Game Name: Axiom Verge (2015)
Developer: Thomas Happ Games (only Axiom Verge, which is sufficient for now)
Platform: PS4, PC, Vita, Wii U, XBONE (reviewed on Vita)
Categories: Quintessential Metroidvania, 2D Platformer, Unlockables, Single Player, 8 Bit, Backtracking, Multi-Difficulty, 2 Endings, Indie, SciFi, a Retro Love Letter, Varied Combat, Visual Puzzles, Brutal Bosses, Exploration/Secrets Centric
May Appeal To: classic platform pornographers, pixel art fanatics, and most anyone with black rimmed glasses and a beard
May Repulse: 8 bit haters, challenge unenthusiasts, hand holders, the easily lost, brosefs, Engrish can’t-standers, and those that didn’t grow up with the soothing bleeps and bloops of OG gaming
Comparable To: more intricate and harder than Guacamelee!, immersive and addictive compared to Rogue Legacy, and is a fusion of innovation with classic inspiration like Braid. *Inhales* Tighter controls and more visual flair than Metroid, improves upon the formula and is mechanically/thematically closest to Super Metroid, faster paced and less claustrophobic than Metroid II: Return of Samus, similarly interesting environs as Castlevania 1, more varied combat and less monotonous than Castlevania 2, thoughtful map design as opposed to Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, and as quirky/immersive though less RPG-like when compared to Symphony of the Night.
Learning Curve: 30 minutes maybe. Interestingly enough, it may take longer for older gamers deceived by a veneer belying the player needing to think further from a box they may be accustomed to. Jumping puzzles, boss patterns, and proper weapon utilization is an underlier.
Game Length: 10 to 15 hours depending on the quality of your thorougness
Difficulty: You’ll likely want ‘Hard’ for even a first go ’round.
Mastery: Couple hours. This game is also conducive to speedruns and might be worthy of a second playthrough to find all the hidden documents or being revisited to conquer the elusive percentages of map and items left undiscovered.
Story: A laboratory accident. A paralyzed physicist. A barrier between worlds. A viral contaminant. A decayed civilization. A feared harbinger of genocide. Axiom Verge chips away at a surprisingly simple tale that keeps the player involved with conceptual flirtations that -though bearing relation to thinly veiled plot twists- are actually more straight forward than they originally appear. *If* it’s intentional, there’s an art to what Happ does here: having the player imagine bogeymen where only egocentric shadows get cast upon the transdimensional curtain of ambiguity. Certainly, the ending may leave you a little disillusioned by how neatly the plight is gift-wrapped; but I later marveled at my foolishness in believing that the game was attempting to outsmart me, and at my connection with the character’s dutiful consignment at key junctures in the labyrinth.
Presentation: Top notch pixel graphics, music, sound, weapons, environments, maps, bosses, and themes strike all the keynotes you loved/expect from a Super Metroid 2 while professionally assimilating new elements that feel wholly its own. And this isn’t an homage that merely copies the original, part and parcel (like 3D Dot Heroes). This is more like a spiritual successor to your favorite platformers, tethered firmly in modern gaming while reaching all the way back to massage the conventions of yester-yore.
You’ve got your familiar tube/doors that pause, scroll to black, and fade in to reveal the next area; you’ve got your hovering carnivorous gel sacks, your arc-diving winged mosquito hawks, your laser-belching bio insectoid plant thingies. You’ve got your tinny space operatic jingles tinkling mystery to match the blooming spores raining unspecified pain upon you, an on-screen bullet hell you must sidestep in planning the next treacherous leap of faith past a morass of flapping limbs and hungry mouths. Your weapons avail you – an arsenal of colorful projectiles with stranger and more erratic behavior than the beasties you wish to best. Toss in around 6 or 7 distinct tilesets of foreign alien biomes to cover and you’ve got a veritable maze of one-way corridors and decrepit tunnels to get lost or trapped in.
Unique Features: Remember blinking, boxy, off-color sprites – the ones denoting your NES cart needed a spittle-flecked blow and hard restart? Thomas Happ didn’t carelessly reproduce that artifact or needlessly include it in a game already oozing its own noxious flair from pixelated pores. He hung a lampshade on that infamously ominous flaw and turned it into a central mechanic that creatively melds old and new schools. With a concentrated burst from a specialized ‘Glitch Gun’, each and every enemy (and some environmental facets) reveal a secondary mode of attack that make it easier to thwart, utilize, or circumvent them. Spray a floaty guy to make him a platform, spray an aggressive combatant to make him shirk in terror, and spray a spore-laden shroom stalk to force it to regurgitate health. I can’t/won’t reveal all possible strategies here though, rest assured, it’s a well-used feature you’d never want to play the game without.
Other honorable equipment mentions include a remote spider drone launcher to explore tight spaces, a cunning use of [outdated] password entry screens, a layzor drill for that hidden secret spelunker/archaeologist in all of us, a grappling hook for swingin’ good times, and various trenchcoats – useful for more than just exposing yourself in the park or hawking fake Rolexes.
Gameplay: Not a lot of hand holding for sure. The side-scrolling world is delightfully expansive and it’s up to the player to forge ahead… or upwards, backwards, sideways, or downwards as fate would dictate, all through droves of skittering hordes, lone defenders, and rogue monsters supplemented by inconveniently placed minions. About a 30% acceptance of backtracking is demanded, as new powers or augmentations function as keys to locks you’d previously paused but a moment in deciphering. The crucial element of exploration yields great and interesting rewards which lie just beyond an identical block on the third row of a wall, or secreted behind some benignly placed divot at ankle level. Since you later gain access to traversing single tiles, teleporting behind a column’s breadth of thickness, ricocheting bullets to hidden triggers, exploding corruption barriers, switching places with a remote drone, and charging through substantial obstructions, caches of untold fortune, documents, crazy weapons, power-ups, and treasure-y goodness await at potentially every square inch of the multiple biomes – each with a distinctive flavor.
