Platforms: PS4 (March 31st), PC and Vita versions coming in the months after.
A review copy of this game was provided free of charge by the developer and played on PS4. This review will be spoiler free, showing only images of things already “spoiled” by official sources. I strongly recommend avoiding spoilers. For players who have already played, I will be putting out a spoilerific guide on launch day.
It’s an unfortunately common reaction to look at the first screens of Axiom Verge and think, “yeah, that’s a Metroid clone”. But while the inspiration is quite heavy and quite shamelessly apparent, it’s a big mistake to dismiss Axiom Verge as a mere clone. Digging under the surface, Axiom Verge does it’s Metroid roots proud emerging with it’s own identity and simply of the finest Metroidvania games there is. Yes, I’m including Super and SoTN in that.
This is what it’s all about. I’ll admit when I played the first few areas of Axiom Verge I had a great time but I kept seeing signposts of pretty standard traversal mechanics–get a new jump to let you go more up, get a new gun to help you open doors. Early on you get your drill and your Glitch Gun and everything seems pretty straightforward–in fact, a lot of the gameplay progression feels like a deliberate call back to Metroid’s way of doing things, down to the “go to the left to get your first power up”.
But before long Axiom Verge starts to subvert the expectations you’re likely to have. You’ll find there are very few cases where doors require specific guns to unlock, you won’t be comparing colors of doors to your latest gear. Instead Axiom Verge quickly starts tossing unique mechanics like the Glitch Gun. Instead of opening colored locks there are a variety of creative solutions to roadblocks, such as “glitching” enemies to take advantage of their erratic behavior.
That magical moment where the impossible becomes possible is essential to a proper Metroidvania. When you see a room that’s just impossible, that just clearly doesn’t have anything of importance in it, or when you just find something hidden in plain sight. Axiom Verge has many of these, and will have you rethinking prior rooms and limitations as you go on. Traversal by the end of the game is a fast, very fun affair with few, but well understood limits.
As mentioned, exploration isn’t just about guns–and there’s something amazingly liberating about this separation of guns from tools. For the most part you are simply free to use guns because you like them. Guns are also liberally given as rewards for exploration, as are upgrades that apply to all (or at least most) weapons, such as extra damage, range or bullet size.
This is one of the areas where I feel Axiom Verge has really improved over Metroid itself. Being honest, Samus’ gear is a bit boring–missiles, super missiles, power beam, bomb, power bomb, some sort of morph ball jump. That’s about half of Samus’ armory from any given Metroid game, and while they’re tried and true, the feeling of getting a new gun in Axiom Verge is really exciting and it’s something Metroid really doesn’t replicate. Getting a whole new gun for exploring really makes an extra 5 missiles seem like a pretty lame reward in comparison. Powering up your guns over time also greatly adds to the feeling of power.
Like any Metroidvania, there is a set path the player is intended to take, but there is liberal room for exploration at any given point. There will occasionally be (temporary) one-way passages to funnel the player or force them to learn a new trick, but for the most part you are free to explore and the map is designed so that, after a certain point, backtracking is far easier. For the most part simply exploring and filling out the map will eventually point you in the right direction, limiting the amount of time you can spend being lost trying to progress the story.
Optional objectives can be a bit trickier, but there are always hints to guide you the right way. There are false walls, unmarked sections of the map and things like that; I admit to doing some of the classic Metroid “shoot all the walls” stuff while searching for 100%, but this was (mostly) misguided. The map is helpful but refuses to give many spoilers–a small indicator tells you when the map is 100% complete or all items in the area are collected, but there’s no Metroid Fusion style “you missed an item in this room!” icon.
In Axiom Verge, the tile-based nature of the graphics are used expertly to create little hints for the player than hey–doesn’t that ceiling look a bit odd? Where did that enemy go for that split second? Is there something in this? Pay close attention to your surroundings and keep your abilities in mind and you will find a great deal of the secrets in the game. That said, this is not an easy game to 100%–As of writing this I am stuck on 98%, much to my agony.
Axiom Verge has a clear existentialist vibe to it from very early on, something which it carries on throughout the whole game. As you might expect, there are a lot of loose ends left untied by the end of it all, but the mystery of the story befits the game and gameplay quite well. It’s not a story-first game, but it is a quite interesting story and pulls some very surprising tricks on you as you go.
Lore and story elements are distributed through the game as collectables; I’m not usually a fan of “collect the audiologs” but in this case it ties the story of the game quite nicely into the core of the gameplay, exploration. Notes you find vary from informative to surreal and add quite a bit of interesting information about the game’s world and characters.
Trace is also an oddly humble main character; he shows clear signs of being in over his head, and attempts to talk rather than fight when the option presents itself. Trace’s interactions with other characters can be quite interesting and the game will frequently make you think twice about any given characters’ role in the situation.
The game simply looks fantastic. It’s got the NES 4 color pallet thing going on and the extremely-tile-based look of the original Metroid, but it uses those limited tools to create an extremely cohesive and wondrous world. Right away you’ll notice how the game has the Metroid style of very limited palettes within each area. But you’ll also very quickly notice that little bits and pieces of each aesthetic “zone” breach into each other organically (or sometimes deliberately inorganically!). If you pay close attention you’ll see where tiles in one room line up with tiles in the next–a pipe here, a vine there. It creates a sense of this massive world you’re moving through instead of a series of boxes you move between.
