Reviewed by Kody Spitzlberger
"A failed scientist dies in an accident, only to awaken in a mysterious, alien world. Where is he? How did he get here? And why do the fundamental laws of reality appear broken? Life. Afterlife. Real. Virtual. Dream. Nightmare. It's a thin line.
It's Axiom Verge."
Those who have listened to the Geek Domination Podcast will know that I am a HUGE Metroid fan - specifically 2D side-scroller Metroid games. Metroid Fusion is one of my favorite games of all time, with Super Metroid and the Original Metroid also close to my heart. So when I first heard about Axiom Verge, it was like love at first site: 'Wait this game basically plays homage to Metroid, Contra, and other giants of the 16-bit era, and does it brilliantly? Ight.' Axiom Verge is the perfect blend of nostalgic elements that made the 16-bit era of side-scrollers perfect, with a dash of modern elements that could have never been accomplished all those years ago.
I want to take a little bit of time to talk about the history of the game before we jump into the full-formal review, because it's another heart warming indie-developer story. Axiom Verge was created by a single man - Tom Happ. Happ is no stranger to game design; he has worked on many triple-A game titles for both PC and console, including the Tiger Wood franchise and NFL street. Again, Happ made this game entirely by himself - game design, programming, music, art - all was done by this one man. The game took him nearly 5 years to complete. The only other person who ever assisted with any of the creation/pre-release aspects of the game was Dan Adelman; Adelman has quite the impressive portfolio himself, working on indie games such as Cave Story, Shovel Knight, the BIT.TRIP series, and World of Goo. Adelman handled the industry side of the game - business development, marketing, negation - he prides on these aspects being his expertise.
Alright that's enough of the semi-boring history lesson; let's get on to the bulk of this review. As stated before, Axiom Verge is a retro styled 2D "metroidvania" side-scroller adventure, inspired by classics such as Contra, Blaster Master, Bionic Commando, and obviously Metroid. The game play itself is nothing revolutionary, and that's because it's not supposed to be. It plays homage to all these great 16-bit side-shooters, by brilliantly selecting aspects of each game and modifying them slightly to make them fit better in the game. You have the overall control feel of Contra; weapons inspired by Contra and Blaster Master (all unique and useful in their own ways); platforming aspects pulled from both Metroid and Bionic Commando, with the ease to get anywhere later in the game by combining high jumps with grapple hooks and a little robot that acts like the morph ball.; and of course, the iconic, huge, near grotesquely figured bosses that each offer a unique challenge . The game also has its own original aspects, such as the ability to dash through the air and through solid objects later in the game, and the addition of a "glitch gun" - the game calls it the Address Disruptor. This gun, literally, just breaks the game. It glitches enemies to do things different than usual, such as being rendered completely useless and helpless, or making their attacks do damage to other enemies rather than yourself, or even turning them into platforms. It is also used as a traversal piece of equipment, glitching sections out of walls and making platforms glitch into existence. The addition of a glitch gun adds an interesting, somewhat challenging aspect to puzzle solving throughout the game.
Speaking of challenge, this game also has plenty of that. Between feeling downright under-powered, almost helpless at points, to unique platforming puzzles, this game isn't exactly a walk in the park; another aspect it stole from the 16-bit era. On the flip side of this, once you have an adequate arsenal of weapons, tons of power and health upgrades, and traversal gear up the wazoo, you feel unkillable, like a merciless god, destroying all in it's path. And that's just in the normal difficulty of the game; there is a 'hard mode' built into the game that sounds just as terrible as it does awesome. There's a ton of collectibles in the game too for those who are into it. There are over 20 weapons to find and experiment with, plenty of upgrades such as health, power, and weapon range, traversal gear to help you find your way through the world, and journal pages to add depth and lore to the story. For the hardcore completionists, there are also the presence of Secret Worlds. Secret Worlds are hidden areas in the game that are accessible by pushing/dashing towards a singular block, that may or may not teleport you after a certain amount of time; yes, finding them is as ridiculous as it sounds. Inside, you find a glitched area that doesn't make a ton of sense, that can have additional secret weapons and upgrades. Also, did I mention the locations of these worlds are unique for each save file? Yeah I haven't found any of them yet, and honestly I'm not sure if I ever will...
The story of Axiom Verge is a bit confusing; it is probably the weakest aspect of the game overall. You play as Trace, a scientist who was in an accident and woke up sometime later on an alien planet - you later find out this plant is known as Sudra. Trace is guided by an unknown voice for some time - he finds some gear, kicks some ass, and has a good time. He later finds this voice to be a Russalki - the inhabitants of Sudra, that are basically giant robot war machines - named Elesnova. Confused yet? Well if not...Throughout the game you meet other Russalki that aid you on your journey, and answer questions. You learn more about Trace's past throughout the game, why the Russalki have brought you to Sudra, and basically the meaning of the universe. Like I said, the story is a little fuzzy and confusing at points, but fortunately it's never a hindrance to the enjoyment of the game. The planet of Sudra is beautiful. You explore nine areas of the planet throughout your adventure, each with a unique atmosphere through the use of colors, enemy types, sounds, and music. And now we've reached one of the highlights of the game for me - the music. This is one of the best soundtracks I have ever heard. It is the perfect mix of 'old school' 16-bit elements and modern music. There is not a single track I disliked throughout the entire game; each track is unique in its own way and adds to the game. You can listen to and/or purchase the entire sound track here - even if you have no interest in playing the game, I recommend you check it out. My personal favorites are Trace Rising, Apocalypse, and Cellular Skies.
Axiom Verge is the perfect blend of old school and modern gaming elements. It plays and feels exactly like it should; a 16-bit era game, made in 2015. With a huge arsenal of unique and interesting weapons, traversal gear that makes you feel like a bad-ass, and a unique soundtrack, this is one of the most refreshing games I have played in a long time; it was an incredible experience from beginning to end and I enjoyed every second of it. My first play though of the game took just under 11 hours, and that's with 100% completion of collectibles and exploration, most of that being blind searching. There is also a Speedrun mode build into the game, that removes all the dialogue and cut-scenes from the game, giving you a streamlined speedrunning experience. This game has a ton of replay value; I'm actually going to go start a new file here as soon as I finish this review.
I HIGHLY recommend Axiom Verge to anyone that enjoys 16-bit era side-scrolling shooters such as Conta and Metroid. The game is $20, and can be found on Steam or the PS-Store.