It has become a trend for popular indie games to be inspired by something. Shovel Knight is clearly inspired by Ducktales, Freedom Planet by Sonic the Hedgehog, Pillars of Eternity by Baldur’s Gate and so on. Usually when making these titles, the developers look at either a specific genre or the pillar of a series. However, Tom Happ took a different turn when creating his project. Instead of taking inspirations from Super Metroid or the entries for the GBA, he took notes from the original Metroid. This is an interesting idea: starting from the original blueprints in order to create something unique. While it leads to some strange design-choices, it worked out quite well for Axiom Verge.
“Trace” the truth
After an experiment going haywire, you find yourself trapped in an unknown world as the playable character Trace. With only a voice as a guide, you have to find out what is going on and get out of this place. This is where I want to stop with the introduction, as Axiom Verge has plenty of lore and insights for the player to discover in order to piece the story together. The game is very secretive on what is going on and wants you to ask questions, exemplified already by how the only person Trace trusts, is a disembodied head. This wonderfully works to create an uncomfortable and lonely atmosphere. You are a normal human being who does not have any connection to this world, yet are striving for information in order to understand it.
The name of the character also exemplifies that you must search for more info. While I often hate when a game thrives on narration through only exploration and discoveries, Axiom Verge does this to a great extent. It makes the overall plot about simply getting home and creates an uneasy atmosphere thanks to this world you are in, while leaving the secrets of this place hidden for those who want to learn more. Quite similar to Silent Hill or Dark Souls in many ways: you have a main objective, but tons of lore to elaborate on what is actually going on.
What is unfortunate then, is how the story decides to elaborate on why the explosion happened and what occurred beforehand in the last portion of the game. This is a big contrast to how the story was told throughout, where the player needed to piece together the info they got to see the bigger picture. Why Axiom Verge then suddenly decides to tell almost the entire backstory in one scene, is a bizarre and confusing choice to me. Despite this issue, you are still uncovering plenty of mysteries that seems to be hard to grasp at first and leaves a lot to be interpreted, which I do admire. It is easy to see this title become an interesting conversation topic between gamers over a cup of coffee. Having some optional reading materials is always great for creating fascinating theories, and this is what Axiom Verge is great at. I just wish it was so to the very end.
Story Score: 7/10
One man’s Metroid
Axiom Verge is based on the original Metroid, and it clearly shows. In this side-scrolling exploration game, upgrades for health and damage output are found through discoveries, enemies are only obstacles that might leave health pickups, and your Axiom Disruptor will be your best friend. This gun with a weird name is the only one you will get in the entire game, and it is amazing. You will acquire different types of shots for it, and they range between a spread-bomb, lasers, an electric shotgun, ricocheting shots, a flamethrower and plenty more. All can be switched out from a simple menu, giving you easy access to plenty of exciting firearms to play with.
What is brilliant about this weapon, is that it is not just used for the different encounters you will take on, but also for progression in general. While you can use the shotgun for killing smaller enemies faster, you can also hit switches through walls with it. The drill is great for stunning creatures, but also for destroying rocks in your way. Not all have similar varied uses, but all will be important assets for fighting off the fiends in this place, and they come in a huge variety. Small flying buggers that come in a flock, incarnated human beings charging at you, and nests that pulsates out bizarre monsters, are just a few examples of the dangerous threat for you to overcome.
Exploration will be an important aspect of this non-linear title, but one of the key features Axiom Verge provides, is the ability to manipulate parts of this world. Later on, you will get abilities like glitching through walls, transforming enemies into pixelated mush, and altering some environmental parts. This is further creatively explored upon with more ways for progression, such as manipulating harmful floating sponges into elevating platform. All of these are wonderful tools for helping out with the exploration and progression in creative ways, despite that I wish there were even more uses for these abilities. There will be plenty of other gadgets as well to find, such as a graplinghook, making Trace as diverse as a Swiss Army knife.
While there is a lot of tools to take into consideration, you thankfully have an autofilling map at disposal. You will not be able to see where you are supposed to go, but can always leave notes for later references. This is a good feature and I like that you must look at the environment and the map together to figure out where you can go, depending on what upgrades you have. Unfortunately, while these are great upgrades from the original Metroid, Axiom Verge lacks a good warp mechanism. You will eventually find a room which is connected to the other areas and includes a platform to travel on, but you must still backtrack between huge areas in order to find your way forward. With no clear guidance on where to go and plenty of revisits for progression, Axiom Verge can become very time consuming.
