Even if some of its aspects could have benefited from additional specialized help, in level design the one-man effort of Axiom Verge stands side-by-side with the best installments of the classic saga that inspired it
As a testament to the simple ingenuity of the Metroidvania gameplay style, and as a clear indication that Nintendo has failed to keep fans of the genre well-nourished with a constant stream of sidescrolling Metroid outings, indie developers have not been shy to build their own takes on the labyrinthine worlds that power titles of the sort. Therefore, while gamers have longed – through more than a decade – for the next Samus Aran 2-D adventure, the kids who grew up on a steady diet of Super Metroid and that now hold programming skills and a development kit have taken it upon themselves to provide a famished audience with numerous variations on a theme they have learned to love. In return for their work, these independent developers have watched as their products have gained attention, praise, and applause.
Axiom Verge is one of those efforts. Fully put together by the talented hands of Thomas Happ, who was responsible for all elements of the game (from its concept and level design to its art and music), it uses the bases established by Metroid as the supporting columns of its universe. However, while many indies choose to look at classics from the industry in search for the inspiration to build something different, like Shovel Knight does with Mega Man and SteamWorld Dig does with Metroid itself, Axiom Verge walks a much more straightforward path, as it unabashedly copies the general Metroid structure without making much of an effort to look for a trait it can call its own.
Such a decision has two immediate outcomes: firstly, Axiom Verge opens itself to criticism coming from those who will feel it is way too close to Metroid for comfort; secondly, and on a more positive note, those looking for a quest that mirrors those executed by Samus Aran will hardly find a game that fits the bill more perfectly. What is most surprising, however, is that – given its proximity to the classic Nintendo saga in terms of construction and progression – Axiom Verge invites comparisons to game design gems such as Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Fusion, and the result of that juxtaposition is not as unfavorable as one would expect.
The intricacy of its world and the way in which upgrades and new skills open up the exploration of new areas of the map are quite well-done, meaning that Axiom Verge opts to stick close to Metroid and, instead of being broken into millions of pieces as a consequence of that choice, it is actually able to stand its ground. And when one considers the Metroid masterpieces have had a horde of brilliant minds behind their development whereas Axiom Verge has fully relied on the mind of a single man, that achievement becomes even more impressive. Sure, Thomas Happ may not have produced a title that is as thoroughly enjoyable, masterful, and polished as those put together by Nintendo, but the fact he got so close is enough to make one sit in sheer awe.
Like the sidescrolling Metroid games that inspired it, Axiom Verge begins with a brief series of pixel art stills. They tell the story of Trace, a human scientist that, while working inside an isolated laboratory with a research partner, gets caught in a big explosion. In lieu of waking up on a hospital bed or finding himself inside a coffin, Trace awakens inside an egg-like healing machine and steps out into Sudra, an ominous world once inhabited by an advanced civilization and that is now home to threatening biological life forms, and sentient machines that were left behind by the extinct Sudrans. Guided by a voice that urges him to come towards her and that asks him to defeat a man called Athetos, who is supposedly responsible for the current state of Sudra, Trace sets out to investigate.
To anyone who has played a Metroid installment, the gameplay that follows should be rather familiar. When Trace first walks into Sudra, he has nothing but a simple gun; in order to reach his final goal, though, he needs to explore the maze-like world – which is formed by a handful of differently themed regions – and slowly acquire new pieces of equipment that will allow him to reach areas that were previously unaccessible. As such, Axiom Verge is primarily made up of a whole lot of exploration, walking, and shooting that occurs as Trace travels back and forth between the rooms, shafts, and open spaces of Sudra in search for his next destination.
There are numerous areas in which Axiom Verge thrives. The level design, and the way in which the world unfolds and reveals new areas as obstacle-clearing skills are obtained is wonderful; there is a certain degree of linearity in how one region is usually almost completely cleared before the next one can be reached, but there is – nevertheless – plenty of pleasant backtracking, whether it is within the confines of a single location or in the returning to previously visited places in the chase for optional items, such as health expansions, notes that enrich the game’s backstory, new types of weapons (of which the game carries a considerable and delightful variety, like a lightning gun and a flamethrower), and other upgrades that increase the size of projectiles or augment the punch packed by the guns.
