If you know one thing about the PS4 exclusive Axiom Verge, it’s likely that it was made by one man, Tom Happ. The music, art, design, and coding, all a single man’s five-year labor of love. If you know two things about Axiom Verge though, it’s likely that and the fact the game pays homage to classical Metroid-style games. From the art style to gameplay, even to the mechanics and pattern-heavy boss battles, Axiom Verge does its predecessors proud, taking direct inspiration from the collect-and-explore side-scrollers that came before, but also manages to put a delightful, unexpected twist on some of the mechanics, keeping things fresh. Unfortunately this adherence to older games and sensibilities includes some of the more antiquated design choices modern games moved away from for good reason.
Overall however, with plenty of upgrades and new weapons to find along the way, the complexity of Axiom Verge never stops scaling as you delve deeper and deeper into world, secret paths and interesting goodies hidden everywhere for patient, invested gamers to find.
Let me say that again: ‘for patient and invested gamers.’ Axiom Verge is not a one-and-done sort of game. You could sit down, mess around for a couple of hours, and move on, perfectly happy, I suppose, but if you really dig in and give it the time it deserves, Axiom Verge is a hefty, rewarding game. Clocking in at over 16 hours, my play through ended with 91% of the map explored, not counting the numerous hidden ‘off-the-map’ segments that I’m sure I only found a fraction of, and only 61% of the items and upgrades found. Simply put, there is a lot to this game.
As Axiom Verge begins, you are treated to one of the multiple great 80’s-style scrolling cut scenes and then wake up as Trace, the every-man main character, in a strange world with a creepy voice talking to you. No real step by step tutorial, no real explanation of where to go or how to get there, just a ‘grab the gun in the next room,’ and go. And this is where Axiom Verge is simply at its finest.
You are never told specifically where to go. Given objectives, ‘turn on the repair drones’ for example, the game’s brilliant progression and map design allows you to simply go, the drive to explore the unexplored the only objective marker you need. If that drive isn’t enough for you however, then, well, Axiom Verge honestly isn’t a game for you, because that need to explore is the game.
The story is crazy and out-there and down-right confusing at some points, in a good way (think of some of the crazier Final Fantasy premises to get an idea), but, while enjoyable and funny at many points, it wasn’t what kept me going, pushing me to get further. That was accomplished by the lure of the unknown. Around every corner there is something new and weird, be it an interesting enemy to figure out how to kill or a new weapon or upgrade that completely changes the way you look at the game-world.
The strength of that enemy and weapon design is another one of the best aspects Axiom Verge has to offer. Each enemy is basically a puzzle, something to observe, experiment with, and learn to understand, a fact that becomes even more apparent later in the game when you gain the ability to ‘glitch’ enemies, a mechanic I’ll return to shortly. Every enemy reacts differently to different weapons, some invulnerable to all but one, some especially susceptible to certain weapons and not others. It is the variety of enemies that is most astonishing however. Even on my way to the final boss-room I was still encountering enemies, and new enemy mechanics, I had never seen before.
Likewise, the bosses exhibit the same sort of experiment-and-learn (or trail and error, if you want to get cynical) mentally of the rest of the enemies, but taken to a whole new level. While the majority of the game is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, the boss fights are downright hard, no question about it. By the end of the game, having played only on normal, my death count was 112, the vast majority of those deaths to the grotesque, monstrous bosses I was thrown up against, each and every one taking multiple tries just to figure out what the heck was going on as bullets or globs of death filled the screen.
As one would expect from bosses of old, each one can only be hurt in a specific spot, be it the creatures stomach, its mouth, when its open of course, or any other number of spots specific to each one. Figuring out how to hit that exact spot with the guns you have and how to avoid the death raining down on you as you do it becomes a tense puzzle for every encounter. The first few bosses start out simple, ducking and jumping in a single spot to survive, but get radically more difficult, movement, timing, weapon switching, and precise aim all becoming an absolute must.
Just as diverse as the spectrum of enemies, there is your arsenal of weapons and upgrades. There is a staggering number of weapons in Axiom Verge, each a different firing mode for your ‘axiom disruptor,’ and best of all, each and everyone feels unique and useful in its own way. You have your basic fire, a triple shot, a drill, one that ricocheted, one that goes through enemies, one that splits to go directly up and down as it goes, a splash damage shot, a lightning gun, and so many more, each with a distinct, and gorgeous, look.
