Axiom Verge Review
A Haunting Sci-Fi Adventure
Axiom Verge, the popular indie title by Thomas Happ made its way to Nintendo Switch last week. Released on the Sony PlayStation 4 in 2015, it has since been ported to all major platforms. I was excited to get my hands on it as it has been heralded as one of the greatest indie games ever made.
At first glance, Axiom Verge appears to be a great love letter to Nintendo's Metroid series. The Metroid influence is clear in its foreign world, map layout, alien lifeforms, and atmospheric music. But to call it just a Metroid clone would be a disservice to all the thoughtful details and formula improvements found in Axiom Verge.
The story starts off with a gigantic lab explosion that appears to kill our lead character Trace. After some brief cinematics, the player wakes up in an alien environment. A distant voice talks to Trace informing him to find the Axiom Disruptor, the game's primary weapon. Trace is warned about a mysterious figure discovering his whereabouts and is told to move quickly. This gives the player a good sense of urgency as they begin their adventure.
The player will eventually come face to face with Elsenova, the character that contacts Trace at the beginning of the game. Elsenova is a Rusalki, which are massive robotic alien life forms. They can be seen on the cover of the game and play a huge role in the plot. Your task as Trace is to repair the Rusalki and help them stop the evil Athetos, a mad scientist who has harmed Elsenova and the other Rusalki.
As the player travels through the world of Sudran they will hit several roadblocks stopping their progression. Some of the first instances of this are pink plasma force fields that block Trace from moving past them. However, there's a new weapon that allows you to shoot partially through walls which will activate the switch and bring down the pink barrier. Axiom Verge is full of these types of puzzles and they keep changing to force the player to learn and adapt.
Two of my favorite abilities or items that the player gets in the game are the Remote Drone and the Lab Coats. There are several areas in the game that Trace can't get to or is too big to fit in. This is where the Remote Drone comes into play, as it can be used to climb or maneuver into areas that only it can reach. This is used to unlock gates that block the player's progress, and to discover hidden secrets and power-ups. The Drone itself looks like a Facehugger from the Alien movies. When in use, the player takes full control of the Drone while Trace sits back encased in a protective shield. The player can continue to play as the Drone until the Drone loses all of its life or the player decides to call it back. This ability can be incredibly useful as I sometimes found myself using the Drone to protect Trace when trying to reach a save point with low health.
The game contains many weapons, but also weapon, health, and range power-ups. There are several of each in the game to collect and the Drone is very helpful to find a lot of them. Late in the game, the player is able to upgrade the Drone to the point where they can swap bodies back and forth between the Remote Drone and Trace himself. This allows the player to toss the Drone into a place Trace couldn't normally get to, then swap back to Trace to perform a maneuver that only he can perform. It's incredibly cool and I loved traversing through the later stages of the game this way.
The other item I mentioned was the Lab Coat and its upgraded successors. This allows Trace to phase through thinner walls. While performing this maneuver in game, my girlfriend, who was watching me at the time, was like "Whoa, that is so cool!" Indeed it is. This allows you to reach areas with power-ups or just areas that were previously blocked.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Address Disruptor, which is one of the cooler gadgets obtained in the game. There are areas in Axiom Verge that look like old corrupted NES graphics. They block the player's path to certain rooms in the world. Once players get the Address Disruptor, they can push out radioactive waves to fix these graphical glitches and gain access to new areas. Not only can the Address Disruptor be used to remove corrupted tiles but it can be also used against all of the world's enemies. The results seem to vary quite a bit, sometimes it seemed altered enemies would no longer do damage, but some still could. There was a lot of trial and error. Some enemies would turn into objects, allowing the player to jump on them and ride to greater heights. Overall, I loved how the developer took what looks like glitches or bugs of an old 80's or 90's game and turned them into a huge part of this world.
Another thing that stood out to me during my time with Axiom Verge was the epic large scale boss fights. There are ten bosses in the game and pretty much all are giant alien-like creatures. One is a giant scorpion that shoots lasers and a flamethrower at you. Another is a massive wasp creature that fires little minions to attack you like homing missiles. The boss fights were a lot of fun and very challenging, but most weren't too difficult that it became frustrating. And there were also save points conveniently located near every boss room, just in case you died, which I definitely did with some of them.