As a small nitpick, while many of these extras are found in justly hidden locations that entail backtracking and puzzle-solving, a good portion of those suffers from the Super Metroid syndrome of tucking secrets away in corners that are impossible to uncover without obsessive searching or a helpful guide, which may turn full completion into a frustrating chore to some players.
As another positive highlight, and walking hand-in-hand with the way the world is set up, the skills acquired by Trace are quite engaging and do wonders for the game in terms of the exploration-related conundrums that must be solved. Naturally, there are the typical Samus Aran inspired gadgets, like bombs, a grappling hook, and the ability to jump higher; the highlights, though, come in the assets that are unique to Axiom Verge. And, in that particular category, one can include the various weapon expansions, which add a good variety to the way in which enemies and bosses can be taken down as players will surely look for the projectile type that is better suited to defeat the game’s most powerful foes; and the original mandatory pieces of equipment, including a spider-like drone that can crawl into tight spaces, a lab jacket that allows Trace to teleport past thin walls (an ability that can be a bit clumsy to activate from time to time), and a drill that cuts through rock.
Finally, the game’s atmosphere, boss battles, and challenge level appear as remarkable highlights. The first nicely recreates the Metroid vibe of being stranded in an alien world where shapeless and dark menaces are constantly looming; and although the feeling of isolation is absent, as Trace will consistently communicate with those who have tasked him with stopping Athetos, the perception of carrying the full weight of responsibility on one’s shoulders exists. The second, meanwhile, are firmly rooted in the action-packed encounters of Super Metroid, where the horrifying creatures’ attack patterns are unforgivable, hence making desperate offense and occasional dodging be the best solutions. And the last, aided by nice save point placement, is pleasant from the get go, only rising to frustrating levels in a couple of sessions towards the endgame where enemies are so powerful that reaching the next safe haven entails a bit of combat trial-and-error.
At the same time, there are some points in which Axiom Verge falters, and – perhaps – the most aggravating of its issues appears in its storyline. From the get go, when Trace receives an urgent message from an unknown voice right as he first steps into Sudra, the game indicates it will pair up its Metroidvania gameplay with punctual narrative developments, and that is precisely what happens. As Trace advances, he makes significant discoveries regarding himself, Sudra, its former inhabitants, Athetos, and the machines that are still active. The problem is the plot never really grows into an element that holds one’s attention; instead of serving as a guiding thread for the exploration, as it was certainly intended to be, the storyline merely exists. It gets lost in overly complicated scientific mumbo jumbo that tries to hide a lack of inventiveness, and the reveals that occur are neither surprising nor clever.
Similarly to the story, Axiom Verge’s graphics and music also indicate that Thomas Happ – as brilliant and multi-faceted as he may be – could have used some specialized help in a few of the game’s departments. With one or two exceptions, Sudra’s environments never succeed in being artistically significant enough to distinguish themselves and create regions with their own personalities. In many ways, the same applies to the music, which does a decent job in populating living rooms with mysterious otherworldly beeps and noises, but that rarely joins those sounds to form compositions that are noteworthy. As such, both the visuals and the audio do not succeed in crawling past a good serviceable threshold.
Axiom Verge, therefore, could have certainly benefited from additional, and more specialized, help in some of its supporting elements. Nonetheless, when judged in terms of gameplay, by far the most important component of the medium it belongs to, it amounts to a title that is downright stunning, especially when one considers it was entirely built by a pair of hands. The eight-hour adventure that takes place in its dark caves and shafts, which can last for far more in case players look to achieve full completion, easily stands side-by-side with the installments from the classic saga that inspired it. While Nintendo infinitely delays the release of the next sidescrolling Metroid, Axiom Verge rises as an excellent option to anyone craving for an adventure of the sort; and, truth be told, when that long-awaited game does arrive, Thomas Happ’s creation will probably not be too far behind in terms of level design intricacy.