Tom Happ has been a busy man. For five years he has used his spare time to present us with Axiom Verge, a 2D shooter/adventure hybrid in the vein of Nintendo’s Metroid games. And boy, am I pleased that he did.
A labour of love for Tom, it’s perhaps this passion that has led him to create a game where the art, music and game design are so symbiotic thats it’s hard to imagine it done any other way.
Playing as a scientist named Trace, you begin Axiom Verge by awakening in an alien world full of intrigue after dying in an unfortunate accident. Confused by the whole situation, you begin to explore your strange surroundings in the hope of unravelling the mystery of your current predicament. It isn’t long until you meet a sentient benefactor, Elsenova, who informs you that you are in a place called Sudra. Currently under the influence of a Pathogen created by an evil entity known as Athetos, Sudra has become a hostile environment filled with a whole host of territorial creatures, but Trace agrees to help to try and save what they once called home.
Anyone that has played a 2D Metroid or IGA period Castlevania title will feel right at home with Axiom Verge’s gameplay. You navigate your way around the game world’s distinct locales, dispatching foes whilst locating your next objective, whether that be defeating a gargantuan boss or releasing drones to aid the mysterious Rusalki. As you progress further into your adventure, you will find many upgrades to both your arsenal and Trace himself that enable to you access areas that were previously off limits. There are, for example, numerous lab coats that allow you to warp through obstacles, a remote drone, and a grappling hook to climb to higher ground. Finding these makes you feel like a kid at Christmas; you’ll be eager to go the areas you’ve previously explored to try out your new toys to find yet more power ups and collectibles.
Starting out with your trusty Axiom Disruptor, there’s a large armoury of weapons to find that all have unique characteristics. Ranging from the self-explanatory Lightning Gun all the way to the shotgun-like Kilver, each weapon comes into its own when facing the inhabitants of Sudra, and you’ll be switching between them regularly to make the best use of their nuances. Of particular note is the imaginative Address Disruptor that can be used both as a tool and a weapon. Basically a gun that can create or resolve glitches, focusing it on your enemies alters their appearance and behaviour – often making them easier to kill. Alternatively, you can also use it on selected parts of the environment to create platforms or clear glitches that are blocking your progress.
With its retro 16-bit graphics, Axiom Verge’s biggest hurdle for many will be its pixelated visuals. There will no doubt be a legion of Playstation 4 owners crying “it’s an indie game, I didn’t buy a PS4 for this”, and yes, the title is hardly flexing the console’s muscles, but it looks nice in its own charming way. Environment and enemy designs are varied and foreboding, exactly what I would wish for in a bizarre alien world – and the game’s grotesque bosses are particularly detailed. Visually, the highlights for me though are the game’s Rusalki: their haunting, disembodied bio-mechanical heads look very HR Giger-inspired, and visiting them on my travels always left me with a sense of awe.
Special mention must be made of the soundtrack, which aside from being great, also fits the bio-mechanical theme of the game perfectly. From the chilling ambiance of the locales to the techno urgency of the boss battles; each track is a treat for your ears and absorbs you into the game’s twisted world.
Despite its retro stylings, Axiom Verge is not a small game. My first playthrough of the title on normal difficulty took me just over eleven hours with 83% of the map explored and 56% of items discovered. Completionists will be pleased to know that you can go back and explore the map until your heart’s content after the credits have rolled. To further extend your playing time, hard difficulty and speedrun modes are also on offer, with the latter seeing the game changed somewhat to better suit the playstyle.
I’ll just come straight out and say it: I think Axiom Verge is the best Metroidvania-style title since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. From stage to audio design, everything is so coherent and exquisitely crafted that it’s incredible to think that it was made by one solitary man in his spare time. If I was going to be nit-picky, I could say that it maybe sometimes leaves you without enough direction – but I would really be doing this game a disservice by doing so; exploring this game’s rich environments for goodies and your next point of progression is generally a delight and rarely frustrates. Anyone with a PlayStation 4 and a penchant for 2D action/adventure games should add this to their library pronto.