In the absence of Metroid games from Nintendo, independent developers have taken it upon themselves to create their take on the Metroid formula, usually fusing it with some other genre in the process. It’s been infused with elements of a brawler with Guacamelee. Shadow Complex introduced a 3D environment within the 2.5D space (something Other M would later implement). Xeodrifter adopts a more classic approach with the difficulty of older games.
Meanwhile, Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge takes the classic Metroid formula as a firm foundation to build upon. The sci-fi setting, the eerie feeling, and the sense of lonesomeness are all there. As the game progresses, though, it starts to become more obvious that Axiom Verge is well aware of what you’re expecting of it and it plays with those expectations.
The world of Axiom Verge is large, with a wide variety of locations and environments. There’s an in-game map that keeps track of your progress. It’ll also let you know when you’ve been to every room and found every collectable in the area, which is very handy as there is a lot of hidden rooms and items in the game. One thing it doesn’t do, however, is tell you where you’re meant to go. Now, I’m not a fan of a game overly holding my hand, but on more than one occasion, I got lost with no idea which direction to head in.
I can’t deny that it is a more immersive experience to explore the game world more naturally like that. With no guides, you find yourself learning the layout of the map much quicker than you would blindly following a waypoint. You also take in more of the details in the background, such as the visual clues where a upgrade might be hidden. But when I’ve finished being distracted from the main quest by looking around for the game’s secret items, I just want to have some idea of the right direction to continue in. The story does inform you where to head or what you’re looking for, but it isn’t always clear where those things actually are.
Even if you ignore the side quests, there’s still a fair amount of backtracking that you’ll have to do. It is made easier by an in-game railway of sorts, that lets you get between areas of the map quickly, but there some sections that do feel really out of the way, even if the game tries to accommodate for that. I also would have liked the ability to mark a room on the map to come back to later. There’s so many secrets stuffed into the game, I would have liked a better way to keep track of them all. Upgrades are scattered all over the world and there’s a variety of them. There’s health extenders and weapon improvers along with mini versions of each, requiring six of them to form a full upgrade like the heart pieces in Zelda games. There are also more minor upgrades such as a range extender increasing the range of all your weapons.
One set of items that is always well hidden is the notes in the game. These notes provide snippets of background to the story with diary entries and such that won’t make much sense till later in the game. There’s some extra functions to these notes but that’s one discovery worth finding out for yourself.
Another one of Axiom Verge’s more unique aspects is the use of glitches. These aren’t glitches that crash or hinder the game but rather change the way you play and interact with the world. The way you plan and traverse the world at the beginning of the game is very different compared to the end. It’s an odd mechanic, one where the possibilities seem endless for most of the game, but as your powers increase, you begin to understand the limitations of what can and can’t be done. Glitches focus on altering two aspects, the world around you and the enemies you face. There’s a drill in-game for getting through certain areas and discovering hidden ones. Using the glitch ray, you can turn some blocks into breakable ones, usually to new areas or an upgrades. By using the glitch ray on enemies, they have something of an alternate form. For some, this is the only way you can defeat them and for others this makes them no longer aggressive. This can be a saviour until your health and power have been upgraded as some enemies can be ruthless with their assault.
There’s a lot of weapons in Axiom Verge and they’re not used for opening colour-coded doors. Weapons are used in a more traditional sense in that you select the best one for the current battle situation. You start off with a simple projectile gun, but as you progress, you can gain weapons with wider spreads or greater reach. The majority of weapons in the game are optional, with only three or so required for completing the game. Enemies take longer than I would have liked to be defeated, though they don’t respawn when you leave the room. Having a strong range of weapons is very helpful during the game’s boss battles. They all follow the same principle of attacking a weak spot, some battles are in close quarters while others are in longer rooms where a weapon with longer reach will be much more useful. Some bosses towards the end were starting to cross over into bullet hell territory.
Axiom Verge impresses all the way through to the end. It has that touch of personal craftsmanship to it, where you can feel that everything is deliberate. The story is engaging and treats the player intelligently. It’s very well balanced between the cutscenes and the gameplay. This playtest wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the soundtrack. Each area has their own themes, with different instruments in each and compliment the visuals of each area very well. There’s also a separate speedrun mode, where the game is stripped away of the story so you can finish the game without interruption. It also places a timer on screen and is set up to make use of the PS4’s streaming features. In the end, the biggest compliment I can give the game is that I’m genuinely sad that it’s over. There’s no new areas to find, no new major upgrade to change the way I play. As much as I don’t want to pigeonhole a developer into one genre, I do hope we see future Axiom Verge games that expand even further on the ideas and concepts of this game.
Food for thought:
1. In my original preview of the game, I mentioned how I loved going around just popping all the blood red bubbles with the drill. So the game certainly put a smile on my face when I noticed I earnt a trophy for popping so many bubbles. There’s also trophies for completing the game in four hours and completing the game without dying so good luck trophy hunters, you’re going to need it.
2. After finishing the game, I tried to see everything the game had to offer, but I only managed to find 78% of the items and see 95% of the map before I had to stop. I think I’ve found most of the obvious ones with some I can see, but not sure how to obtain. Finding them all looks like it will take some dedication unless I’m missing something painfully obvious.