Oh look, another Metroidvania! I’ve been playing quite a few games from this genre over the last few months and whilst I wouldn’t argue I’m a genre veteran, it’s a style I’m starting to enjoy more and more. Axiom Verge, created by Thomas Happ, was first released on PS4 and PC in 2015, and later came to Xbox One in 2016. When Axiom verge became available on Switch, I just had to pick it up due to it’s obvious homage to the 2D-era Metroid games, but can this adventure created by a single developer really match up to the classics?
Axiom opens with a classically styled intro sequence, 0introducing the player character – Trace. A scientist in the vein of Gordon Freeman, he is transported to a corrupted alien world and instructed on his adventure by a mysterious alien voice. Without spoiling too much of the plot, you soon find out that the voice belongs to Elsenova, a giant robotic creature from a dead civilisation, who asks you to hunt down and stop a mad scientist. The story is engaging and interesting, full of twists and interesting titbits; though occasionally it can come across as a little obtuse. It’s still a great example of how to blend an engaging sci-fi story with gameplay in a vibrant way.
When I say that Axiom Verge plays like a Metroid game, I mean that Axiom Verge is, for the most part, a Metroid game. You control Trace in a 2D space, running, jumping, and shooting on that plane. As you run around the twisting caverns of the world you slowly gain new abilities, weapons, upgrades and tools which open new areas and challenging enemies to defeat. The variety of weapons to unlock is impressive, with different playstyles opening up as you go. A personal favourite of mine is the Nova, which you unlock pretty early on. It’s essentially a cluster shot, with your first fire shooting the projectile and the second causing it to explode into 6 which fan out. Combat steadily increases in difficulty as you traverse the Alien world, but with your awesome arsenal of over 20 weapons there’s a strategy for every situation. Axiom Verge excels at these basics, though a few quality of life elements are skimped on.
Metroidvania games are built on the idea of retreading old ground and opening up new routes that you couldn’t previously access. Because of this, backtracking and remembering what you’ve previously encountered is incredibly important. Whilst Axiom does allow you to place two markers on your map for each section, it would be incredibly useful to be able to place down more as there is way more than two secrets in each area; to the developer’s credit. There is also no form of fast-travel, which leads to a lot of running around back and forth. The combination of these things can make it somewhat difficult at times to figure out where you should go next and can lead to a player wandering endlessly through the caverns of Sudra in search of where to go next.
Alongside the classic elements and powerups you could expect in any Metroidvania, Axiom Verge introduces a variety of interesting twists on the formula which make it a refreshing change of pace. For example, whilst Samus had the ability to roll into a ball to access small areas, Trace can instead fire a small drone into these areas, and later can teleport to it’s position. A particular highlight is the inclusion of the Address Disrupter, or “Glitch Gun”, which changes the world through corrupting it. With this weapon you can change the appearance or attack patterns of certain enemies, or cause bubbles to become solid platforms. The weapon can destroy or build walls or make dangerous obstacles heal instead of hurt. It’s a genius inclusion which elevates Axiom Verge from being a simple Metroid clone and put it up with the best of the genre.
The graphical and sound design, despite being made by the programmer of the game, is bleakly beautiful and completely fitting for the genre and game world. Obstacles drip with gross greasiness and creatures mount the line between identifiable and alien. Whilst the tiles are sometimes a little difficult to read, I sincerely love the amount of love which has obviously gone into finding a mix of homage and originality in the design. Sound is also excellently realised, with haunting music and sound effects enhancing the world. My only criticism is that certain movement sounds could have done with more variation, and certain enemies can overwhelm the ears in an unpleasant and distracting manner; crossing the line from atmospheric to annoying.
Overall though, Axiom Verge is a triumph; an excellent mix of old and new which showcases the best elements of the Metroidvania genre with minimal hiccups. It’s a testament to Thomas Happ’s superb understanding of what makes the genre exciting and a fantastic first game from a lone developer. Whilst not perfect, it brings back the sense of wonder and discovery which has been missing from more recent Metroid games and gives the player a true desire to explore and learn about its mysterious world.
If you love Metroidvania, you’ll love Axiom Verge.