Forget the sleeve; Axiom Verge wears its influences on whatever the sartorial equivalent is of a flashing neon sign. It’s obvious to the point of groaning derision. But the important (and amazingly emergent) thing is that it is not those games. Everything that it blends in, leaves out, and concocts all on its own make it a familiar and fresh surprise and wholeheartedly worth your time.
Just one glance, and you can tell: this game wants so desperately to be Metroid. Axiom Verge is a pixel art-inspired side-scrolling action platformer that lifts almost entire portions of Metroid‘s design docs from its room-to-room tunnel doors, its backtracking patterns, and weapon-enhanced traversal bits.
It’s easy to just look at the game and make the comparison. In fact, it feels like the game would prefer you do that immediately and aggressively. It sets up such a delicious and meta twist for your expectations. For how much you think you know the game will work, it doesn’t do that, and instead often does something far more interesting.
That bait-and-switch is actually what merits the most discussion. The story is rather thin, serving up a hapless scientist named Trace to an alien dimension and robot thing seeking aid, and it doesn’t really go anywhere you couldn’t guess. It serves mostly as a framework with which to best emulate its influences structures of exploration and continuous integration of new gadgetry.
Make no mistake, though, because this game also handles well. But you can also very well guess how it handles. It is tight, moving you around the world just the way you’d want it to. From jumping over walls of projectiles and ducking under the next to swinging your way across a deadly chasm, it allows you to set an expectation for handling and it meets it perfectly.
And that is very important. It introduces some rather complex mechanics that, if handled in a less deft manner, would be annoying at best and deadly otherwise. But these mechanics are exactly what comes up in that facet of pleasant surprise.
For example, early on, you encounter plenty of little half-height tunnels and holes that, if you have any amount of Metroid knowledge in your bones, would suggest you would tuck up into a ball and roll on through.
Not even close. You instead do something that can further extend into smooth but incredibly advanced vertical navigation. You even spend most of the game in denial that there isn’t a double jump on your plate, one of the basest components to a video game. It’s like a car says no thank you to the windshield.
It’s that fundamental but the game not only works around it but introduces its own, far more engaging solutions across a myriad of solutions. And this is all while you are figuring out and encountering your new arsenal. Each one is distinct and falls into its own optimal predicament for utility, allowing you to not engender yourself to a single set of guns and instead pushes you towards analyzing encounters instead of barreling through them.
There is one gun in particular that offers a fascinating depth. It’s the glitch gun, a firearm that is less of a confrontational item and more of a transformative one. It has the ability to totally alter how enemies act against you and the environment. It can turn them into fountains of health or platforms or any other number of things that wholly change how you approach basically every situation.
The unfortunate part here is that the lowest Metroid foundation doesn’t offer a lot of horizontal expansion. The gameplay loop rarely progresses beyond what you’ll find five minutes before or after any other given moment: enter, kill, leave. And then check the map to make sure you don’t leave anything behind.
This weakness is certainly exacerbated by the rather bland and forgettable tunnels and cavernous rooms you’ll find yourself in. Nothing is particularly memorable, sure, but also nothing is especially demanding in terms of the landscape. They will necessitate new armaments to progress, but that is a progress gate. It’s not about your ability to platform.
The world you find yourself in also fails to convey anything beyond “this is alien,” which comes back around on the weak story. Not only is the plot not especially engaging but it also is told mostly through exposition dumps because the world itself fails to tell you anything meaningful.
It doesn’t fail, however, to provide a canvas for intriguing and engaging gameplay. The boss battles especially force you to pull your gaming muscles taut just to survive. They can occasionally devolve into bullet hell dodging, but they always put you in unique predicaments.
Truly, Axiom Verge is something worth going beyond its surface valuation. Even its graphics, wonderfully retro-inspired as they are, surprise you as they pop with flourish and then turn into mechanical elements. It may look like a simple clone of a classic formula, but with or without that in mind, Axiom Verge pushes through to be quite the gem on its own.
+ Moves capably and deftly, just as you’d expect and want it to
+ Surprises you with plenty of variety and utility in its weaponry
+ Often provides delightfully demanding cases for combat and traversal
– A story that barely constitutes a story, even in its extensive exposition
– Gameplay loop doesn’t progress or evolve
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Axiom Verge
Release: March 31, 2015
Genre: 2D action platformer
Developer: Tom Happ Games
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita