I’ve seen few games as unabashedly in love with the 16-bit era, specifically the Metroid series, as Axiom Verge. So many details seem to be very specifically lifted from games like Metroid, Contra, and Mega Man, to the point where, with a few exceptions, no one would blame someone for assuming it’s 20-plus years old. It’s more than the aesthetic though, Axiom Verge pays extra attention to the structure of the map, the use of the weapons and abilities, even the pixel-perfect platforming mechanics. Axiom Verge is a love letter to Nintendo’s Super NES and Super Metroid, and it’s totally friggin’ awesome.
Axiom Verge begins with an explosion in a lab, after which our main character, Trace, awakens in a different world, one which is filled to the brim with HR Giger inspired architecture and monsters. Though it’s not initially clear where you are – and, frankly, it’s still rather unclear later on – you’re working in tandem with a God-like being who speaks in hilariously broken English.
Between goofy dialogue exchanges and super-old-school cutscenes are extensive segments of platforming and shooting. Lodging itself comfortably within the “Metroidvania” classification of games, Axiom Verge allows you to traverse it’s map freely, discovering new locations that were once just out of reach with new abilities later on. The abilities are pretty straightforward and, with the exception of the ability to interact with glitches, not terribly new or exciting. That’s fine, the game’s quality doesn’t exactly hinge on them – the guns are a little more interesting – but it would’ve been interesting to see what kind of new-school-cool could’ve been infused considering the 30 or so years since the genre was first created.
Axiom Verge really shines when when you begin re-exploring previously visited locations. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to progress the story, but going back and discovering new locations feels like you’re exploring an entire other game. The map is massive, sometimes feeling never-ending. Locations never grow stale, even when you accidentally travel way back only to discover you’ve gone the wrong way (yes, I did that… several times). Backtracking will result in uncovering more abilities, health nodes (which combine to give you more HP), power nodes (which make your weapons more powerful), and journal pages. It’s well-worth your time and entirely optional, which in turn makes the decision to go back feel even better.
The game does take some strange turns in service to the plot. For instance, there’s an entire hallucination sequence which, in the end, doesn’t really add much to the overall experience other than to explain some plot point that will probably go over the heads of most players. Yes, it’s great that Tom Happ, the game’s lone developer, took the time to include a fully fleshed out narrative, but in the end, it’s pretty clear why these types of games largely negate plot. Axiom Verge is, in many ways, Lovecraftian, which in turn means it’s full of crazy and creepy ideas, but fumbles a lot towards the end and results in a pretty confusing mess.
Axiom Verge’s best aspect is undoubtedly it’s use of it’s weaponry. Combat encourages the use of multiple weapons. No one weapon feels much more powerful or useful than any others, but certain areas or certain enemies tend to cater more towards one over the other. Most weapons get a fair amount of use, with only one or two feeling much more dominant than the others.