Last November I went hands-on with a demo for indie game Axiom Verge, and I was quite impressed. The game, which developer Tom Happ created by himself over the course of the last five years, fits the "Metroidvania" style and definitely draws heavy inspiration from Super Metroid. Axiom Verge hits PlayStation 4 March 31, and will launch on Vita and PC sometime later, but is it a must-have or just another Metroid knock-off? We were supplied with a review copy, and I've been exploring every inch of the game to figure out the answer to that question.
Axiom Verge begins when an unsuccessful scientist named Trace dies in a lab accident, only to awaken in a new world. An unknown voice urges him to take the weapon in the next room over and warns him "You must go, now! Before he finds you..." With that, you're off to explore the vast, mysterious world of Sudra.
The story revolves around a longstanding conflict between primary antagonist Athetos, said to be a "Pattern Mind" capable of distorting reality with his imagination, and colossal mechanical beings from the land of Sudra. Trace is caught in the middle of this conflict and is guided by these sentient mechanical creatures (which have fallen into disrepair and need his help to function again), but he understands very little of what is happening around him.
The story is revealed to the player in two ways. A handful of cutscenes and moments of dialogue are scattered throughout the game, many of them quite dark and cryptic. As more of the truth is revealed, the reality of the situation only becomes more complex and confusing. As the tagline for the game says, " Life. Afterlife. Real. Virtual. Dream. Nightmare. It's a thin line."
The second way that the story is revealed is via a series of notes hidden throughout the world. Personal journals, scientific documents, historical accounts, and more are all scattered throughout the game for the player to find, some in different languages that need to be translated. The history of Sudra is told through the eyes of different people, and it's up to you to piece it together.
These methods of story-telling will be a mixed bag for many players. On one hand, they promote an environment of intrigue and mystery, which suits the nature of Trace's adventure quite well. Trace doesn't have to say he's confused (although there is, perhaps, a little more than a necessary amount of exposition and dialogue) because the player can feel that confusion themselves. The complex scenarios and half-truths revealed in cutscenes and the fragments of history scattered throughout the game really put the player in the shoes of Trace. You really feel like you're exploring a mythical fantasy world yourself. On the other hand, these methods may not satisfy those who want a clear-cut story to follow, as they may find it lacking in closure and certainty. Personally, the story kept me hooked and invested in the mysteries of Sudra.
The gameplay of Axiom Verge is fast-paced action-platforming fueled by exploration. Like Super Metroid, the world is largely open with many paths to explore, and new items you collect along the way can help you overcome obstacles and unlock even more paths. The game design encourages bold, aggressive exploration, because you're not harshly penalized for dying. Death results in the player re-spawning at their last save point, but any items you collected prior to death stay in your arsenal, and any rooms you discovered stay lit up on your map.
This system suits the game perfectly, as it packs quite a challenge (and losing all progress since your last save would prove quite frustrating with frequent deaths) and there is a wide variety of optional collectible weapons. Weapons found along the main path or acquired after non-optional areas like boss fights — such as a laser drill for breaking through walls or a grapple for crossing chasms — are needed to progress, but exploring side paths is heavily rewarded. Many of my favorite weapons in the game are completely optional and easily missed, which makes it extremely satisfying to explore every inch of the game thoroughly. To give you an idea of just how much content there is in this game, I beat it with an 80% item collection rate, and found I was still missing ten weapons in addition to various weapon and health upgrades.
Axiom Verge has quite a few creative and unique items and weapons that make exploration fun. Early on in the game I found myself coming across quite a few small tunnels and thinking "I really hope it doesn't just copy Morph Ball from Metroid," and I was not disappointed. Instead, you eventually collect a remotely controlled drone, which is one of my favorite items in the game. You can take control of the drone (which even has its own health bar and a weak weapon that can break through blocks and damage enemies) to explore these small tunnels, and eventually you collect an upgrade that lets you teleport Trace to the drone's location. It's a clever take on exploration that is used well, and it's also great for navigating dangerous rooms. While controlling the drone, Trace is encased in an invulnerable shield. You can cross dangerous rooms with the drone, saving Trace the damage, and then teleport to it when it's out of harm's way.
