A strange, alien world. Dozens of weapons, items and abilities. A huge, sprawling map, full of secrets and hidden sections. The constant need to go back with your newfound powers to access previously unreachable areas. If you were to read this description two decades ago, you’d think ‘Metroid’, and with good reason: Axiom Verge is Metroid in all but protagonist and name.
With that, you might ask yourself what sets Axiom Verge apart from the many other Metroidvania (a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania) games – and the devil is in the detail, as the say. There’s plenty of the standard fare related to Metroid games, from finding new abilities to backtracking with said abilities, but it’s in how well they’re implemented that Axiom Verge sets it apart in the genre, along other things.
Let’s take a step back and talk about the setting first. Axiom Verge is a game that feels alien in every sense of the word – the creatures are weird, the structures an odd mix of mechanical and biological forms, the weapons and power-ups different. You play as Trace, a scientist who after an accident at his lab woke up in this world, and guided by the voice of one of the Rusalki, gigantic mechanoids reminiscent of HR Giger’s work, you’re set on a path to work against what seems to be the mysterious antagonist.
With the same attention to detail that went into the gameplay and abilities, these alien life-forms are appropriately weird: from their mannerisms and personalities to how some of them have broken English, proof of their alien-ness. You’re vaguely guided by one of these Rusalki, Elsenova, into helping her rehabilitate the other Rusalki and ultimately stop the common threat to you, Athetos. At no point is the story and meaning of what is going on crystal-clear, and this sense of mystery is something that the game intentionally embraces; even the notes you find in the game, some of them being in a language that you must first learn how to translate, give only vague notions of the planet’s history and of these giant, mechanical creatures.
In terms of gameplay, Axiom Verge doesn’t stray much from its inspiration, though the times it does it introduces elements that are interesting and, as far as my experience goes with Metroidvanias, foreign to the genre: early on you’ll get the Address Disruptor, a tool that not only allows you to glitch hidden objects into (or out of) existence, but to glitch enemies into (usually weaker) variations of what they were. Another interesting addition is the droid launcher, which allows you to deploy a small, spider-like droid that can explore smaller crevices and reach new areas. These tools, along with others you find, have plenty of upgrades – some of them specific, like an ability that allows you to swap places with your droid; and others not, such as health upgrades, projectile size increase and more damage.
More isn’t, however, necessarily better. What Axiom Verge does right by introducing variety in weapons and abilities, it does wrong by diluting their importance in giving you access to over a dozen weapons, some of questionable use and practicality, and an excess of upgrades to your health and damage. The buzz you get from discovering something new starts to get diluted towards the end of the game, where you’re more often than not adding a weapon that you’ll likely never use to your arsenal instead of something interesting and different, and lowering the amount of weapons and powerups by a notch could’ve kept a steadier sense of discovery throughout Axiom Verge.
The gameplay itself is, for the most part, tight and responsive: platforming is never too difficult, and none of the bosses you face are that hard to defeat, to the point that completing the game with no more than one death, even on your first playthrough, is entirely feasible. One thing that I’d be remiss not to mention is the lack of a better input button for Trace’s dash: you activate it by pressing twice in a direction with your d-pad or analog stick, which is a pain to do when you’re mid-air or need a quick response. Being something frequently used, I found myself complaining often about it in the twelve or so hours I took to beat the game.
For those of the completionist sort, Axiom Verge offers plenty to do: beyond the regular difficulty you have a ‘hard’ mode, where enemy life and damage is increased, and a speed-run module that allows you to see how long you take to beat the game. Discovering the entire map and its secrets and getting all of the power-ups and weapons is no mean feat by itself, either, and could easily take you over twenty hours to do once if unaided by outside material. Some of the particularly difficult secrets and puzzles require clever use of the Address Disruptor, and the game fortunately provides you with indicators that tell you whether you’ve 100%’d each area or there’s still more to find.
And last but certainly not least, my favorite aspect of the game: the soundtrack. Perhaps better than the pixel-art and backgrounds, the soundtrack conveys the alien and weird feeling perfectly, and each of its regions has much of an audio identity as it does a visual one.
Axiom Verge isn’t just a Metroid game, it’s the best Metroid game I’ve played since Metroid Prime – something I don’t say lightly, considering the first Prime game is one of my favorite games in general. It may be old-school, and it may not add a whole lot to the genre, but what it does add is fantastic, and what it repeats has a level of polish that few other games can boast of – and most mysterious of all is that it was designed, programmed and composed by a single person.