Axiom Verge, at its core, is a tribute. It’s a tribute by a hardcore fan who loved what’s been dubbed the Metroidvania style of game. The man who created it is Thomas Happ, whose history as a developer didn’t truly shine until Axiom Verge’s conception, the sole developer of the art, music, and game design. The project started in March 2010 and didn’t see release until five years later.
Happ had worked with the Metroid formula before, creating a fan game called Orn. Orn used the Metroid Zero Mission rom on the GBA as its base and played around with the game’s mechanics a bit. It also revolved around a non-humanoid character Hydra, who was less of a heroic hunter and more like a survivor on the run. This use of story would later inspire some of the themes in Axiom Verge.
Axiom Verge, by comparison, is very much a Metroid tribute. It uses the same map system, same camera, and same level progression by having a sprawling map with bits and pieces becoming available as more abilities and items are found. Bosses are huge and alien. The environment oozes isolation, just like Super Metroid. While the story is filled with questions of identity, just like the entirety of the Metroid series.
However, its the execution of this style of game is what makes Axiom Verge so special. It’s a game that takes the mechanics of the beloved series of Metroid, tosses in a few elements from Contra and Bionic Commando, and uses them to tell a unique story in a game that does just about everything right.
Axiom Verge has players become Trace, a scientist who suffers from an accident at his lab that results in a violent explosion. He then wakes up in a strange place filled with cybernetic monsters and organic aliens. Early on, a voice guides him, asking for help. Trace finds the source of this voice as Elsenova, a giant feminine face that speaks to him throughout the game as his only friend. Elsenova is an abandoned Rusalki, a sentient war machine in this alien world. During the events of Axiom Verge, Trace meets several Rusalki, slowly adopting the technology around him into his own body.
Plot wise, Axiom Verge is presented simply with dialogue through text and basic scenes of images. However, the depth of the lore that can be found in between the lines is astounding. Various texts can be picked up in the game, usually in areas that require mastery of Trace’s arsenal, which give clues to points of the story. Some of these documents are in another language, but that language can be decoded with a cheat code system. These cheat codes can also be found strewn about, unlocking that particular language. Axiom Verge has a deep plot that’s immersive and fun to discover through the tried and true Metroid-style gameplay.
Axiom Verge will feel incredibly familiar to those who have played any Metroid game or the RPG-infused Castlevania games like Symphony of the Night. The focus is put into exploration, slowly uncovering the sprawling map by gaining abilities, weapons, and items. Players will utilize several shot patterns that each have their own use from the basic pew-pew laser to a lightning shotgun. Each weapon is useful in several ways, and certain enemies are easier to dispatch with certain weapons. There are several to find throughout the game and some are even optional and tucked away deeper than most items.
Other than weapons, Trace will acquire many abilities like being able to phase through singular walls or jump higher. I found myself seeing situations and thinking of the solution in Metroid terms during my playthrough. For instance, when confronted by a small gap, I was anticipating the ability to shrink down like Samus does with her Morph Ball form. However, Axiom Verge lets veteran players assume this and counteracts the norm in its own ways. Trace gets a drone that he can toss out, which is small enough to fit in these gaps. These segments require a bit of stealth as the drone is much weaker with a short range weapon. Trace can also toss the drone a ways to reach areas just out of reach. It was fun to see a different solution to a problem I thought I knew the answer to and there are many instances of that in Axiom Verge.
Players will also be able to increase their health and damage output during the game in typical fashion. There are even fragmented pieces, so collecting so many grants an upgrade similar to the Legend of Zelda. This ensures that the longer the player plays, the stronger their character inherently becomes and also rewards searching out side paths to find these upgrades.
These items will be needed to take down the game’s bosses and enemies. Unlike most Metroid bosses, I found the majority of foes in Axiom Verge to be much easier. Sure their designs, habitual calling of the hero a demon, and attacks are impressive and represented well in the game’s art style. However, the solution to defeating these monsters is usually finding the right weapon, standing in one place, and mashing the fire button. During one boss fight, I literally stood at the room entrance spamming a particle gun at a scorpion, dodging his attacks every few minutes. What resulted was a drawn out test of endurance more than anything else.
Even though these bosses didn’t provide much a challenge, it didn’t change the fact that Axiom Verge is a game that’s easy to lose time to. I always said to myself, “Oh, just until I get to the next save point.” Of course, three hours later I found myself still as immersed as the first time I turned it on. As of writing this review, I feel like I’m nearing the game’s end, after easily spending eight or so hours with Trace and Elsenova and I’ve loved every second of it.
The world of Axiom Verge is familiar enough to warrant a warm welcome, but the setting, characters, and execution of its mechanics makes it incredibly immersive.
Once I finished the game, there is still much that needs to be done with Axiom Verge. There is a speedrun mode available at the start, giving an on screen timer and a few other features for this style of play. Plus there is more lore to piece together and cheat codes I want to try out. This game takes me back to going through Metroid Fusion on the Gameboy Advance all those years ago, going through the whole game over and over and never getting bored. That’s what makes the Vita version work so well.
This review is based entirely on the Vita version, which if you’ve already bought the PS4 version you will already own due to Cross Buy. Axiom Verge is the perfect game to take on the go, especially since the Vita has a sleep function, putting a bookmark wherever you happen to be upon quitting. It doesn’t take a lot of time to get back into due to its simple, familiar mechanics and it plays great control-wise on the handheld device.
There were a few problems on the technical side though, that I imagine are absent on the Steam and PS4 versions. Axiom Verge on the Vita suffers from longer load times starting up and between deaths, meaning you’ll feel yourself frown at these black screens quite a bit. There were also times when the game slowed down due to either too much happening or changing between zones. I will say though, that these blemishes are minor compared to the quality of the game as a whole.
All in all, Axiom Verge is a game I can honestly recommend, whether you’re a fan of Metroidvania games or just in for a solid retro-inspired experience. The Science Fiction story is akin to that found in System Shock, so anyone into existentialism or aliens will have a great time uncovering all of the secrets hiding beneath the game’s simple presentation. The game is also a bargain due to Cross Buy for those playing on the PS4 and Vita. There’s a lot to enjoy in this one and being that it was made as a labor of love from one, persistent game developer makes it that much more impressive. Read Thomas Happ’s story on the development of Axiom Verge on the Playstation Blog.
Axiom Verge is an interesting tribute to the classics of video games that will, without a doubt, stand among those greats as a classic itself.