Indie developer Tom Happ has been hard at work on the exploration-fueled, action-platformer Axiom Verge for nearly five years now, drawing inspiration from classics like Metroid and Castlevania. All of that work will soon come to fruition when Axiom Verge launches on PlayStation 4, Vita, and PC in Spring 2015. In the meantime, I had the chance to go hands-on with a demo version of the game, showcasing the story intro, two of the nine areas in the game, a boss battle, and more. It was just a small taste of the full adventure, but it was more than enough to leave me craving more.
Axiom Verge begins with a cutscene that feels right out of the Super Nintendo era. The retro-style visuals are surprisingly detailed, and they combine with a compelling soundtrack that instantly had me engrossed. The story opens in a lab in New Mexico in 2005 where a scientist named Trace is conducting an experiment. "Start the pulse now. If only it would work this time..." he mutters. However, things don't go as planned, and an explosion leaves Trace believing he has breathed his last. Instead, Trace wakes up an unknown (and presumably alien) world where a mysterious voice urges him desperately to find a weapon. "You must go, now! Before he finds you..."
While Axiom Verge is very much a gameplay-driven experience, these short and simple infusions of plot are just enough to pique the interest and give the game an air of compelling mystery. As soon as you locate your first weapon, the screen lights up to reveal a detailed background, and an up-tempo, yet eerie tune (which quickly became stuck in my head) kicks in. It begins.
The gameplay of Axiom Verge is "Metroidvania" done right. The controls are simple, intuitive, and responsive, and the level design is very solid. Exploration fuels the experience, as you battle your way through tunnels and caves in all directions (the atmosphere is quite reminiscent of Super Metroid's Zebes) trying to find out where you are. Many paths are initially blocked off, but the game world opens up as you collect new items and weapons.
A diverse arsenal of weapons and items is where Axiom Verge gets to show off some creativity. The demo (which I'm told represents about 5% of the game) has three weapons and one item, as well as four upgrades. The Axiom Disrupter is your basic blaster, but all of the other weapons have a little more utility.
The Nova shoots off a like a regular blast, but tapping the fire button a second time causes it to explode mid-air. This is useful both for sniping far-away enemies that are just above or below your line of fire and for hitting out-of-reach switches to disarm barriers and open up new paths. The Laser Drill can put quite a dent in enemies, and it's also used to tear through walls. Finally, the Kilver fires a short-range but powerful burst of electricity that can go right through barriers to activate switches. The game does a good job of instantly familiarizing you with how to use its weapons and items by placing obstacles nearby that utilize their special functions. The final game will have over 40 weapons and items, so there's lots of potential for creativity in level design and puzzle solving.
Most of the paths in the demo are available for exploration once you've acquired all of the weapons and items, but a few are blocked off by discolored, glitch-like barriers. Most of these simply impede your progress, but one particular blue barrier (which reminded me of Metroid Prime's deadly Phazon radiation) actually damages you if you touch it. Another room has platforms that seem to phase in and out of existence (as if they were fluctuating between different dimensions), never appearing on the screen long enough to be scaled. I imagine a future item will open these areas up for further exploration.
I was particularly impressed by the demo's boss battle. Upon encountering the monstrous-looking mechanical creature, Trace is greeted with the words "Demon, Athetos say, kill!" Is Athetos the one you were warned about earlier? These short, text-based plot points are just enough to keep you interested in the story without getting in the way of the gameplay. The boss attacks first by shooting at you, and later by dropping bombs, and it's a little tougher than you might expect a first boss to be (it's been toughed up from earlier versions), which makes the victory all the more sweet.
I died on my first attempt (which leads to a deliciously macabre scene in which Trace is conscious of the fact that he has died and somehow returned to life) but I quickly mastered its pattern and figured out how to take it down. On subsequent playthroughs, I was able to defeat it with ease, but I still found it just as satisfying each time. The pace of the battle combined with an adrenaline-pumping tune (I really can't say enough about how positively the game's soundtrack affects the experience) had me on the edge of my seat and holding my breath even when I was skilled enough to win without taking any damage.
At the conclusion of the demo you meet the source of the mysterious voice from the beginning, but you're only left with more questions. If the idea is to build suspense, then mission accomplished! Lots of games in the past have tried to put a fresh spin on the Metroidvania formula, but none have engaged my interest like this before. An intriguing story, a compelling soundtrack, a creative inventory, and a memorable boss fight all combine to make the demo for Axiom Verge an addictive experience that oozes sci-fi from every pore.