As for the upgrades, there is no ‘upgrade your security access to open all the blue doors now.’ Each and every upgrade adds something to the game, more than a few entirely changing the way you transverse the world. Multiple times, after receiving an upgrade, I just sat back and said ‘this just changed so many things…’ And every time, it did, opening new paths and combat opportunities not simply by removing something that had blocked my progression, but radically changing how I interacted with the things around me.
The best part of the upgrades however was how so many played with the mechanics you would expect. Exploring, there were numerous times I came across a high ledge and thought, ‘I need wall-jump’ or a single tile hole in a wall and thought, ‘I need Samus’s morph ball.’ While some upgrades, like the bionic commando style grappling hook were a direct lift, for the cases I described above, when I finally was given the ability to transverse these obstacles, and others, the mechanics for doing so were entirely different from what I expected, a nice surprise as the game went on.
What really sets Axiom Verge apart from its predecessors however, is something I already mentioned, ‘glitching.’ The solo developer of Axiom Verge, Tom Happ, has talked about the fond memories he has of not only playing games while growing up, but also playing with them, removing the cartridges, intentionally finding and exploiting glitches in the games, just to see what happens. And this comes through in spades.
One of the primary mechanics of Axiom Verge, involving a number of the weapons and upgrades, revolves around ‘glitching’ aspects of the game. While this is not literally glitching the game, the mechanic actually includes abilities such as dashing though walls, or a hitting an enemy with a weapon that changes its behavior, each one artistically made to look like old-school glitches from games on the NES or SNES.
These abilities, more than any other part of the game, are stunningly well done, not only artistically, by also in terms of gameplay, adding another layer to the proceedings as you are given more options than even the game world seems meant to allow. As odd as it sounds, the first time you ‘glitch’ through a wall or ‘glitch’ an enemy into suddenly being totally helpless or even useful, that momentary feeling of having beaten the game at its own game if you will, is surprisingly satisfying. Of course Axiom Verge is designed knowing you have these abilities, but even still, after that momentary feeling fades, you are left with some really cool tools at your disposal. The fact that every type of enemy responds differently to being glitched, some actually becoming more dangerous, is just icing on the cake.
All that said however, as I started off this review by saying, Axiom Verge is not free of issues. While some mechanics are a bit finicky, specifically the grappling hook as a whole and also glitching through a wall above you, these are a minor annoyance compared to the map.
I’ll be honest, as much as I loved Axiom Verge, its been a long time since I’ve been as frustrated with a game as I was at one point while playing this one. For a good five hours, I was completely stuck, with no idea where to go. The map is as basic as it comes, solid lines showing where rooms end, white dashes for doors, green rooms for save points, red for bosses, and blue for rooms with characters in them. When trying to figure out where to go next, the ‘unexplored’ is a great guide, when there is a lot that is unexplored. As the game comes to a close however, with only two bosses to go, as was the case for me, it is very hard to figure out where to go when looking at a largely completed map, the lack of solid lines being the only indication that there might be anything new anywhere. There is no way to mark the map, so if you come across a particular obstacle, you better remember exactly where it is, maybe even write it down, for when you find the upgrade allowing you to get past it.
Making matters worse, while there is a ‘tram system’ of sorts that you do find, there is no fast travel, making running from one corner of the map to another, trying to fill in each nook and cranny, very tedious. So again, I’ll say, ‘for patient and invested gamers.’
Given my frustration, why am I still so positive about Axiom Verge? It’s because, unlike so many games out there, as I was running around, just trying to figure out where to go, I found half a dozen weapons, a handful more upgrades, and countless health and power nodes. Even as I was getting frustrated, desperately wanting to just find the next boss, everywhere I went I was discovering more, my character was getting better, and the gameplay was constantly evolving as new tools were added for me to play with. Having now finished Axiom Verge, I honestly look back and realize the substantial chunk of time I was so frustrated was actually time well spent in the course of the game.
It’s true, Axiom Verge is not perfect. The bosses are freakishly hard, the map is barely helpful, and there is a lot of back tracking. But it rewarded my time and fed my need to explore like few games ever have. As a game, it doesn’t stand completely on its own, but it’s really not supposed to. Every aspect of Axiom Verge is crafted with love and admiration for some of the greatest games of the genre, and the nods to each and every one is what gives it the personality it has. More than anything, this is a game about games, about playing with them, getting lost in them, and triumphing over them. Tom Happ should be applauded for what he’s accomplished, even if it is not a game for absolutely everyone. Simply put, Axiom Verge is a phenomenal game, held back only by an archaically-styled map and a few points of progression design that will probably be a bit obtuse for most modern gamers.