Reviewing Axiom Verge
Placed in historical context and judged by its own merits, I think Super Metroid might be the most perfect video game ever created. Through unusual art direction and an exceedingly good soundtrack, the game managed to create a deeply rich atmosphere and weave a story with almost no dialogue. The levels were also designed so well that the game never needed to hold your hand, nor did it ever offer to hold your hand. Super Metroid was an experience where gameplay was king 100 percent of the time, and success or failure could always be blamed squarely on you, the player.
Axiom Verge draws inspiration from several old classics, not just Super Metroid, but including Blaster Master, Bionic Commando, and even the original, seldom discussed Metroid. Yet it is still what many people now call a “Metroidvania” game, and it surely intends to deliver an experience where gameplay is king. And you know what? Axiom Verge delivers, above and beyond expectations. This game is just darn clever. The fact that it was made top to bottom by one guy is all the more impressive.
Metroid on a Sega Genesis
The environments in Axiom Verge are completely alien, so much so that I had no idea what I was looking at most of the time. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but it’s far too early in the review to start complaining. Graphically, aside from a few modern effects and the sprite color palette, the game looks like it could have been a very late-life NES game or a very early Sega Genesis game. Tile sets are here in full force, and there is never any effort made (nor should there be) to hide them. The great functional purpose of tile sets is that they atomize the game environment, removing the mystery of which objects on the screen can be interacted with by the player character. This is necessary when creating labyrinthine environments where secret paths and hidden power-ups are everywhere.
The art design is at its best in two areas–bosses and those big heads you see all over the trailers. The bosses are always bulbous, vicious beasts. The heads are always ominous and beautiful. Everything else is mostly just passable, generally falling into a category of “quirky sci-fi nonsense.” But, as will be my refrain in this review, we have to remember this was made by one guy.
The soundtrack again recalls for me the hard, industrial sounds I was accustomed to hearing on the Sega Genesis. There is often a persistent bass, accompanied by those odd whistles and beeps that always creep into sci-fi soundtracks. I found the music to be largely forgettable, as I have a hard time remembering a single song off the top of my head (this review having been written a day after I completed the game). Although, so much of the game is spent shooting, drilling, and blowing things up that the soundtrack seldom has a moment to stand out.
This Game Is about… Something?
Let me tell you something about the story in Axiom Verge–I had to Google the name of the protagonist just now. That’s not a good sign. His name is Trace, and he’s a scientist, by the way. The game starts with some sort of accident, and then he gets transported to an alien world… I think? I was never sure if the game was set on a literal planet, or some abstract dreamland trapped between dimensions. I think it’s the former.
The plot is revealed through three narrative devices in the game–dialogue with big heads and bosses, rare cut scenes, and “Notes” you can collect in the game world. Through dialogue and cut scenes, I was able to discern the most extremely basic understanding of the story. But if you actually want to know what this game is about at all, you have to collect as many Notes as possible. I collected maybe two-thirds of them, but speaking frankly, they’re effectively useless in isolation. In order to really understand the story, you would have to take your own physical notes and write your own chronology of the game world, which is not something any average Metroid fan will ever do. I get the feeling the developer spent a great deal of effort trying to create an elaborate world with a rich history, which in this case is actually a shame, because so few people are ever going to bother trying to penetrate its density.
It doesn’t help that the dialogue isn’t particularly well-written either, mostly in the case of Trace, whose stilted dialogue gave me flashbacks to playing games on Newgrounds in the early 2000s. Trace in general is a very unappealing character. I never sympathized with him (likely because I couldn’t understand his situation), his character sprite has no heroic qualities, and most unforgivably, he just has the most awful taste in hair style (messy, wavy hair and sideburns? sideburns?). Luckily, nobody plays a Metroidvania for the characters or the plot.
Alter Reality or Blow It Up
Axiom Verge does not settle for being an homage to Metroid, or to any of its other influences. It does not settle for being a fun hybrid of those games either, even though it is a fun hybrid. Yes, it deftly combines the exploration and power-ups of Metroid with the myriad unique weapons of an action game like Contra, the swinging mechanic from Bionic Commando, and the machine-controlling gimmick from Blaster Master. But it only uses all those awesome things as a foundation for something even more interesting.
There are two elements to me that really separate Axiom Verge from its influences. The first is a spider-like Remote Drone that you can deploy into tight spaces that Trace cannot reach, making it a combination of Samus’s Morph Ball and Blaster Master‘s vehicles. But what makes it really cool is that, later in the game, you gain the ability to teleport yourself to where you have sent the drone, which dramatically increases Trace’s range of movement. Launching the drone high into the air and then teleporting to its location even becomes a way to access otherwise unreachable heights. It’s really clever!
The other unique element involves how Trace can alter reality in the game. He has a weapon called the Address Disruptor, which sprays an energy cone that can sometimes remove obstacles in the game environment, and it can affect nearly every enemy in the game. Disrupting enemies effectively “glitches” them, such that they might look like a fuzzy, glitched up NES graphic instead of a monster. It also alters their behavior, either weakening them in some way or sometimes turning them into something that helps you progress. The game really rewards your experimentation.
In terms of difficulty, the game is quick to punish a lack of caution. Seasoned players will have little trouble, but new gamers will probably find it impossibly challenging. The important thing is that the difficulty is almost always fair, stemming from enemies with predictable patterns who attack hard and fast. There are only a couple of flying enemies that I would say are actually “cheap” and not fun to fight. The bosses too are pretty manageable with some strategy and Trace sporting a good health bar. I almost deducted half a point for the disappointing final boss though, in which it becomes almost impossible to avoid damage, and the battle becomes more about shooting faster than the boss rather than developing a strategy to outsmart it. I refrained from point deduction though, because I am sure speed runners will find some way to make the battle look simple and reveal me as a fool.
More Than the Sum of Its Parts
So many big-budget video games these days are all about spectacle. When a game like Axiom Verge comes along to remind us that nothing is more important than player engagement, and that flashy cinematics are not the way to find that engagement, it is very much appreciated. This game offers you its complete respect, providing a full suite of toys to play with and not getting too specific about how you should use any of them. Axiom Verge, like Super Metroid, just wants to use the unique qualities of the video game medium to stimulate your imagination and provide an experience that cannot be found in any other medium. It succeeds.