With more than 20 weapons gaining ever-increasing range and power, your character “Trace” becomes a god among chitinous crustaceans hell-bent on your disintegration into blood droplet orbs. Upon your untimely death, these things flutter their way back to the last save point and Trace is born yet again, the yolk of some mysterious mechanical egg pod. Indeed, Trace is technically unstoppable, but will the player get lost or frustrated beyond salvation?
Awe and wonder, story time, exploration, weapon puzzle, power-up, shooty combat, exploration, save, boss, death, load, boss, power-up, exploration, dodging combat, jumping puzzle, backtracking, exploration, combat. The player becomes well-familiar with the limitations of the scientist’s frail frame as you seek out bigger and badder tools of empowerment, each step bringing you closer to fuller bars and unlocking a new piece of the unfolding puzzle of his existence, the world’s existence, NPC motivations, your goals, and whether or not you have a normal state of being to even return to.
Additional Comments: You’d think that 20+ weapons would have at least a useless dud or uninspired design among the lot. In my humble opinion, there isn’t. In Super Metroid, you had a clear progression -a hierarchy- of tiered plasma throwers. In Axiom Verge, players may agree on the general supremacy of a select few, though I’ll attest at the application of any given bullet behavior to match some particular enemy movement or boss aggression pattern. Bottom line: they’re also fun as shit to collect and play with. Not to mention you hotkey your own rock drill, dash attack, and glitch gun as complementing forces. There aren’t necessarily *unlimited* combinations here; but spice and variety exist to punctuate this combat-y goodness.
What I Liked: Combat, music, the map layout, story, most bosses, enemy patterns or their transformations, the glitch gun/mechanic(!), tilesets, sprites, and the crude or other-worldly color palettes. It scratches that sentimentality for simpler, hand-crafted games of the late 80s. Thankfully, no insta-death pitfalls that I recall. Some bosses are puzzles, others are endurance tests; all look fantastic and behave menacingly. Secrets hunting was a joyous highlight that stands as almost a hallmark on its own. Weapons, equipment, and their upgrades are a Swiss army toolbox designed to give the player an edge if thought about carefully – sure you could fix everything with a hammer but there is certain satisfaction in handily administering burning justice with a personal touch. (If that sounds too much like relationship advice involving an STD and the nearest ex-girlfriend, my apologies.) Axiom Verge is also the appropriate length for a game like this. It’s not too hard, not too small, not too cold; it’s just right.
Happ developed and created the game solely by himself? Kudos, props, accolade.
What I Disliked: Backtracking. Since there aren’t signposts pointing the way or overt direction from an NPC to break immersion (thankfully), this necessary evil is prevalently inevitable. I simply can’t think of a way around it and simultaneously maintain what has been built here…. but it still stinks to identify an unshaded wall clear across 3 zones and have to manually trek past the cretins you slaughtered twice before only to remember that a blob of green pixels in flux were [wouldn’t you know it] the very reason you had abandoned this area earlier. And ‘No’, fast-travel would have cheapened the element of danger, disassociated your presence or knowledge from the winding hallways, and -frankly- may have cut the game’s length by 20%.
The story could have been beefed up with a few more plot twists as well. (I like what we got, just gimme moar.)
Glitches Experienced: The Vita’s framerate tripped over its own hubris upon every third death, when changing rooms sometimes, or randomly during mid-jump. Just 10 seconds of nothing ‘cept my heart beating a marching band rhythm in my throat. Thankfully, the game would shortly resume and smile coyly about having wrapped me around its little finger.
Hours I Played: 13 hours on Hard, 73% Items / 93% Map
My Personal Reaction: Axiom Verge comes from a finely appreciative sense of what strikes our nostalgic fancy and epitomizes the distilled essence of an 8 bit era that did platformers so well. Too many qualities aligned for this orchestration to be an accident and Happ charmed me effortlessly with the eclectic concentration of retro elements enhancing modern conventions of his own design and vice versa. It just works. Even the slightest of nods to belovedly reviled Engrish in the form of fragmented robot speech (trimmed to fit text bubbles) endearingly assures us all that we fell in love with the same childhood sweetheart [ugly and stuck in their era, though they were]. He gets “it”, and you should get this game.
Noob Tips: Don’t play with a keyboard, man. Live it up and grab a PS4 controller with DS4 software or an XBox controller. Take your time; do clean sweeps of rooms to save 9 stitches and prevent the need for hapless meandering later. Experiment with the guns – they all have a deployment scenario. Glitch gun everything for shits, giggles, and the lootz.
Depth and Replayability: Lootable secrets may keep you coming back – I unexpectedly found 3 new weapons in my final hour of play and giggled profusely.
Speedruns are for dull, boring, and questionably focused individuals with enough time to make the world a better place but retain less regard for their own lackluster existence in the mindless and useless perfection of seconds gained (though ultimately wasted) towards no real accomplishment in particular. In the very least, broaden your horizons with another 10 hour game or Freeware your way around some second rate gaming hub God damn it! But yeah…. always an option.
Suggested Value: $30
Where to Buy: http://www.axiomverge.com/, Steam, Gamestop
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