Initial Release: 26 January 2018
Editor’s Note: To celebrate the release of The Multiverse Edition of Axiom Verge, which offers the game in physical form for the first time, we are re-reviewing the base game on Nintendo Switch.
So much of what makes Axiom Verge tick is the sense of wonder and cautious trepidation as to what might lurk around the corner. The way each weapon allows you to approach a room in a different way coupled with the new sense of movement each upgrade solicits culminates in a tight and rewarding experience. The visual design of some of the game’s levels leave a lot to be desired but excellent enemy designs, a spooky sci-fi soundtrack and an expert grasp on the fundamental aspects of the Metroidvania genre mean that Axiom Verge is a game which stands toe to toe with the titles it is so lovingly imitating.
The last few years have seen a resurgence of the Metroidvania genre. Those kids who spent hours sat cross-legged in front of their TVs, back tracking through the same environments over and over again are now all grown up and making games themselves. These nostalgia-fuelled endeavours have been largely a mixed bag. For every great ode to the genre there are ten others which miss the point entirely, but every now and then there comes a game which fully grasps the minutia of what makes these types of experiences so special. Axiom Verge is one of those games.
Axiom Verge puts players into the shoes of Trace, a failed Scientist who dies only to awaken in a terrifying alien world. From the get go, the game revels in its grotesque sci-fi art direction. There are giant robotic beings which push the player on, drip-feeding them information about the intricacies of the situation they find themselves in. For a game like this, story isn’t always a necessary element to put so much emphasis on but here the world building definitely adds to the experience. There are fairly lengthy dialogue sections which add a philosophical twist to proceedings and help give context to the otherwise confusing world.
Anyone who has played a Metroid game will feel right at home here. There are a large variety of upgradable weapons and abilities which upon unlocking, allow access to areas which were previously inaccessible. The map is a classic 2D layout which demands to be studied and mastered. Uncovering every part, every secret, every room of this map is the main draw of the game, one which begs the player to trawl though the game’s environments over and over. The gameplay goes a long way to alleviate any frustration you might theoretically experience while running through the same environment for the twentieth time. Gunplay feels precise and the sheer variety behind the game’s diverse loadout encourages experimentation above all else. Unfortunately, the game’s different environments are much less diverse. Each level falls into either a brown, grey or red category which leads to each one failing to make any sort of impression. Trying to recall and locate an area you need to go back to becomes a guessing game informed only by slight clues on the map due to almost every room looking largely the same. This lack of diversity in the game’s environments definitely eases up towards the end of the game as new areas are introduced which contain distinct sets of enemies and level design.
As is par for the course with these types of games I expect the majority of players to complete the game with the help of a guide. Doing so will pin Axiom Verge down to a 10 hour or so experience but I would urge you to take your time and experiment at your own pace. Methodically going room to room prodding and poking every block is the way this game is supposed to be played and is where it most evokes games of old, for better or worse. This trial and error approach will no doubt turn off many players but for fans of the genre it will feel like a home-cooked dinner. There’s definitely something to be said about the Metroidvania genre and the types of players it tends to attract but I think that what it boils down to is the satisfying feeling that slowly unravelling and unlocking a game’s map gives you.
Sometimes uncovering the map and progressing the story can be a little obtuse and ambiguous. Due to the uniform nature of the game’s levels it can be unclear as to which blocks can be broken, which ledges can be reached which does lead to a lot of aimless meandering. The inclusion of a system which allows you to mark points of interest on the map for future reference. Problem is, you can only set two points and there is no option for any descriptors. This is of course a gripe you could level at any Metroidvania game but is definitely where the game’s dedication to being authentic is to its detriment.
Axiom Verge is peppered, as you might expect, with a handful of boss fights. The majority of these require the player to play around with weapon combinations and learn enemy attack patterns, Mega Man style. Some though, in particular towards the end of the game, resemble bullet-hell segments at times. These definitely feel less satisfying to play as luck often ends up being the defining factor in whether or not you’d emerge victorious.
The game features a soundtrack which is subtle yet exquisite. Playing like a record you might hear in a haunted house mixed with the Doctor Who theme, it perfectly complements the body-horror stylings of the game’s visuals. Enemy design receives the same level of careful detail. From towering insectoid robots to snarling zombies, there’s a massive variety of beasties to contend with. The ones which standout in particular are those which render humans as helpless victims of godawful mutations. The game comments on this later on in the game, casting a moral ambiguity on several of the boss fights, making you feel pretty guilty about vaporising a foe. One battle even completely takes control from the player, forcing them to sit back and watch the blood-soaked chaos which ensues. I enjoyed these brief departures from the game’s kill everything gameplay and think that the inclusion of certain encounters later on definitely add depth to the narrative. The last boss battle in particular is a visual delight, shifting the scale and perspective of the game to something more grandiose.
The way the game slowly doles out upgrades is a masterclass in game design. Thinking about how the developer must have had to ensure that each new skill didn’t break the game genuinely causes my head to spin. Each new ability gives a new way to explore and interact with the environment. The remote drone in particular and its subsequent upgrade open up the verticality of the map in a way which causes the player to completely rethink their approach to searching for secrets. Small milestones are achieved via coat upgrades which allow the player to warp and dash through solid matter. From lab coat to trench coat and finally red coat, each upgrade feels like a natural progression from the one before it, which only bolsters the game’s already excellent sense of momentum.
There are secrets to collect in the form of tablets which give background on the lore surrounding the other-dimensional world you inhabit and also syringes to find which grant abilities in the form of genetic mutations. So much of what makes Axiom Verge tick is the sense of wonder and cautious trepidation as to what might lurk around the corner. The way each weapon allows you to approach a room in a different way coupled with the new sense of movement each upgrade solicits culminates in a tight and rewarding experience. The visual design of some of the game’s levels leave a lot to be desired but excellent enemy designs, a spooky sci-fi soundtrack and an expert grasp on the fundamental aspects of the Metroidvania genre mean that Axiom Verge is a game which stands toe to toe with the titles it is so lovingly imitating.
Verdict – 8 Out of 10
We were provided a copy of the game by the publisher for review purposes.