The other item that really stands out is the Address Disruptor, or "glitch gun." Firing this gun with R1 has numerous effects, including materializing platforms that appear to be glitching in and out of existence and destroying glitched out walls that block your path. As the Address Disruptor is upgraded it gains more uses, and eventually you can even collect Address Bombs which can unleash the effects on the whole room. By experimenting with the Address weapons on enemies, you can unlock all kinds of secrets. Some enemies can be frozen like platforms and scaled once you've glitched them, while others can be controlled once glitched. Figuring out what each enemy does while glitched can be used for solving puzzles and unlocking new areas of the game. Along with the drone, the Address Disruptor is one of the items that really helps Axiom Verge stand out from other Metroid-inspired games, and even Metroid itself.
A major high point of the game for me was boss fights. Each boss fight is an intense, edge-of-your-seat experience. The bosses are all enormous, intimidating monstrosities with mechanical bodies and humanoid faces (they speak with little intelligence before each battle, seemingly insane and full of bloodlust) and lots of health. Each boss has a pattern that you can pick up on pretty easily, but figuring out where to hit the boss and how to do so without taking to much damage yourself is a challenge, and as the battle wages on, they attack faster and faster, giving you less time to dodge and land your own shots. Every battle, although repetitive, is an adrenaline-fueled test of endurance, and when you finally win, you'll breathe a huge sigh of relief and feel a strong sense of accomplishment.
The fast-paced nature of the game, the intense boss fights, and the vast arsenal of optional weapons helps Axiom Verge stand out from the Metroid formula. Sure, it's Metroid-style exploration, but the combat is more run-and-gun in the same vein as Contra, and the way you can switch between weapons to accommodate different play styles or to gain the upper hand over different types of enemies gives it a touch of Mega Man as well. It's a blend of different elements that combines for a lot of fun and a lot of options.
Paying tribute to its inspiration, Axiom Verge includes a Speedrun Mode. Due to its non-linear nature, Super Metroid is one of the most popular games in the world for people to speedrun, and Axiom Verge looks to cater to that crowd. In Speedrun Mode, all cutscenes, dialogue, and randomized content is removed and a timer is added to the screen. This way, you can play straight through the game without any breaks in the gameplay, tracking your time as you go. I hope to see competitive gamers making frequent use of this feature, as there's a lot of potential for Axiom Verge in the speedrunning community.
One area where I feel there is room for improvement, especially given the exploration-heavy nature of the game, is the map. There are nine different regions to explore, and depending on the path you take you can encounter them in different orders. When scrolling through the various region maps on the main map, pressing left and right doesn't move from map to map in geographical order, but rather in the order you discovered each region. This can be a bit of a nuisance if you're trying to find secret passageways between regions, as you can't always quickly toggle between the maps of regions that are right next to each other. Additionally, unlike Metroid, no marker is placed in rooms on the map when you collect an item. This makes it harder (in an inconvenient way rather than a rewarding challenge) to achieve a 100% item completion rate.
The visuals of Axiom Verge fall somewhere between an NES and SNES style. They're not as clean and polished as many games from the 16-bit era, so they may seem a bit gritty or dated, but they are incredibly detailed and imaginative for a retro-style game. The backgrounds are far more fleshed out than in many other games in the genre, and the game world feels very much alive. Each region of the game has its own unique color scheme and style that sets it apart and gives it a different feel, which is quite an accomplishment given the immense size of the map.
A major highlight of Axiom Verge is the music. Each region has its own unique music, and they all set the tone for what's to come. The mood of the music in each new region combines wonderfully with the background, color scheme, and (where applicable) story to create a truly engrossing environment. I have never felt as immersed in a side-scrolling game as I do in Axiom Verge. The game's soundtrack is one of the most memorable that I have encountered in a long time.
The Verdict: So Much More Than A Metroid Clone
Axiom Verge may borrow heavily from the Metroid formula, but it's so much more than just another clone. Fantastic level design, engrossing atmospheres, a top-notch soundtrack, unique weapons and items, and an incredible amount of content all combine for a game that separates itself from the rest of the pack and holds its own against pioneers of the genre like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. From start to finish, I didn't want to put down my controller.