If there’s one genre that’s guaranteed to appeal to my own particular preferences it’s Metroidvania. So when Axiom Verge was released a week or two ago, on PC, PlayStation 4 and Vita, it was a game I was keen to get my hands on and see just how good this 2015 interpretation of the classic 90’s genre handled. The answer, for the most part anyway, is that Axiom Verge is an excellent addition to said genre. However its inability to add anything truly unique or new is what stops the game from being considered in the same berth as the games that gave their name to the genre.
The product of one developer, Tom Happ, Axiom Verge is a game that’s absolutely aware of the genre it’s entering into. After just a couple hours with the game it should be clear to anyone playing that Happ knows Metroidvania games inside and out, exploration is key but never feels like a chore, death and a loss of progress isn’t a major hindrance, and its controls feel tight and crisp (all of which are essential whenever you roll platforming, precise timing and combat into one). As I say however, the only major drawback the game genuinely has is its inability to provide players with anything truly unique, anything that marks Axiom Verge out as its own game rather than a well-crafted homage to some of the best games of the retro era.
Everything Axiom Verge offers players is a product of this time, and that starts with the game’s art-style. Looking as if it’s jumped straight out of the NES era, Axiom Verge has nailed the aesthetic perfectly with its predominantly purple and green colour pallet. This along with the low-fi, 8-bit graphics and crunchy electro-synth soundtrack work together marvellously to convince you that you’ve stepped back in time, so much so that had the game crashed on me at any point I’ve no doubt my first instinct would have been to pull out the cartridge and give it a quick blow. Thankfully it’s a digital download and therefore not necessary, and in any case, after five years in development it’s clear the game’s been thoroughly tested to ensure bugs and unintentional glitches are nowhere to be seen.
I say unintentional glitches because Axiom Verge’s main feature - and what I assume Happ felt would distinguish it from its predecessors - is the ability for you to interact with the world by manipulating terrain that, at first appears as a glitch, before allowing you to transform it into useable platforms. It’s a novel idea, and in any other genre it may have had more impact, but because the basic tenets Metroidvania are built around gaining the ability to unlock areas that were previously unreachable, it simply feels like another tool at your disposal. Abilities such as these come from the game’s various weapons and others, such as the Nova (which operates as a remote-detonating grenade launcher of sorts), or a drill capable of burrowing through select bits of terrain are all fun to play with but still operate on the same principal as the items and abilities of other Metroidvania games.
Elsewhere, the game’s world is impressively well-designed to ensure you’ll feel keen to explore as much as possible, whilst at the same time rarely - if ever - will you be left pondering how to access an area and come up short on ideas. It’s a very hard balance to achieve in any Metroidvania game and, with Axiom Verge, Happ has shown just how it should be done. Unlocking new sections of the games 2D map is a reward in itself and the game manages that trick of making you think how clever you were when unlocking a particular section for the first time. Any players who get frustrated by having three or four different paths to take, with no clear indication of which one is the right one, may not find the game to their liking, but should you have no problem with this then there’s a lot here to enjoy.
The same can also be said of Axiom Verge’s many boss fights. There’s plenty of them and, like the rest of the game, their dark, retro sci-fi appearance is varied enough to make you eager to see what the next one will look like, without breaking from the game’s tone. As for fighting them, thanks to the crisp control inputs, they fall just on the right side of challenging. Like any good NES game, Axiom Verge takes its difficulty seriously and provides you with all the tools necessary to succeed, all you’ll need to do is get into the rhythm of jumping, shooting and ducking down and you’ll be able to tear apart these hulking monstrosities that cover half the screen with ease. However should you start to get frustrated or impatient, usually as a result of your own mistakes, and the game will punish you.
It’s this tough but fair difficulty, the pitch-perfect presentation, and expertly crafted world that makes Axiom Verge as appealing, and as easy to recommend as it is. These aspects of the game are almost flawlessly delivered and alongside them, for those that are concerned with it, is a pretty decent storyline. And so it’s just all the more disappointing that Axiom Verge can’t stand alongside the likes of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Super Metroid, and it’s solely because if fails to build upon everything games like these created. It may be an excellent homage to some truly great games but fails to contribute anything new to the genre. Hopefully Happ will be able to deliver such a refined experience with his next endeavour, and should it have that extra bit of spice that Axiom Verge is lacking, then we could well be in for something truly special.