Axiom Verge is a phenomenal game. From the moment I defeated my first boss I was utterly absorbed in the amazing world that developer Tom Happ has single handedly crafted. There’s a synergy to Axiom Verge that ties every element of the game together. The art direction, the audio, the level design and the gameplay all converge to create a modern Metroidvania game that is more than the sum of it’s parts.
You play as Trace, a scientist who gets inadvertently caught in the middle of a catastrophic explosion due to a failed experiment. When the dust settles, Trace finds himself in a mysterious and foreign world, awoken by a foreboding alien presence urging him to assist it on an unknown cause. The game is shrouded in mystery, with an intriguing plot that slowly reveals it’s self along the course of the 10-15 hour journey. Axiom Verge’s story goes to some interesting places, and just like the gameplay, it continually surprised me. I wont go into details for risk of spoilers, but know that if you enjoy a thought provoking and considered sci-fi tale, you’ll like what Axiom Verge has to offer.
The first thing you’ll notice about Axiom Verge is the striking art style, an amalgamation of the original 8-bit NES Metroid with a 16-bit colour palate. What really brings the visuals to life though is the art direction. The aesthetic of Axiom Verge is familiar, yet new. There are numerous homages to the games that inspired it, but also a distinct and unique style that sets Axiom Verge apart from its forbearers. Every environment that you explore in the world has its own palate of designs and colours (not to mention sounds and music, more on that soon) that not only provide the player with a vivid array of art to admire, but also serve to help in navigating the mysterious world. And you’ll need all the help you can get on that front.
Axiom Verge doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its heritage; this is a tough Metroidvania experience with little in the way of handholding. There’s nary a waypoint telling you where to go, and it isn’t always obvious what to do next. Exploration and experimentation is key to progressing, and a bit of patience wont go astray either. You’ll likely get stuck once or twice, but the feeling of accomplishment when you find the way forward is just one of the many things that elevates Axiom Verge above its few flaws. Yes, I was frustrated at times; I cursed the game and longed for a better map system that made it clearer what was required of me, but I pushed through, and it was worth it. By the end it became clear to me that every element of the game is deliberate. Axiom Verge is for the hardcore player, and every facet of the game is designed with that goal in mind. From the speedrun mode that disables exposition and adds a time counter, to the countless hidden secrets that reward only the most thorough of explorers. Axiom Verge is a holistic game that knows exactly what it is, and makes no apologies for it.
The moment-to-moment gameplay matches the challenge of the exploration, and oh boy is it sweet. Axiom Verge is perfectly balanced, weather you’re jumping from platform-to-platform or fragging alien nasties with the contra-esque shooting mechanics, everything feels tight and responsive. Speaking of shooting, you’ll be doing it with a tremendous variety of weapons, some of which are deviously hidden in the deepest corners of the world. There’s such an array of weapon types that I can’t even begin describe them all, nor would I want to, for the surprise of unlocking new items is a huge part of Axiom Verge’s charm. Along side the new tools of destruction are a wealth of new abilities, many of which open up interesting traversal methods, allowing for more areas to be reached and more rewards to be found. It’s a tremendously satisfying gameplay loop that is at the heart of any good Metroidvania game, and Axiom Verge nails it perfectly.
The enemy design in Axiom Verge is beautiful and impressive, with every environment having its own unique set of creatures that perfectly matches its aesthetic and layout. All of the enemies have their own distinct move set, and the method for dispatching them is often tied to the level design. The bosses typify this, with movement patterns to be memorized and platforms and levels that must be exploited in order to walk away victorious. These challenging encounters often feel like a puzzle that must be solved, with success being the ultimate reward. Well, success and a new upgrade.
I do have one minor gripe with the gameplay though. Later in the game you gain a dash-like ability that is used by double tapping in the direction you wish to move. The issue I ran into was that I would occasionally dash when I didn’t want to, leading to several accidental deaths and missed platforms during traversal. It’s worth noting that I was playing using the d-pad, if you play with the analog stick I doubt it would be as much of an issue.
The music and sound design in Axiom Verge is stellar and perhaps one of the high points of an already outstanding game. The music pulls a lot of inspiration from Metroid, with creepy melodies that go a long way towards portraying an ominous sense of atmosphere and mood. It blows my mind that on top of all the game design skills that Happ displays with Axiom Verge; he is able to match it with his musical ability. The layers and depth within his compositions is impressive, and the weight they lend to each environment is an essential part of the world building that makes Axiom Verge so special. The other aspects of the audio design are just as good. One stand out for me is a zombie-like enemy that emits a disturbing and throaty 16-bit growl that always put me on edge during the early stages of them game, when Trace was weak and easily bested. The rest of the enemies, weapons and surfaces have a similarly impressive selection of sounds that lend great gravitas to player feedback and satisfaction.
Axiom Verge is special, not just because it was made by one man, or because it’s one of the best Metroidvania games in years, or because the gameplay is tremendously rewarding and satisfying, or because it has a stellar soundtrack. No, Axiom Verge is special because it takes all of those things, places one foot firmly next to its forbearers and throws the other foot bravely forward, crushing the expectations of what a game like this can be. Sure it has some frustrations, and it’s certainly not a game for everybody, but it doesn’t try to be. Axiom Verge embraces what makes it great and doesn’t apologize for being obtuse, difficult and mysterious, and I love it for that.