Axiom Verge


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Complete Review & Description

The Metroidvania genre is something that’s been getting its fair share of attention lately. In the last few years, we’ve seen a handful of new takes released, like Drinkbox’s excellent Guacamelee, last year’s Strider reboot, and the artful Ori and the Blind Forest. These sorts of games seem to pop up on Kickstarter relatively often, like Legend of Iya and Heart Forth, Alicia. Even former Castlevania producer Koji Igarashi – the reason it’s a “Metroidvania” and not a “Metroid-like” – is teasing a return to the genre.
While all the above games show heavy inspiration from Metroid and Castlevania in terms of progression, exploration, and upgrade loops, they’ve all done their own thing. They’ve all taken the genre in new directions, be it in narrative, art direction, or combat mechanics.

Axiom Verge, on the other hand, does the complete opposite. It doubles down on the Metroid influences, taking on a similar setting, graphical style, art direction and approach to level design. You can even enter the first Metroid’s famous JUSTIN BAILEY cheat code, and get a similar outcome. More than a Metroid-inspired game or even an homage, Axiom Verge is effectively a new Metroid game, albeit without Samus Aran as the star.

Rather, you play as Trace, a scientist caught in a lab explosion who wakes up to find himself on a strange, inhospitable planet. As he discovers, this world has been attacked by someone (or something?) called Athetos, who has unleashed a pathogen that appears to be messing with the very fabric of reality.

This pathogen is at the core of Axiom Verge, because it manifests in the game as the kind of glitches you’d see in old 8-bit games, and not just from a visual perspective. Many of the upgrades you find along the way, the things that make previously inaccessible parts of the map available to you, are (intentional) glitches in their own right. They basically let Trace hack the world around him.
One upgrade lets you glitch through walls. Another lets you bug enemies, distorting their appearance and changing their behaviour in a way that’s usually, but not always, helpful. There’s even a Passcode Tool that lets you input cheat codes to unlock hidden rooms or translate alien text.

Of course, none of these are literal glitches, bugs, or hacks – they’re there by design, and levels and encounters are crafted with them in mind. It’s really quite a fascinating way to frame upgrades, and makes finding and using them very exciting. This is only made better by excellent level design, a bevy of stuff to find as you explore the world, and an upgrade loop that’s spot on. You never go too long without finding a new tool or gun, but everything has its time to shine and no gadget ever becomes redundant.
Where Axiom Verge begins to stumble is in combat. Admittedly, it has sparks of genius; in keeping with the theme of glitches, many foes are puzzles where the solution is “find the most exploitative way to end them” – often a sweet spot on the map where you can shoot them, but they can’t hit you.
You never go too long without finding a new tool or gun, but everything has its time to shine

The problems arise from just how frequent and annoying encounters can be. Enemies are plentiful, and they typically hit too hard for you to just breeze by them, forcing you to stop and kill every damn one each time you’re going through a zone. The more troublesome ones make a habit of knocking you off ledges, and if you die, it’s all the way back to the last time you saved. Axiom Verge is too retro for modern conveniences like autosaves and deaths that don’t send you halfway across the map.
I get that enemies are supposed to be obstacles to be overcome, but in Axiom Verge, they actively undermine other aspects of the game by making exploration a chore. Admittedly, this was an issue in Metroid (and many, many other games from that era), so this may well be a design decision – but some things are better left in the past.

The other issue with combat is to do with difficulty spikes. This starts off as a pretty easy game, but rather than gradually getting more difficult, it just throws walls at you from time to time. The first couple of bosses were cakewalks for me, but with the third, I was suddenly at an impasse. After a couple more bosses of similar challenge, I hit the next wall, which had me on the verge of throwing my controller through the TV after 30-odd attempts. Oddly, the last few bosses were about as easy for me as the first two, but I put this down to having found the flamethrower by that point. It turns Trace into a walking machine of fiery death.

My biggest frustration, though? The story. It’s a fairly forgettable sci-fi romp, which isn’t unusual in gaming, but it’s frustrating because it feels like it’s trying to be more and has so much missed potential. It hints at some rather deep, philosophical themes, but a confusing, poorly-told plot means they never quite reach the surface. The setup had me ready for something quite thought-provoking, while the rest of the story just left me scratching my head.

When you take into account that the whole game – art, story, music, design, programming, everything – is the work of a single person, problems like these become a bit more forgivable, though. You can’t be a master of everything, and Tom Happ has cleared mastered the exploration element, level design, and sense of progression – the most fundamental parts of a Metroidvania



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