This is further enhanced by the huge world to explore, to the point where you might stumble upon an upgrade or more lore, instead of the right path. Thankfully, plenty of save stations are scattered throughout this world, giving you the ability to take a breather. Actually, unlike other games within the same genre, Axiom Verge demands you to explore every nook and cranny. This is because the game has a high difficulty spike towards the end, which is a huge annoyance and can almost feel cheap. If you do not search everywhere, the game becomes about cheesing the enemies in a corner and exploit the environments in order to kill them. This is further damaged by how their AI is very aggressive and will make them leap towards you regardless of their own safety. In other words, the enemies have no clever approaches.
You are far from an agile fighter and even the ability to shoot in any direction while standing still, barely helps here. It is strange that there could not have been a good compromise between rewarding exploration and testing your skills in combat. The boss fights are also strange in difficulty. They start out fairly easy by being simple, but fun fights with interesting patterns to learn. My favourite of them, is one towering to huge heights and tests your platforming skills in an area designed around Trace’s capability. However, the one after is immensely difficult that hits incredibly hard, and the last two are bullet hell massacres that can be overwhelming. Unless you explore first, which makes them become lacklustre and forgettable.
Axiom Verge lacks a clear balance in its design. If it wanted you to explore, it should have neglected too much backtracking and had less enemies, and if it wanted to give you a diverse arsenal for combat, the enemies needed better AI and be more balanced to Trace’s capabilities. Even with some clear problems, it does not neglect that Axiom Verge is still an exciting adventure to play through. Exploration is still fun, the game forces the player to pay attention, and the upgrades you get (especially the different ammunition) are thrilling to play around with. However, you must have a huge amount of patience for this one. More than the average Metroid-fan.
Gameplay Score: 7/10
H.R. Giger in indie-format
Not just the gameplay was borrowed from the original Metroid, but the look and sound is also reminiscent of the old NES-title, while still creating a style that is original. The areas are more biological with everything pulsating or being constructions of bizarre technology unlike anything you have seen in real life. It all really reminds me of the work of H.R. Giger, as it is uncomfortable, detailed, and something otherworldly. The use of plenty of different colours and varied backgrounds gives each place a unique feel and helps at making this world memorable. Despite areas sharing similar layouts.
The same goes for the dangerous creatures you will be facing. All are imaginative and vile, with the bosses being surreal and grotesque. Everything has this uncomfortable look to them, due to their detailed and alien design, yet are intriguing because of how creative they are. I also like that you can see the bosses turning red as they are on the verge of dying, making fights visually intense. Although, the highlight of it all, is your gun due to its vast variety of attacks as mentioned and all are visual highlights. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the sound effects that are something out of a DOS-game. You get varied forms of crumbled screams from different aliens and the shots are psychedelia in their effects, making each fight satisfying and uncomfortable.
The soundtrack also fits this setting. With bit-crushed melodies, some reminiscent of voices and containing echo in their tone, makes this world feel more unwelcoming towards you. What hinders the atmosphere to be perfect, is that many areas share the same songs. Because of this and how short they are, you will get tired of the same music being played repeatedly. This is a huge shame when each area has something unique to them, but the music does not compliment this varied creativity. Not to mention, they have an awkward pause when they loop.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Weapons and reading materials
As an exploration side-scrolling game, there are some things to go back for. The optional reading materials are strange, though interesting as they have translations and observations that can be hard to distinguish, creating more speculations and theories. For those who lost track on the story, the weapons are still a great highlight and you can possibly miss half of them in your first playthrough. All are entertaining to find and use for combat and for exploration when possible. The more you find, the better ending you will also get, which is a great bonus. Again though, the backtracking and plenty of huge areas, will demand a patient player. If you are not one of them, you might enjoy speed running this title, since it is fun to plan out the best route to get to the end.
Extra Score: 8/10
Maybe it is a given since this is inspired by the original Metroid, but to get most out of Axiom Verge, you must completely love exploration and almost neglect the idea of warping. This is to an extend understandable due to the genre it comes from, but without going far with it, the difficulty will become uneven, the story will be completely gone until the exposition at the end, and the entire game will have general pacing issues. This is something neglected from other games within this genre, thanks to having a structurally solid plot with optional lore to uncover, and alternative ways for getting through hard parts of the game by either exploration to become stronger or learning patterns in order to become more skilful.
The guns are balanced for use in both exploration and combat, so why not base the entire game’s structure on this concept? Still, Axiom Verge is an unique metroid-game with fun weapons to uncover, an art style I adore, and it is engaging to explore through this world. Just be patient and you will find more to love in the long run. All of this made by one single person is an impressive marvel and Axiom Verge is definitely better than the original Metroid.