Originally released for PlayStation 4 on March 31, 2015, Axiom Verge finally materializes on the PlayStation Vita. Thomas Happ Games’ homage to Metroidvania games of the 8 to 16-bit era made a significant impact on players upon it’s initial release. It’s ability to stir feelings of nostalgia while adding new ideas to the genre are the keys to this success.
Axiom Verge transcends the notion that it is just another indie pixel art throwback, to become a game that is capable of surpassing the heights of the series’ that so obviously inspired it.
The story of Axiom Verge puts you into the shoes of a young scientist named Trace, who dies during an experiment in an explosive lab accident. Or did he? Awakened in a “recovery egg” by an entity named Elsenova, Trace finds himself in another world entirely. This planet – called Sudra – is populated by gigantic, ominous techno-creatures known as Rusalki, who have all but fallen in a war against an invading entity, Athetos. This menace has used a device called the Breach Attractor to summon a force field around the Rusalki planet known as “The Breach,” isolating them to the surface of the planet as they slowly die. As Trace gears up to face Athetos in the final battle he will unravel the strange history of the world around him, and reveal what role he actually plays in the middle of this conflict.
The storyline strikes a well-toned (if bizarre) mix of standard science fiction tropes and philosophic ponderings. The rules of reality do not seem to apply in the world of Axiom Verge. Trace’s repeated deaths are met with recovery by way of “blood machines”. There seem to be bloodthirsty copies of him everywhere. The guidance of his robotic “saviors” seems to be kept intentionally vague. Just what is going on here?
The story is ripe with plot twists that will have you guessing at the nature of your allies and antagonist throughout its fifteen to twenty hour length. Additional hidden logs reveal even more details for anyone interested in the background lore; they provide answers and pose more questions that cast doubt on everything you will experience.
Let me just get one thing out of the way; Axiom Verge leans heavily on the Metroid side of Metroidvania. Everything about the core gameplay, music, and world aesthetics simply oozes classic Metroid. The art direction and atmosphere is eerie and lonely. The music ranges from atmospheric to adrenaline-fueled. There are a variety of weapons and power-ups scattered around a large interconnected series of maps. You will be backtracking through previous areas, finding new things you couldn’t before by utilizing new abilities obtained later in the game. If you enjoy this genre of game, welcome to a master class of tried and true game design. Make no mistake however, Axiom Verge is more than just a carbon-copy of Metroid. This game has some unique tricks up it’s sleeve that would have even Samus Aran shaking her head in disbelief.
The first thing to hit you as you play is the haunting and atmospheric soundtrack. Sounds of isolation follow you through every hallway. The chirps of an ancient technological society mix with gutteral sounds that mimic the monstrosities you will encounter. The music is wholly original while echoing the triumphant soundtracks of the past. Hints of Super Metroid abound in the cacophony of synthesized mellotron, guitar and piano. Every new area brings a new iconic piece that will stick in your mind long after you put the game down. This soundtrack will be remembered for years as a triumph of music meeting art design.
During development, creator Thomas Happ was inspired by classic action platformers of the bygone era. As such, it stands to reason that he has run into his fair share of the bugs and glitches that were so prevalent in primitive gaming experiences. Axiom Verge has opted to place these corrupted oddities at the front and center of the game, rather than ignore their original presence in it’s predecessors. The game is simply full of static, glitched tiles, and buggy textures that serve as functional gameplay elements, rather than errors.
The early game sees you armed with the “Address Disrupter,” a multi-weapon of sorts that shoots a beam that can glitch out enemies to augment their behavior, as well as fix already glitched areas of the world allowing for new paths to traverse. This mechanic is truly revolutionary, and leads to some incredibly satisfying gameplay moments as you play the game and upgrade the beam to it’s fullest potential. With it’s power enemies will become platforms for your traversal, entire walls will give way to hidden upgrades, and occasionally you will find a path to a world that is a complete glitchy mess. These areas are rendered with scan-lines and are extremely tough compared to the normal areas of the game. They always seem to house a few power-ups and some of the most relentless enemies in the game. Passwords are also used to interesting effect, letting you translate foreign tongues and find secret passages (among other things).
