Tom Happ is clearly a huge fan of Super Metroid, as just about every aspect of Axiom Verge is a carefully crafted and beautiful love letter to everything that Super Metroid was and still is today. Made entirely by one man, all PS4 owners now have access to one of the best homages to those classic science fiction adventures in both style and design, for better and for worse.
Axiom Verge takes some interesting storytelling choices, putting you in the shoes of scientist Trace, who finds himself lost and alone on an alien planet, until a voice reaches out to him. From there it’s a sparsely narrated science fiction journey through an ancient civilization, reminiscent of the Chozo from the Metroid series, but with a much darker tone present behind it all. Axiom Verge is always implying there is something more going on, with hidden message written in other languages and a password system that you must play around with in order to decode and translate them. There is much more than that though, and after my 15 hour journey with the game there are still mysteries to be found, and I’m excited to see what crops up after it’s available to all. I’ll say it definitely feels like there could be a Fez-like twist at the end of that road.
But other than just sending you into the world of a lost civilization, it gives you the upgrades and tools you need to traverse them. Unlike other Metroidvanias, Axiom Verge focuses on giving you items rather than accessories to bypass its trickier puzzles. Without spoiling too many of the items you get, there are a lot that may send your mind for a loop. From abilities that let you phase through walls, to a drill that lets you bury them behind you, there are plenty of innovative twists to the Metroid or Castlevania loadout, and they are much appreciated. The grappling hook was unwieldy to control, but outside of a dependence on that, everything played smartly into the platforming. There are rarely huge gaps or high ceilings to meet, so getting past obstacles of that ilk isn’t much of an issue.
Your weapon, Axiom Disruptor, learns several different styled shots that appear in a weapon wheel. Many of these are optional and appear as awards for deeper exploration. One unfortunate aspect of this is that though you have plenty of options in combat, being able to switch styles on the fly as much as you want, it does make many of the weapon options feel unnecessary. The different shot-types are never given a distinct purpose outside of one or two weapons, so the extra 12 or so I carried with me barely got used. Either way, it does leave room to mix up your combat strategy as much as you want, and with a huge variety. None of them really play like any other. Still, the most exhilarating moments came from combining the drill with your wall-passing teleport with the right gun and tight corners surrounded by deadly enemies.
And with deadly enemies, there are even deadlier bosses. Axiom Verge has a huge swath of bosses, from the absurdly massive, four-screen monsters to the deadly, stinger-wielding beasts that will push you into the corner. This is where the Metroid design meets other classics like Contra. Because of the way your weapon fires and the variety you have to use with it, the action has you jumping and shooting like no one’s business. Bosses will turn red and explode, and give you some incredibly satisfying deaths that won’t soon be forgotten. The controls don’t always feel amazing though, specifically in the jumping, which feels more Mario than Metroid. It constantly felt out of place, and the longer gaps by Verge’s standards felt rough and awkward, when they weren’t even that far to begin with. It’s the one part of the controls that didn’t feel excellent, which held back some of the more edgy action moments.
Combat and cool abilities is where Axiom Verge nails its goals on almost all fronts, but the exploration and experimentation is where it suffers. I found myself entering rooms and corridors and trying to explore them for minutes before realizing I didn’t have the upgrade I needed to complete the challenge in front of me. Verge has trouble letting the player know what they need to succeed and how they need to use it. This isn’t helped by the fact that the potential of the upgrades aren’t really explored in the brief tutorial given for each of them. This is great for letting the player experiment with newfound powers, but only on a few occasions were playgrounds laid out in front of you that convey how you can use your new power past its on-face-value usage. Getting to the final area of the game required a combination of several different powers that felt awkward when first attempted, and I only figured out how to use them in tandem after hours and hours of goalless exploration in other areas. It’s a give and take though, because in this time I became more familiar with my powers and what I could do, plus I did figure out how to get over the insurmountable gaps ahead of me. I just felt frustrated not knowing in any way if what I was doing up to that point was right at all. It’s an issue of not enough guidance, which works for some, but did not work here.
Everything surrounding the experience here is nailed though. The aesthetic is a beautiful 16-bit style that looks exceptional and fluid in motion. The monsters and the sounds they make are at times awesome, at times truly terrifying, and some of the work with scale is just awe inspiring. On top of that, the music is wonderful for the science fiction world building at work here. It captures that late 80s and early 90s feel of science fiction, from Super Metroid to Star Trek.
Axiom Verge has an issue with guidance, but that also reinforces its commitment to the genre it’s emulating. It nails everything there, it just also hits the same problem those games have had before, but it does it with style, reverence, and awe inspiring action.
Axiom Verge was reviewed with a pre-release download code provided by the developer.