Axiom Verge review: jagged edge

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform PS Vita, PS4
Publisher Thomas Happ Games
Developer Thomas Happ Games
Release Date Mar 31, 2015

Axiom Verge is a wonderful example of both the strengths and limits of imitation and nostalgia.

It's damn near impossible to talk about Axiom Verge without also discussing Metroid, Nintendo's legendary, exploration-heavy action series. This is a game that wears its affection for Metroid — both the 8-bit original and the 16-bit follow-up, Super Metroid — on its sleeve. And that's not a bad thing! Those are incredible games, timeless experiences that are worth emulating. Very few modern games attempt to do so.

But in embracing the legacy of Metroid, Axiom Verge also finds itself trapped under its shadow. For every bit of brilliant game design borrowed from the masters, there's something this understudy doesn't do nearly as well.

Axiom Verge stars a scientist named Trace, who finds himself trapped in a bizarre world fighting mutated creatures. He's urged along by a strange robotic creature who's near death and needs Trace's help to survive.

Axiom Verge values its story much more than I ever did

That story could be a fine setup to give the minimal motivation needed to explore Axiom Verge's beautiful, unsettling world, but to the game's detriment it doesn't stop there. Trace's journey is paused constantly for lengthy dialogue sequences, bombarding the player with pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo to explain the hows and whys of a world that was better left a mystery.

Axiom Verge values its story much more than I ever did. The worst sign of this is in the game's dozens of "diary" pick-ups. These notes — some in English, some in alien languages that you'll need to figure out how to translate — are hidden around the world just like any other powerup. I was often extremely disappointed to hit the end of a long branching path and discover that my only reward for doing this bit of exploration was a tiny bit of backstory that I didn't actually care about. These anti-prizes discouraged my exploration, just about the worst thing I can think of in this kind of game.

That kind of game being, as previously mentioned, a Metroid clone. The core gameplay loop goes like this: Enter a series of passages, shoot whatever enemies stand in your way, repeat, until you hit a barrier of some sort, then turn around and explore in a different direction to find the power-up you need to get past that roadblock. In the case of Axiom Verge, the tool you need could be a grappling hook allowing you to reach new heights, or a special weapon that turns what look like a graphical glitch into a regular passageway, or a massive drill that allows you to crush through some blocks in your path.

While Axiom Verge's upgrades are all fun and interesting tweaks on convention, I was frustrated at times by the overall map layout and structure of the world. I often found a new upgrade that could open multiple paths I'd left behind, but the one I actually needed to open, the one providing real progress, was somewhere on the extreme opposite side of the map. This style of game guarantees some backtracking, and that's fine. But I found myself ping-ponging across the map searching for one missed path far too frequently.

Axiom Verge review a 450
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gotta go fast

Axiom Verge at least acknowledges that its target audience may not care so much about story with one important addition: speedrun mode. This version cuts out all dialogue and cut scenes and adds a timer to the screen — an addition I'd love to see in other games. The menu for speedrun mode encourages streaming and sharing runs, so expect some incredible feats to show up on Twitch and YouTube soon.

In addition to finding new tools, health upgrades and boring diary entries, thorough exploration also led to expanding my arsenal with new weapons. Axiom Verge's approach to combat is its biggest break from the Metroid formula, both for better and worse. Rather than sticking with a primary gun that gets individual upgrades for the whole game, Trace eventually gains access to a dozen or so wild weapons that he can swap between on the fly, from a lightning gun that auto-targets enemies to "data bomb" shots that explode on contact.

The variety is welcome, and I enjoyed swapping between weapons from area to area to figure out what worked best for each enemy type — of which there are dozens throughout Axiom Verge. Where the weapon variety became less of a positive is in the game's challenging boss encounters.

the trial and error of Axiom Verge's boss fights felt inelegant and not fun
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Bosses in Axiom Verge are of the pattern memorization variety. They often launch huge volleys of attacks that can drain your health from full to empty pretty fast, but the trick is learning how to avoid them. That part's easy enough. Less of a breeze: figuring out which weapon in your large arsenal works best against which bosses. I often found myself dying to bosses multiple times until I had pinned down an ideal weapon. Checkpoints were generally very close to the boss rooms, which cut down on some of the frustration, but the trial and error of it felt inelegant and not particularly fun.

The bosses worsen as the game progresses, as well. Rather than finding more organic, interesting ways to make these fights more challenging, Axiom Verge opts for turning them into chaotic, bullet hell confrontations, where projectiles and enemies fill the screen to such a degree that I actually had trouble following the tiny playable character. The final two boss fights, in particular, were massively frustrating to a degree where finally completing them felt like relief, not reward.

Shooting is fun enough — once you've figured out which weapon to use, at least — but Axiom Verge's controls aren't built for smooth dodging. A late-game teleport move helps, but you have to double-tap in a direction to pull it off. I found myself teleporting accidentally about as often as I would fail to teleport entirely. This happened enough to lead to plenty of miserable deaths.

Wrap Up:

Axiom Verge works moment to moment but feels less successful as a whole

Its inability to make me feel rewarded is really the core difference between Axiom Verge and the Metroid games it emulates so aggressively. On a moment-to-moment basis, exploring the alien hellscape of Axiom Verge can be awesome. It's only in stepping back to look at my experience as a whole that I realized all the places where I was getting annoyed or frustrated rather than enchanted. Axiom Verge doesn't capture magic; it merely suggests it.

Axiom Verge was reviewed using final downloadable code for PlayStation 4 provided by Sony. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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