Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: March 31st, 2015
Platforms: PS4, PS Vita, PC, Mac, Linux (Steam)
Reviewed on: PS4
A review copy was provided by Sony Computer Entertainment
Axiom Verge has received a lot of hype for taking inspiration and aesthetic cues from the Metroid series. Many other gamers have praised the level design and the story, as well as the borrowed gameplay style of Metroidvania titles. How far is too far when paying homage to something? When does a game reach the point of no longer being a tribute, crossing over into the realm of a knockoff? I know the game had started its life as a Metroid fan-title, but the sad fact is that Axiom Verge hasn’t diverged from its origins far enough. The game still feels like it’s trying too hard to be a Metroid game with small tangential changes to avoid copyright problems.
The story of Axiom Verge opens up in a relatively generic manner. The main character, Trace, is a theoretical physicist delving into the concepts of quantum physics via an experiment. Something goes horrible awry and he is killed in the ensuing explosion, or so he thinks. Trace wakes up in a strange egg-shaped device with dim lighting. He’s alive, presumably. He is greeted by a disembodied voice and given a task to complete. Procuring the nearest firearm, the axiom disruptor, he sets out on a quest to help a sentient machine race take back their land ravaged by a plague over centuries. The concept all sounds fairly exciting if a bit generic in its presentation.
This is where Axiom Verge starts to break down. The game’s story is told via normal pixelated cut-scenes with Trace addressing other characters. There are differences depicted in the scenes compared to what the characters are actually saying verbatim, and the issues with grammar and spelling often create a disconnect and make the plot that much harder to penetrate and get involved in — over and above the fact that the characters of Axiom Verge aren’t particularly likable.
Trace possesses knowledge that someone his age shouldn’t, and apart from the occasional cut-scene or conversation with one of the Rusalka, there doesn’t appear a clear progression of story. There are parts of backstory scattered and hidden throughout levels, but apart from those the actual story is somewhat of a confusing mess that will require you to read about it upon completion to fully grasp it. This creates a distraction from what should have been a plot that makes you think about life choices, and instead turns it into a frustrating attempt to understand what’s going on. Trace is very one-dimensional, and apart from being a human being, there’s nothing really important about him other than what the plot dictates. He — and the Rusalka — are in no way memorable.
The gameplay is very reminiscent of Metroid, perhaps too much so. Trace first acquires a gun called the axiom disruptor, and proceeds to make his way through the alien world. Along the way he earns new abilities like teleporting through solid matter, controlling a small drone — which is really handy — as well as hacking. Hacking is one of the main aspects of Axiom Verge. Many things can be hacked like barrier walls, platforms that don’t quite exist entirely, and enemies. Hacking enemies is always a gamble though; it can sometimes reveal secret codes used elsewhere in the game, alter the enemy so Trace can progress along a certain path, or it can alter the enemies’ power. Hacking really should be done at one’s own risk when not being used on a barrier. Similar to the Metroid series, each new ability and weapon acquired often opens up new pathways, allowing Trace to progress further down hidden paths, or just advance further in the game. Certain weapons are especially effective against enemies, with some only being weak to certain tools, rather than weapons. The game is all about experimenting with what works, and there are over 20 different guns to play with.
If Trace gets lost in the world, he can pull up a map — à la Metroid II: Return of Samus — to find his bearings. Unfortunately, just like in the Metroid series, bringing up maps rarely helps, and the answer is often stumbled upon through sheer dumb luck. I don’t mind admitting I got lost several times, only because there was a single exact way to progress and it took me a while to figure out the correct combination of items to proceed, especially in the mountainous region. This is unfortunate, as once again it doesn’t have a clear sense of progression and can lead to frustrating dead-end after frustrating dead-end. All I can say is the drone is your best friend; mastering and utilizing the drone was incredibly fun, opened up all sorts of nooks and crannies, and is the key to uncovering the map. If a map is fully uncovered, a colored dot will appear in the top right hand corner of the map, and the same goes for when you collect all items. A different colored dot will appear to let Trace know when he’s cleared the area.
The boss fights are unfortunately hit or miss, and several of the designs are disappointing. One particular boss is very simple by virtue of the fact that if Trace stands somewhere in particular, he can’t be hit at all (behind a block). This boss design seems deliberate, but the win didn’t feel any less cheap for having known that fact. Some of the boss fights are quite enjoyable, with Trace relying on avoiding bullets, and at times Axiom Verge feels somewhat like a basic bullet-hell title. Later on, Trace is able to dodge a bit, and as previously stated, finding what weapon is effective is half the battle. Another complaint is the boss’s weaknesses. Several times it was unclear where to shoot in order to deal damage, and I had to resort to a really cool gun with a massive spread in order to find its weak point. The one really big letdown is the final boss as its attacks are unavoidable, and Trace just has to sit there and take it while trying to deal as much damage in the shortest time as possible, quite frustrating as it felt rushed.
Graphically, the game borrows its aesthetics straight off Super Metroid. The pixel art is quite detailed and beautiful, especially the bio-mechanoid Rusalka, who have a quiet haunting aura to them. A nice touch was how certain items and enemies would glitch out and flicker like the old-school games of the NES and SNES, and the heavy scanlines within the secret “breach” areas reminded me deeply of the graphical fidelity of an Atari 800. The color palates are true to old Metroid titles, and many of the set-pieces and level designs feel heavily borrowed from Samus Aran’s world. I found this disappointing, as although Axiom Verge started out as a Metroid fan game, I felt it could have done more to establish its own identity. The world of Axiom Verge gives off a heavy Metroid vibe which is unfortunate as there is an amazing game lying in wait within all these inconsistencies.
Axiom Verge‘s sound design was another letdown. It was clear from the get go that the music was inspired once again by Metroid; I’m really sorry for all these Metroid comparisons guys, but nothing really stood out to me. Several of the songs — coupled with the frustration of getting lost in the game — co-mingle to create an incredibly annoying atmosphere. I will be immensely happy if I never have to hear the background music of the “Kur” map area again. It was jarring the first time I heard it, feeling really out-of-place, and after the 20th time I had to turn down the sound to avoid a headache. The music for Axiom Verge isn’t bad per se, but it grated on me, and there was no tune that really stood out to me or evoked any emotion besides frustration. When you’re close to death, an incredibly annoying eerie alarm clock sounds, telling you that death is imminent. This redundancy was easily the most annoying aspect of Axiom Verge‘s sound design.
My main complaint with Axiom Verge is its inconsistencies. Some boss fights are fine, while others are just uninspiring. Some music suits an area well, while others – *cough* “Kur” *cough* – are just immensely jarring, and don’t seem to fit anywhere in the game at all. The game mechanics are solid, and some of the upgrades are really well thought out, often requiring an intelligent combination of several of them to finish a map 100%. Unfortunately, the unique and interesting aspects are mired in the inescapable feeling that Axiom Verge could have differentiated itself from Metroid more. I felt like I was playing a Metroid fan-game the whole time, and that’s not a good thing considering the hype around Axiom Verge. It’s still a decent game to kill a few hours, but for really hardcore Metroidvania fans like myself, I think you’d best wait for a sale.
The developer requested to include certain information about the PC release of Axiom Verge in this review:
The PC version of Axiom Verge will be released on May 14, and will be $19.99 on Steam—the same as the PS4 version. Any sales will be announced beforehand, so fans don’t need to worry about the game unexpectedly dropping in price. Anyone interested in buying Axiom Verge can visit the Steam page. The game is supported on PC, Mac, and Linux, will allow you to set waypoints on the map, and will have improvements made to the final boss. The game also has a PS Vita release planned, to be announced soon.