Originally published in 2016, for The Australia Times Games Magazine
Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Publisher: Thomas Happ Games
Format: Wii U (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, PS Vita, PC, Switch
A portmanteau between Metroid and Castlevania, games under this genre are typified by their 2D gameplay mixed with combat, puzzles and labyrinthine worlds.
Over the last decade or so, the meteoric rise of indie gaming has caused the hybrid genre to blossom, with cult titles like Knytt Underground and Ori and the Blind Forest sating the hunger caused by the seemingly disinterested Nintendo and Konami.
And, I must admit, I’m also one of those who suffered from a grumbling belly.
With the first Metroid in years being a squad-based shooter, and Castlevania looking more and more like a dried-up vampire husk (yay for Bloodstained), I searched high and low for my non-linear, side-scrolling fix. Whilst I’ve played many fine titles coming from a multitude of talented developers, I can now safely say that I’ve found the bet of the best. A Metroidvania game that rivals even the classics in terms of art, story and pure playability.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Axiom Verge.
Prior to playing this game, I had heard many good things about it. Even more impressive was the fact that it was developed over a period of five years by a single man, called Tom Happ.
Though originally released a year ago for PC, the game’s arrival on consoles finally spurred me to download it, and see what the fuss was all about. Now that I’ve played through it, I can say with full confidence; Axiom Verge is one of the best videogames I’ve played in years.
Playing as a scientist named Trace, you awaken in a mysterious world known as Sudra, after a lab explosion. Getting his bearings, Trace comes into contact with a mysterious being known as Elsenova, a giant robot head who is one of the last remaining vestiges of the Rusalki race. She claims that Sudra was devastated by a man called Athetos, who was able to access an interdimensional anomaly called the Breach, and cause chaos by overlapping multiple universes.
Immediately, the story gripped me, and I really must give Mr. Happ all the praise in the world. It’s fantastically written, with many awesome twists and surprises, as well as a gripping focus on the science of dimensions, thanks to journals that can be discovered. Admittedly, much of it may be too complicated for some, but as someone fascinated by the subject, I simply adored it.
Gameplay is similarly high quality. Immediately starting off, the tributes to Metroid are apparent, with a similar map layout, and even a familiar way of accruing the starter items. In truth, I didn’t know what to make of it at first, with a cynical side of me slamming Happ for simply copying and pasting Nintendo’s layout.
Fortunately, it is just what it is; a tribute. After the first few rooms, Axiom Verge begins to show its hand, with weapons and items that are decidedly un-Metroid. Trace starts the game with a standard gun, but soon finds a multitude of different projectile types that really accommodate multiple play styles. Additionally, Trace soon finds himself a drill for opening up new areas, a harmoniser that can solidify or erase ‘glitched’ platforms and walls, a portable mini drone, and even the ability to phase through thin walls.
In all, the game offers a total of 60 weapons and upgrades, and it never seemed overwhelming or confusing. The way the game simultaneously creates a drastically different arsenal from other titles, whilst taking full advantage of said arsenal, is perhaps Axiom Verge’s greatest achievement. The way it makes everything a smooth and cohesive experience is truly a marvel, and had me playing for hours at a time in sheer addiction. This also trickles down to small details, like how weapons don’t suffer from limited ammo, or how the game auto saves (at least, in normal mode) every time you find an item or simply die. It’s all so painless, it baffles me how one man can do everything right, when so many triple-A studios can get it so wrong.
Graphically, it’s a stunner. The clean 2D visuals emphasises the wonderful art in all its dark, gooey glory. The world of Sudra is split into different regions, with each one offering a unique visual palette. Reds, greens and greys create a truly wondrous planet that is both beautiful and decaying at the same time, with blood being a particularly dominant theme. Trace’s Rusalki allies are haunting in their ancient presence, and graphical glitches such as flickering create a sensation that this is a game that is barely holding on to its very reality.
Sound is also lovingly crafted. The MIDI tunes evoke memories of cyber thrillers like Snatcher, and I particularly liked the small touch of low health triggering a Zelda-esque beeping that thumps in time to the music, before slowly fading. Yes, Axiom Verge fixes a problem Nintendo couldn’t solve in 30 years… I think it deserves high marks just for that!
To sum up, Axiom Verge simply deserves every ounce of praise it has received. It’s a videogame that reminds me why I love videogames in the first place, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last time we’ve heard from Tom Happ!