The character sprites and enemy designs are intricate, colorful, and incredibly diverse. Enemies range from the tiniest sentient spike ball to massive, grotesque boss creatures – and their A.I. is extremely aggressive. Enemies that burst from the ground, hide inside climbable platforms, or move in completely random patterns will constantly assail you and kill you. Even on normal difficulty I sometimes found the fast-paced ‘seek-and-destroy’ enemies to be overwhelming. That’s not to say that Axiom Verge is too hard; I never felt so out-skilled that it seemed unfair, never so out-numbered that it felt cheap. In the end quick reactions and trying new tactical approaches to the situations I encountered always landed me on top. My abilities were constantly changing as well, and halfway through the game I started to feel unstoppable.
The originality and variety in the arsenal and tools at your disposal is truly impressive. Weapons like the “Axiom Disrupter” function as a standard blaster, while later areas grant access to even stranger armaments. The “Lighting Gun” shoots an arc of live electricity that automatically locks onto the nearest enemy, “Shards” can freeze the local air moisture to propel ice shards as a projectile, and the “Tethered Charge” is a giant energy yo-yo. These are just some of the varied methods to dispose of the many enemies Athetos has loosed upon this world. Each weapon is appropriately over-the-top in design. Every weapon is viable, every weapon is optional. I was never forced to use a specific weapon, but many times I was rewarded for switching up my attack style. This kept my eyes peeled for enemies that seemed affected by certain weapons more than others, so that when I found them I could simply adapt my play style accordingly.
Your means of traversal also change as Axiom Verge progresses. It doesn’t take long to add a drill to your abilities; meaning certain blocks can be burrowed through. Then comes a high jump, so all those just out of reach platforms you’ve been encountering are now accessible. Add a drone, a grappling hook, and a lab coat that lets you teleport through solid walls, and you are soon moving through every environmental layout with relative ease and finding an abundance of hidden areas. Power-ups for your health, weapon range, and power are littered around every corner for those who learn how to cleverly combine the move-set they are provided. Add in a Zelda-style health and power container system (collecting five of one power-up grants you a boost in overall health or weapon power), and you have a game that is full to the brim with collectibles and reasons to explore.
The game runs and plays smoothly on Vita, until you start to use many skills in rapid succession or a lot of action is going on at once. Rather than exhibiting some slowdown as one might expect, the game simply hangs up and freezes for up to three seconds. This was incredibly jarring, and – given that many of the game’s most hectic moments were boss fights – lead to me getting hit, or messing up a sensitive jump. These issues got less jarring the longer I played, but remained annoying and unfortunately never went away. Also new to the Vita port are longer load times upon death, and when moving between chambers. These load times weren’t extreme, but they were definitely noticeable when compared to the PlayStation 4 version from last year.
On PlayStation 4, Axiom Verge used every trigger, bumper and button on the DualShock 4 controller. Some compromises have been made to accommodate this control scheme on the Vita. The four corners of the front touchscreen have mappings for your Address Disruptor beam, Disruptor Bombs, and toggles for two of your favorite weapons. These choices seem odd at first, but with extended play become second nature – and are the obvious choices for remapping the comprehensive controls of the console version. I did find the binding of the weapon selection wheel to the left stick to be unavoidable, but the choice still lead to me bumping it when I least expected it; causing mild annoyance and a few botched shots and jumps.
Axiom Verge is a superb example of a fully realized artistic vision. The design of the world, the creatures that inhabit it, and the immersive soundtrack combine to create a masterpiece of retro game design. The strange story of science gone sideways compels you through a world of questions and doubt. The Vita version has it’s flaws, but the sum of it’s parts is something truly special – and an excellent example of how to make a retro-style game without overly relying on nostalgia. Axiom Verge is more than a love letter to Metroid, it’s the new standard by which Metroidvania games will be judged for years to come.