Axiom Verge Review (PS4)
FULL DISCLOSURE: WE WERE SUPPLIED WITH A COPY OF THE GAME BY THE DEVELOPER
Axiom Verge is the latest throwback styled game to draw inspiration from the greatest of 8 and 16-bit action games from the golden age of Sega versus Nintendo. It can lazily be referred to as just a Metroidvania game, but that does little justice to the intricate, thoughtfully designed world contained in this game. More than five years in the making, this one-man miracle of indie game development is more than worth experiencing and perfectly priced.
Tom Happ is the ONLY man behind Axiom Verge, a game that started life as his side project while he toiled away at EA. Over time he was slowly able to transition into a full-time role to complete the final stretch and make the release on March 31st of this year. The game was originally slated for Windows and Xbox 360, but along the line jumped generations and brands to land an exclusive PS4/Vita, but will also launch toward the end of May on Steam.
The story involves a scientist with wicked chops (!) who gets caught in a lab experiment gone wrong. He wakes to find himself in a bizarre alien world fighting to survive and understand just what the hell is going on. Along the way he will collect many, many weapons as well as additional abilities and skills that open up new areas and mysteries. He also quickly finds the inhabitants of this new world to be quite violent, but soon comes across a few mysterious giant biomechanical entities that offer assistance to their own unknown ends.
As the game progresses, the story slowly unfolds revealing the true nature of this strange world, which adds some intrigue to the exploration. The visuals are somewhere between 8 and 16-bit and 100% smooth and consistent throughout the game. A few rooms and boss areas have a zoom-out effect that shrinks the pixels on screen to reveal a much wider field of view. Another nice trick is the death of bosses which disintegrates the boss’ pixels into a neat cloud of bits.
The general style of the game again echoes Metroid, but with more of an H.R. Giger twist. Sorry, no penis monsters or wall-mounted vaginas, but all the rest of the biomechanical horror is present and wonderful. The enemies are many and quite varied, and all of the different sections of the world map have their own unique style ranging from slimy, fleshy caverns to snowy mountain tops and sleepy valley ruins.
The weapons on offer are also fresh and varied. There is an overwhelming number of them in the game, leaving each player to discover their own personal favorite combinations. The collection is managed through a weapon-wheel style selection screen, and two can be set to hot-keys for quick selection. Though none of the weapons have any power advantages over one another, the method of dealing damage does change. The main weapon is a simple medium rate pellet rifle, but others include a short range lightning blast, a remote detonating energy ball, and even a neat Ghostbuster-like lightning stream.
Each weapon has its advantages and limits, leading the choice of the right gun to be dependent on the type or location of an enemy, more than just the typical biggest damage model. The enemies and bosses are unique and only a few really borrow much from other games in terms of style and attack patterns, and each has a unique method of attack. The bosses were overall a little disappointing as they never displayed any patterns or attacks that took any time to observe and strategize against. The only boss to require more than one attempt was the final one, which itself felt like no more than a lesson in how to tank as they do in MMOs…
The music on the other hand was thoroughly impressive. Another aspect of the game handled entirely by its sole developer, the music is fully electronic and ranges from dramatic drum and bass to more atmospheric cinematic fare. Each unique area of the world has its own theme song which sometimes even syncs up with animated objects in the background itself as well as the critical health warning. This is one soundtrack that could be worth the additional purchase. I think my first full run through of the game took a massive/embarrassing 18 hours… but there is a trophy for completing it in less than 4! So that’s possible… There’s a code entry screen that eventually unlocks which accepts just a handful of codes that I’ve seen so far. A couple of them are found in the game that translate some of the alien text found in the game, but one of my most memorable signature moments in the game came from this singular feature.
Being that this game was so deeply inspired by Metroid, I had to test the historic Justin Bailey code from the original Metroid itself. In this case, I wasn’t presented with a maxed-out, bikini-clad Samus Aran, but instead found my scientist in more of a Risky Business Tom Cruise undies and shirt… Quite the spice for such a serious game!
My only gripe with the game beyond the snooze fest boss battles was the lack of direction of where to go next or what to do when I got there. This is a typical design element in classic exploration games like Zelda and Metroid, but in 2015 it’s a tough, hard pill to swallow. I would have preferred at least a hint of what area I should be in, or even better; a way to mark the map to remind me where I found a dead end. There are so many cliché “can’t jump high enough” or “can’t open that door yet” map elements that they single handedly explain my Odyssean timestamp…
In the end, Axiom Verge is worth every penny of the entry price and shall henceforth be the pinnacle of 8-bit Metroidvania gameplay; an epic representation of one man’s dedication and diverse skill set – something that resonates very personally with me.
Thank you Tom Happ, and Max (may he rest in peace).
A superb example of what a Metroidvania game truly is; Axiom Verge is a near perfect expression of what developers had in mind in the 80's and 90's when they were building games like Metroid and Blaster Master. The music is infectious, the gameplay smooth and consistent, the weapons plentiful, and the story a sci-fi whodunit. Highly recommended to anyone that appreciates a straightforward throwback to simpler times.