Axiom Verge is one man’s love letter to Metroid’s gameplay style that winds up carving out something that becomes its own adventure. Much like how Another World/Out of This World was a solitary vision and was better for it, Axiom Verge takes that same approach with a Metroid-heavy vibe. Why Metroid and not Metroidvania? Simple – this game evokes the same feeling of solitude and powerlessness that you felt the second you started off Metroid. Axiom Verge isn’t Tom Happ’s first foray into Metroid-style gaming though. His Masters project for RIT was Orn on the GBA, which put the title character in a world heavily-inspired by Brinstar. It’s a must-play game for Metroid fans, as is Axiom Verge.
As Trace, you’ll explore the world of Axiom Verge with a mix of fear and trepidation. You get a fast weapon early on that does a small amount of damage, but it does so quickly – so it remains a versatile tool in your arsenal. Exploring reveals not only new areas, but also new enemy types and a weapon that will serve you well later – a purple bomb-style weapon that you detonate manually as you fire it. If you want to use it as a long-range weapon, just don’t push anything, but there will be boss battles requiring fairly precise detonation and you’ll need to learn the timing to win.
Earning new weapons feels like a badge of honor, and learning them is rewarding. One area Axiom Verge overtakes the classic Metroid-style games and most run-and-gun shooters in general is using L1 to lock your position in place. This means that you’ll never have to be in a situation where you move forward needlessly off a platform to your doom. Given how frequent traps with pink acid in large areas get at times, you’ll absolutely need this to survive and will have a much easier time early on if you stick to using this mechanic from the beginning.
It’s especially helpful when you need to keep a safe distance from enemies and their sometimes-large blast radius when you blow them up. Pickups like the glitch gun allow you to do a whole bunch of cool things. With that item in particular, you can open up new pathways and advance or turn enemies into mostly pacifists, health-emitting bullet sponges, or platforms. Happ essentially took a mechanic from the freeze gun from Metroid and expanded upon it perfectly. You get an homage to the 8-bit days with all of the areas in the world glitching out, and while it doesn’t make sense when you first see it, you know it will be something you come back to later with a new item.
Unfortunately, backtracking is a gigantic pain in the ass in Axiom Verge. While everything else about the world and the game largely worked for me, this one aspect made things a bit of slog. Items like the glitch gun allow you to make new platforms that can increase the speed of your traversal, while later items like the Bionic Commando-style grappling hook do so to a greater degree. These things help, but certainly don’t make up for the lack of fast travel areas. Given how frequently checkpoints and save points are placed in the world, it’s odd that they also don’t serve as fast travel areas – especially since it can effectively destroy your desire to backtrack.
Hopefully fast travel can be patched in somehow, because the lack of it does make this game a bit less friendly to those unfamiliar with Metroid’s exploration. Those who are predisposed to liking it will tolerate this flaw, and still marvel at the sheer power you feel when you gain new implements of destruction. Perhaps the most purely fun from a visceral perspective is the drill. Beyond being a bit like Drill Dozer, it’s a riot to just unleash this thing and not only pop all of the movement-slowing bubbles, but also plow through any enemies in your path.
There’s a real thrill to quickly destroying enemies and that carries over into the boss battles. They’re gigantic and it’s a blast to come into the battle, wage war and die time after time. Normally, death is something you fear in a game – here though, you know it’s a learning tool. Death is largely a slap on the wrist anyway with frequent save points and the game allows you to save at times upon exiting, so it’s a very user-friendly game in that regard. Bosses will tear you up, and the real fun comes from figuring out their patterns and the best tool to take them out. Sometimes, you have to die a half-dozen times to really get the hang of things, then you get into a groove and wind up making one error that leads to your doom. You come oh so close, but the agony of defeat is fleeting because you know you just need one more chance. The second victory is yours, you feel relief and know that soon, you’ll gain a new power or item to aid you.
Axiom Verge controls like a dream. The left stick and/or d-pad can be used for movement. The d-pad is preferable, and the right stick is used to select weapons. Face buttons jump and control other functions – like the drone you eventually gain access to. That thing comes in handy for sections where you assume a Metroid ball roll will be needed, and its jumps and such are actually a bit different than Trace’s.
Visually, Axiom Verge gets the beyond 8-bit look absolutely perfectly. It has what would basically be a really high-end 8-bit color palette most of the time. Games like Batman: Return of the Joker showed that you could have a lot of color depth in an NES game. AV has that – only on far more powerful hardware with things going on (like boss explosions) that the NES couldn’t handle. Animation is limited, but it should be and it the end result is that you can always time things perfectly because you know exactly what will happen and when. Jumps can be timed easier, as can attacks.
Axiom Verge also nails the heart of chiptune music, but adds more to it to give it more depth. Sometimes, you muddle the greatness of music by adding things to it, but here, you just get a creepier end result. The sound effects are stellar, with the grinding drill offering up a satisfying sound compared to the more ’60s sci-fi blasts and zaps from most of the other weapons. Each one has its own effect though, and their timing is spot-on with a shot landing.
Axiom Verge perfectly nails the creepy vibe that made the original Metroid such a treat, and modernizes it nearly-perfectly. You get a combination of Metroid’s exploration and initial fear along with a sense of progression thanks to all of the new items and weapons. The lack of fast travel is the game’s lone big flaw. The graphics, audio, and control work marvelously – anyone who grew up with Metroid should give Axiom Verge a shot.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
This review is based on a digital copy of Axiom Verge for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony Computer Entertainment.