Axiom Verge is a 2D retro styled sci-fi exploration game created by Tom Happ. Axiom Verge was previously a PS4 exclusive, but on May 14th that exclusivity ends and the game comes to PC players via Steam. I got the opportunity to get a review key a couple of weeks early, and so I’ve been working on uncovering its secrets prior to release. In my Axiom Verge review, I’ll give you the rundown on the game, what I liked, and what drove me crazy.
Axiom Verge is a 2D platforming explorathon, and it’s very obviously influenced by Metroid games, especially Super Metroid for the SNES. In Axiom Verge, you’ll explore a hostile alien world, battling enemies of various types with different weaknesses and attack strategies. Along the way you’ll grab a diverse array of weapons and powerups that allow you to explore new areas and conquer new foes.
Axiom Verge has tons of different exploration tools, many of which are quite unique. The game focuses on a world that is slowly being overrun by something called “the Breach” which manifests itself as graphical anomalies and sprite corruption effects. As you progress through the game, your mastery over this power increases and you can glitch or unglitch the game in various ways to make enemies easier or make traversing impossible areas simple.
The graphical style is very 8-bit, although it plays with more modern graphical tricks to create interesting effects that were impossible in the NES or even SNES eras. The alien sci-fi environments are very remnicient of Metroid in the early going, but they quickly take a darker turn. From my perspective, there’s a distinct H. R. Giger vibe here. There’s a lot of freaky tentacled aliens, ancient architecture, and uncanny valley robotics at play.
That Giger influence extends to the story, which follows a scientist who wakes up in an alien world after his lab is destroyed. Instead of Metroid’s focus on augmentation of a power suit with upgrades designed for it, Axiom Verge takes more of a “body horror” approach, with some upgrades being forced on the protagonist, and some causing him to look less than human.
I won’t ruin the story, but the slow burn of its various twists and turns kept me interested from start to finish. Some of the “dun dun DUNNNN” reveals fell a bit flat, but on the whole I found it to be engaging and a worthy counterpart to the art and gameplay.
If the environments and powerups borrow heavily from Metroid, the weapons rip a page out of the Mega Man playbook. There are a ton of different weapons to choose from, and while there are some that are clearly more powerful than others, most have at least some purpose. I thoroughly enjoyed the combat, which managed to be challenging but generally fair. The boss fights are epic, tricky, but have patterns and tricks you can exploit if you get stuck.
The one thing I really didn’t like about combat in Axiom Verge was the low health alarm. It beeps constantly in time with the background music, which irritated me at times when I needed the most focus.
A Twisted Pile of Secrets
Axiom Verge is full of secrets, and honestly it’s both a strength and a liability. Metroidvania style games have often featured tricky secret rooms and powerups to collect, and this can keep the exploration interesting, even while backtracking through previously visited areas.
Axiom Verge takes its secrets to almost a Fez or Myst degree. Some of the secrets are so well hidden that you’re unlikely to find them unless you use a FAQ or guide. Don’t get me wrong – this can be a ton of fun. However, it’s not so fun when you’re not sure if you can’t get to something because you’re missing a very complex puzzle, because you don’t understand a game mechanic, or because you’re missing an important powerup.
In Metroid games (and in Nintendo games in general) there’s often a very deliberate architecture, where secrets are called out clearly if you understand the camera and the environment. In Axiom Verge, though, many times wall tiles and background tiles are the same color, so you won’t know if that wall is actually something you can get into until you try.
All that said, though, the map is not so huge that you can’t just try everything in every room, which will get you most of the way towards finding all of the secrets. I definitely could see spending hours combing every last tile of each map trying to find everything.
A Right Turn at Albuquerque
There were also more than a few times where I wasn’t quite sure where to go next. This problem is compounded somewhat by a few lacking game features.
For one, there’s hardly ever a strong sense of where your next objective is. In Axiom Verge’s early going, it’s pretty obvious – go the one direction you can. Later, though, as the exploration options blossom, there can be many different ways to proceed and no clear idea as to which is going to move the game forward.
Second, there’s very limited ways of interacting with the map. While the map shows the connection between rooms, that’s about all it is good for. The map won’t show you if there is an item in a particular room, or even if you’ve fully explored it. Some of this is available at a “zone” level, if you know how to read the map’s colored dots. You can mark two rooms for later, although the sheer number of things to keep track of dwarfs those two reminder dots quickly.
Finally, Axiom Verge lacks fast travel. There’s one zone of the map which is technically a “railway” of sorts which will take you rapidly between a few zones, but for the most part you’re going to hoof it through old areas pretty frequently. I can’t say I minded for the most part, but it still annoyed me a few times.
Tom Happ shot high with Axiom Verge – it’s a one-man attempt to recreate the enduring, classic fun of old action/adventure titles. When compared to those giants of gaming, it stands tall. Sure, there’s a few blemishes here and there. But by and large, it deserves to be considered a classic alongside them.
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Axiom Verge is a really, really good game. If you love retro styles, Metroidvania titles, and Mega Man style combat, you’ll probably feel like Axiom Verge is easily game of the year material. It takes a lot of classic 8- and 16-bit tropes, blends them together with unique art and a lot of secrets, and pours out a thick milkshake of awesome gaming experiences.