of warm and fuzzy feelings I remember experiencing the first time I saw last year’s instant retro-classic, Shovel Knight, in action. Now that Axiom Verge has finally arrived — just in time to grab a piece of the spotlight as part of Sony’s Spring Fever indie promotion — my initial feelings have been confirmed: Fans of retro-inspired platformers owe it to themselves to play this game.
Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Price: $19.99 (PSN)
Axiom Verge follows the story of Trace, a budding scientist on the brink of a big discovery. After a failed lab experiment and the resulting explosion find him near death and without consciousness, Trace’s life is forever changed when he awakens in a strange alien environment. Aided only by a member of the planet’s indigenous artificial intelligence, it’s up to Trace to figure out exactly what is going on and how he got here. Needless to say, the science fiction story on display here is totally bonkers. The trippy twists and turns along the way will have you scratching your head for answers, and while it can be confusing trying to connect all of the story’s considerable dots, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less. I’ve always been a fan of zany, off the wall sci-fi concepts, and Axiom Verge certainly fits the bill. Much in the same way something like The Matrix inspires adoration through its high concept, Axiom Verge’s crazy science fiction logic is just wild enough to demand my attention.
Right from the beginning, Axiom Verge enraptured me with its retro graphics and modern 16-bit panache. Static cutscenes, reminiscent of something you might find in an old NES or SNES game, flesh out the story during narrative sequences, while “talking head boxes,” a la Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, convey the dialogue between Trace and those he meets on his journey. Even though they appear to be simple in nature, there is something beautifully complex about the retro sprites on display in Axiom Verge. This is especially apparent in the game’s boss characters. These screen-filling baddies are grotesquely gorgeous and imaginative creatures full of detailed sprite patterns and hints of color. In fact, I love the enemy design here in general; it’s clear Tom Happ had a ball conceptualizing these characters.
While the visuals are an obvious highlight, gameplay is where Axiom Verge truly shines. It’s a vitally important component of all good Metroidvania platformers, and Axiom Verge is no different. The rock-solid controls and timeless, exploration-based game design that genre fans expect are fully intact here. Although the controls are a touch unwieldy at first as you come to terms with all of the different tools and abilities at your disposal, they remain tight and responsive throughout, and I never had a problem getting Trace to do what I wanted him to do. Aiding you on your journey, a large number of weapons and gadgets will be at your disposal, not the least of which is the Address Disruptor, the game’s signature device which allows you control over the “glitches” that are a part of Trace’s surroundings. Primarily used as a vehicle to open up new areas on the map, the Address Disruptor is also utilized for light puzzle-solving and enemy manipulation, the latter of which is an especially cool mechanic that helps players in combat by “glitching” the enemy. Even though its implementation is clever for the most part, I would have loved to have seen even more emphasis on the Address Disruptor and its use, possibly in the form of a more robust puzzle-solving offering for the device. The rest of the game’s weapons are not directly tied to progression, allowing players to pick and choose how they attack their enemies offensively, injecting a nice dose of combat variety into the proceedings.
Exploration, which is always a part of the Metroidvania experience, is encouraged and expected in Axiom Verge, perhaps even more so than other entries in this genre. The map gets quite expansive over the course of a full playthrough. While attempting to uncover the entirety of it, I spent a good 13 hours trying to finish the game my first time through. If 13 hours seems like a long time to complete this game, that’s because it is; I spent a good chunk of time not knowing where I was supposed to go next.
This is where my biggest gripe with the game comes into play. The progression path is not always clear in Axiom Verge. Occasionally, the story will direct you towards an objective, but it never tells you where exactly that objective can be found. You are constantly being introduced to new items and upgrades for Trace, but then you need to remember where you can use them. This becomes an issue as more and more areas are uncovered. As I mentioned, the world map gets pretty expansive and it becomes difficult to keep track of where exactly you’re supposed to be going at any given time. Much of this could have been remedied had a fast travel or teleportation system been added to the game, and its omission here is glaring. While I understand backtracking is a part of the Metroidvania DNA, I felt much of what I was doing was unnecessary as I aimlessly wandered the map in search of where I was supposed to go next. To those of you who have yet to start the game, I recommend you keep a pen and paper handy should you feel the need to take notes regarding the areas you need to return back to.
Before I conclude, I want to make special mention of the soundtrack in Axiom Verge. As if creating the entirety of the game himself weren’t impressive enough, Tom Happ is also the maestro behind the music in Axiom Verge, and it’s fantastic. Dark and ominous sci-fi techno, classic chiptune effects, and electronic synth combine to create a sound that is both subtly familiar, yet entirely unique. If you’re a fan of video game soundtracks, don’t hesitate to add this one to your catalog.
While I’ve finished Axiom Verge, I can’t wait to play it again. It really is an awesome game. I’m looking forward to the increased challenge the game is set to offer on Hard difficulty (I briefly tested hard mode for this review, but it was not immediately clear where the increased difficulty comes into play). Now that I have a better understanding of how the game works, I’m hoping my familiarity with the title will cut down on some of the unnecessary backtracking and aimless wandering the second time through. While the game is clearly inspired by Metroid and other early Nintendo titles, its unforgettable soundtrack, crazy sci-fi story, and weapon and gadget variety set it apart as something different. When it comes down to it, Axiom Verge is a no-brainer recommendation to anyone who enjoys Metroidvania titles or retro-style platformers. If you find yourself firmly in this category, don't hesitate to add Axiom Verge to your PS4 library!
- Fantastic retro style and graphics
- Rock-solid controls and gameplay
- Trippy science fiction story
- Totally awesome soundtrack
- Progression path is not always clear
- No teleportation/fast-travel system