There's no denying the influence of the Metroid series on video games. An entire generation of game developers have grown up on this formula and it's become evident in a lot of game design over the past decade. Arguably, no game has taken greater inspiration from the Metroid games than Axiom Verge. This adventure (designed in all aspects solely by creator Thomas Happ) borrows just about everything from the Metroid games: the look, the formula, the mechanics. But there's another element of the Metroid games that's here, too. That's the fun and it's here in spades, thanks to a focus on unique weaponry and exploration.
A Waking Nightmare
Axiom Verge begins with a lab accident, one that lands a scientist named Trace in a completely alien landscape called Breach that operates on glitches. He soon finds a weapon that bonds to his arm, one that helps him ward off the hostile creatures that are at every turn. He discovers an alien race of inert mechanical heads called the Rusalki, who beckon him to defeat a demonic menace called Athetos.
Axiom Verge's story is definitely its weakest aspect, offering a mostly by-the-numbers alien tale. The dialogue can border on silly and the characters aren't particularly interesting. The writing does improve some as the game progresses, including an instance where a boss battle gets completely turned on its head. The writing, however, is about where Axiom Verge's weaknesses end.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Axiom Verge's 2D run-and-gun combat is superb. Shooting is instinctively easy, with spot-on hit detection and a strong variety of weaponry and gadgets. For the early minutes of the game, it's a solidly-constructed Metroidvania, albeit one that does not offer much in terms of a new experience. But after a couple of hours, that gradually starts to change.
Soon enough, Axiom Verge's focus begins shifting towards the idea of a world filled with glitches. The Address Disruptor allows Trace to create new platforms from glitchy fields, corrupt enemies into completely different matter types, and even breach walls into hidden areas. This is where the game starts to craft its own identity, adding in a different kind of exploration element. While the normal Metroidvania works well here, it truly excels when trying to navigate around the world's strange physics by creating something from nothing with the Address Disruptor.
And just like any good game in this genre, the joy is in exploration. Axiom Verge continues adding new ways to explore the game's world by sprinkling in jump upgrades, mini drones, and the ability to teleport. It does a great job in encouraging users to play around with all of their toys to find their next destination. Of course, there are no obvious indicators of where to go next and there's no way to mark off the rooms that have already explored, which can be frustrating when getting lost. It's the nature of the beast, for better or worse, but it would have been nice to have at least some indicator of where to go next after running along the same hamster wheel for hours at a time.
But after finding the right path in Axiom Verge, it hits all the right notes. In particular, boss battles are amazingly designed with some massive monstrosities. Some of them require experimenting with Trace's weapons or simply exercising common sense platforming mechanics, but they're all designed well with some major doozies thrown in for Metroidvania veterans. Even with a lion's share of the world's health pickups, the later bosses provide a satisfying challenge.
Without a Trace
Axiom Verge is everything that I've loved about the Metroidvania genre, while also adding in ideas that I've never seen before. Weaponry is fun to play around with and even though some of them are not essential to completing the game, they all serve a distinct use for certain situations. Exploration is wonderful, blending in classic methods, as well as some interesting new ideas, such as a massive disembodied mechanical head that rides Trace around.
Even though the story starts to pick up a bit with some interesting plot twists, including one that's clever woven into one of the boss battles, I still found it to be something of a weak point. However, it's easy to skirt around this part of the game by going into the Speedrun mode, a much-appreciated addition that focuses purely on the game itself and cuts out all of the fat.
Axiom Verge does a phenomenal job of not only paying homage to some of the greatest games of the past, but also of crafting its own identity in the process. It doesn't just pay respects to the greats. It deserves its own place alongside them.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 review vode provided by the publisher. Axiom Verge is available now on the PlayStation Store for $19.99 and is coming soon to PC and PlayStation Vita. The game is rated T.