Axiom Verge did not make a great first impression on me, which was surprising. Here was this great looking platformer, developed over half a decade by a single person and being billed as “PlayStation’s very own Metroid,” and after ten or fifteen minutes with the game, all I could think was, “okay, great. It’s Metroid.”
As much as I love Metroidvanias, I’ve never been a fan of that original game. From the generic, samey tilesets that made up that original Zebes map to the extreme difficulty and overall sense of aimlessness the game imparted on me as a kid, I just couldn’t ever really get into it. That would all change with Metroid II, which got me invested in the series in a major way, and Super Metroid, which I still consider the most well-designed game of all time. But that first adventure did nothing for me, and even today, I can only play so much of it before I get bored.
As I continued wending through Axiom Verge’s map, noting the telltale blocked doors and impossible-to-reach ledges that are a staple of this type of game, I started to think that maybe games like Axiom Verge didn’t feel exceptional to me anymore because they’re not the exception anymore—they’re the rule. Over the last several years, every lone wolf developer, grocery clerk and clergyman seems to have released his own take on the Metroid formula, and you know what? They’ve all been really good. Maybe I’d finally had enough of this, and Axiom Verge was the tipping point.
Gradually, though, my opinion on the game changed, and once I’d spent an hour or two with it, I started to appreciate what an achievement it was. The game world is varied and organic, with the dull brown and gray caverns of early areas giving way to subterranean forests, ancient ruins aglow beneath blue skies, and even nightmare trips through the player character’s own damaged psyche. Axiom Verge might also feature the largest map I’ve ever seen in a game like this; in fact, there were times when I felt it was maybe just a little too big. But then I’d discover yet another of the game’s seemingly endless variety of weapons—I’ve found fifteen so far, including a personal favorite called the Firewall that I’m certain many players will pass over entirely—or an exciting new upgrade like the drone transport or trenchcoat, which allowed me to move through the map expertly and efficiently, washing away memories of earlier moments when I’d almost given up in frustration. Or I’d come face to face with the grotesque, skyscraper-sized bosses, or giant, mecha-human heads that seemed to be guiding my character both to victory and to ruin, and I’d wonder—like I had when reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books—what must’ve happened in developer Tom Happ’s life that he needed to tell this story. I’m almost certain Axiom Verge’s narrative is self-referential to the game’s development, and the thought of that alone fascinates me.
There are things about Axiom Verge than I’m less than impressed with. One of the most “unique” elements of the game—a “glitch” feature that is meant to call back to the memory limitation exploits of the original Metroid—is also one of its most underwhelming. Unlike in Metroid, there’s no screen skipping, no jumping into rooms that are made up of random bits of leftover code in the game’s ROM. Instead, you use a device called the Field Disruptor to alter aspects of enemy behavior, corrupt their sprites or animation routines, or occasionally blast away “bad code” that prevents you from accessing certain areas. It’s a neat idea in theory and pretty damn cool to look at, but the Field Disruptor is ultimately just another weapon.
Another problem I have with the game: despite some really solid music and overall sound design, a handful of enemy effects had me reaching for the mute button on my receiver remote, and in some cases, they actually made my sound system pop, which isn’t something that’s happened with any other game or other source of media. I don’t like missing out on the total experience a developer is trying to convey with his game, but I also don’t like having to worry about replacing blown out speakers.
Despite this, I find myself drawn back repeatedly to Axiom Verge. As a completionist, the fact that I’m currently sitting at 94% map completion and 70% item collection is pretty hard to ignore, but there’s more to it than that. I still haven’t fully unraveled all of the game’s narrative mysteries, and a key element of that seems to be the Game Genie-like Passcode Tool, which I’ve only been able to use twice so far (once to enter the single password I found during my playthrough, and once to try out a classic password that I correctly assumed Happ had implemented in the game, to hilarious effect.) I’ve guessed at a few other passwords, but with no luck so far, and I continue to scour every corner of the map looking for clues that might unlock something marvelous. I can’t wait to swap rumors about the game with my friends like we did back in our playground days.
Despite my initial impressions, Axiom Verge is a solid entry in the pantheon of modern Metroidvanias. It’s not without issues, and I’m not convinced that its big unique feature is really all that interesting, but its twisted narrative and seemingly endless supply of secrets have given me plenty of reasons to keep coming back. It’s also a fascinating exercise in taking something old and making it feel not only new, but relevant. Metroidmaniacs, take notice: your next great adventure has arrived.
Invisible Gamer’s Axiom Verge review is based on a download code provided to us by the developer. The game launches on March 31st, 2015.