Unlike most pixelart games, Axiom Verge takes advantage of its high res nature. No, there aren’t mismatched pixel sizes, but several special effects like distortions from explosions and heat waves make interesting little subtle twists in the low-res art that wouldn’t be possible or would be extremely ugly at “native” res. It also makes for extremely smooth parallax and movement animation, and certain sprite scaling effects aren’t quite as bad as they would be in a lower rendered resolution (but sprite scaling, as always, is not perfect).
Some of the visuals are real stunners as well. The game starts out in dreary caves much like Metroid, but there are more than a couple very beautiful surprise environments that really make the world a joy to explore. The attention to detail is quite impressive as well–until very late in my playthrough I hadn’t even noticed, but there are no “floating” platforms, as are common in platformer games. All midair platforms have clear supports, such as vines or other supports. The little touches go a long way to make Axiom Verge’s world feel cohesive and real.
The game makes heavy use of “glitch” effects that are surprisingly faithful to common glitches in NES games. If you’ve played on an NES you’ll probably recognize quite a few, though they’re all quite deliberate in the game. The glitches add to the wonder of the world and tie into the story in an interesting way. There is also a flicker reduction option if you don’t find glitches quite as fascinating as I do.
The game has a good variety of enemies, with very few enemies appearing in more than one area. There’s also very few palette swaps, though the game isn’t entirely free of them. Each enemy has simple but effective animations and there are very few repeated AI patterns.
Visually the enemies are all pretty interesting and varied. There’s a few larger enemies which evoke an immediate–“oh crap!” reaction. Bosses are especially good at this.
Fighting with the enemies is very often optional, and how you engage them will change drastically as the game goes on. You’ll probably find yourself using whatever you can to carefully clean out enemies early on but simply blasting past all but the most stoic and aggressive opponents by the end.
The three things you can do to an enemy are attack, run, or glitch. Glitching is obviously the interesting one; enemies can change size, attack pattern and or movement AI with a quick burst from a suitable Glitch Gun beam. As you play you’ll find certain enemies are far better to glitch than to fight head-on, either because it makes them far easier to kill or just far easier to dodge. It’s pretty fun just to see what the glitches do to each enemy type–sometimes the AI behavior swaps with another enemy entirely!
As far as bosses go, there’s generally a “trick” to each of them, and you might die a few times trying to figure it out. While few weapons are required to beat the game, certain weapons can be highly useful against specific bosses to let you attack while dodging their attack patterns.
Music & Sound
The music is simply fantastic (bandcamp link. Musical spoilers?). Unlike the low-fi sound effects and pixelart graphics, the music is not (strictly) chiptune, but there’s certainly some retro flair in it as well. The music is one of the things that make it so hard to believe a single person is responsible for this game. I actually made a save file in a certain late game music just to listen to the music at any time–the OST can’t come soon enough.
Each area has music extremely fitting of the “mood” of that area. A gloomy cave, an industrial future, the fantastic wilds. The boss music is very intense and pumps you up just like it should, and there’s some spine-tingling ambience in the rooms leading to bosses. The only negative thing I really have to say about the music is that it doesn’t loop in a “video gamey” way–tracks have an intro and an outro and will loop simply like they would in any music player. It’s a choice more than a flaw, but is a bit noticeable on certain tracks.
The game controls great, though it more or less uses all the buttons the Dualshock 4 has to offer. I strongly recommend a controller on PC. Controls are extremely tight and rarely feel limiting. The weapon wheel is quite great and allows selecting from a wide variety of weapons quite quickly, and two quick slots allow switching between your very most favorite guns. Control is tight and something closer to Metroid or Mega Man than to the looser Super Metroid.
Worth noting the game has fully remappable controls which is quite great, they can even be rebound mid-gameplay, and the left stick can be used as an d pad replacement or as four extra “buttons”.
The controls do make Remote Play on PS Vita slightly less than optimal, as front touch buttons are required for certain non-time-sensitive actions. The game is perfectly playable over Remote Play especially considering the ability to remap, though I would personally recommend playing on PS4 with a controller instead. The native Vita version will probably need some minor alterations to control comfortably.
Axiom Verge is a sum of fantastic parts that results in one of the best Metroidvanias I have ever played. It’s a world tied together with strong visual and auditory cohesion with ample exploration and a surprising set of traversal mechanics. It’s also a game that can leave you itching for more, which is why the Hard Mode, Speedrun Mode and optional challenge achievements (don’t die, collect <40% of gear) are quite welcome.
As a bit of an aside, they’ve declared there will be no further discounts on Axiom Verge in the first 6 months, and that any discounts will be announced months in advance. I love this, as it allows you to buy day one in confidence, much like a Nintendo game where you know the price won’t drop much, and it’ll drop months or years later if it does at all. I wish more developers would be so transparent about their sale plans.