I will say that unfortunately, I was extremely disappointed with the final boss encounter. The fight itself was cool, but it was just way too easy. In fact, it was so easy I honestly thought it was a fake-out boss fight where the real boss would come out and that would be the final challenge. I expected a late-game plot twist that never materialized and that was a little disappointing. I don't have a problem with the plot not going exactly the way I thought it might, but I do wish the final boss was a much steeper challenge than he ended up being.
The graphics in the game are somewhere around the SNES level. While there are heavy details, especially with the Rusalkis and the large boss monsters, it graphically represents an old school flare and brings you back to the days of playing Metroid or Contra on the Super Nintendo. All nine regions in the world have their own unique colors and environments. And the number of different enemy types are really impressive. The screaming ghost zombies scared the crap out of me the first time I came across them.
The music really stands out in this game. The game's soundtrack is worth buying. It sets the mood at every corner, whether it's exploring a vast new world or in the middle of a dangerous boss encounter. Upon first entering Kur there is a creepy moaning sound that almost appears like the planet itself is crying out in agony. That hit me right away and just made me stop playing for a moment as I took it all in.
While I was thoroughly impressed with Axiom Verge on the whole, there are some areas that I believe could be improved upon. I think the biggest issue I had with the game, especially early to mid parts of the game, is that it's really easy to get lost. A lot of games these days have waypoints or navigation systems to help guide the player where to go. There is no hand holding in Axiom Verge and sadly I have to admit that I did check a walkthrough guide on occasion during my run through of the game. While this isn't a huge knock on the game, and shouldn't be a surprise to anyone familiar with the Metroidvania genre, there definitely is a lot of backtracking required. There is one area that acts as a central hub more or less that can access a lot of the different regions. But there is no easy warp to it and in general there is a lot of traveling through the environments and going back to the same place over and over again.
I also felt like there were a few too many different weapon types to get. There are 19 weapons I found in the game and that doesn't even include the Drill, the Drone, or the Address Disruptor or Bombs. I honestly used probably less than half of them with any regularity. Some of them also seemed to be tacked on towards the end of the game. I honestly feel like we probably would have been good to limit it to 10-12 and saved the others for a potential Axiom Verge sequel.
The story is also a little bit confusing at times. There are lore items that can be picked up, but I often wasn't clear who they were written by. There are also some things with time travel or alternate dimensions but it isn't entirely clear.
Even with those negatives being said, I can't praise Thomas Happ enough for the work he did on Axiom Verge. It is insane to think that one person made a game this good. Great gameplay, exceptional music, awesome bosses, unique abilities, etc. all from one person. It harkens back to John Carmack and his early game development career with id Software. I personally have been working in the video game industry for the past 10 years. In all the game projects I've been on, the team of developers always consists of 30 to 50 to well over 100 people. For a lone developer to put out a product of this quality is virtually unheard of.
Overall, Axiom Verge took me about 16 hours to complete on Normal difficulty with a little over 90% of the map and items collected. I spent about half the time playing it docked with my TV and the other half in handheld mode. It works great in both. The HD rumble works well while playing in handheld mode and it's fun to be able to take this game on the go.
Who Should Play This Game?
Anyone that complained that Metroid Samus Returns was released on the 3DS and not the Switch. Axiom Verge will satisfy those looking for a Metroid-type experience on their new system. Axiom Verge is a love letter to the old school Metroid games. Anyone that enjoys exploring worlds, discovering secrets, and battling aliens and robots will have a great time with this game. If you loved Metroid, Castlevania, or Contra growing up, then Axiom Verge is a great game to get invested in.
What Makes the Game Worth Buying?
Axiom Verge stands out for a few reasons. The game does an excellent job creating an eerie atmosphere with several unique monsters, enemies and beautiful music. Moreover, Thomas Happ created an engaging action game with an incredibly unique twist on a classic formula. The Lab Coat, Drone, and Address Disruptor really create an incredible gameplay experience that "hacks" the old system.
Creative items/abilities that improve gameplay and make the game stand out
Clever puzzles throughout the environment
Epic large scale boss fights
Great variety of enemies throughout the game world
Incredibly atmospheric music
No clear navigation system, easy to get lost
A lot of backtracking throughout the game
A few too many weapons where some seem unnecessary
Story a little confusing
End boss fight was lacking
Disclaimer: A Switch review code was provided by the developer.