Axiom Verge, a 5-year project for sole developer Thomas Happ, is a 2D run-and-gun platformer with a focus on exploration, discovery, ruthless combat, and perfectionism. Some are touting it as a tribute to titles such as Metroid and Castlevania, but for me this was less of a chance to relive the past, and more of a chance to explore a genre that has passed its moment in the spotlight.
The story is brief but brilliantly told. Trace, our protagonist, is in a lab accident and wakes up in an alien land. At a distance his task is simple but grand: to defeat a creature known as Athetos, and thus to save this world and return home.
Close-up the tale is filled with twists and turns that culminate in a strong conclusion. Unfortunately some of the game’s text, especially what’s found in the hidden notes, can be clunky with certain aspects difficult to wrap your thoughts around. Nevertheless, the depth, discovery, and prospect of multiple endings will keep you returning.
The alien planet’s rendering is outstanding; it has charming pixelated graphics, and the world is varied enough to keep your attention. Bleak corridors give way to breathtakingly beautiful snow-ridden peaks, and many of the inhabitants blend into the land as if they were born there. The retro music is catchy, and suits the bizarre surroundings. In particular, the boss music creates a manic feeling that adds to the tense duels, silence emphasising the desolate areas.
It’s a broad rich world to delve into, which is important as exploration is the centrepiece that holds the game together. In order to progress, a wandering eye is essential. Shortly in you’ll begin to notice areas cordoned off: for example, a platform simply being too high.
Finding new weapons and abilities will allow you to get past many obstacles, and open up new combat strategies. Also, oftentimes the only indication of where your goal lies will be that you couldn’t reach that area before. This can be frustrating as a lot of time can be spent wandering the landscape looking for your next goal, but for the most part it allows you to truly engage with the environment, and to experiment with your tools.
One important tool you’ll find is a tiny remote drone that can sneak into small areas; another is a gun with bullets that can be expanded at the touch of a button. A trenchcoat allows you to teleport through walls, and stats such as health, weapon power, and your jumping ability can all receive upgrades. But, probably the most ingenious tool is the Address Disruptor. This weapon allows you to remove those glitched-out blocks in your way, and more importantly allows you to morph your foes’ abilities.
The Disruptor’s results fluctuate greatly between enemies; floating foes can become platforms, and the agile monster can become slothful. It can also be used to find some of the game’s passwords, which allow you to do many things including changing your outfit. It’s a tool that can become almost toylike, generating an eager anticipation with the prospect of using it on a new adversary. However, the disruptor doesn’t always help, and using it recklessly against certain enemies may turn them even more powerful.
You need to be clever with your abilities in order to use them to their full capacity. Trace’s arsenal can grow to a tremendous size, and being aware of when to use each weapon and ability is essential to find secrets, and to progress against foes both big and small. Also, although exploration is enjoyable, it’s the enemies that offer the moments when your knowledge and skills must be at the tips of your fingers.
I tremble at the prospect of a hard mode, yet lean towards the challenge. The reason for my fear rests in the fact that Axiom’s battles constitute some of the toughest moments I’ve faced in any game. All the enemies here, including the common adversary, require some attention, and all have some sort of weakness to be discovered and exploited. Some are obvious brief stubs to be destroyed, while others will merely creak, seemingly unmovable under your barrage of strategies.
However, no common enemy will come close to matching the grandiose spectacle that bosses offer. Their imposing presence can nearly take up full rooms, and their attacks can fill any crevice you whimper and hide in. Some may be beaten in a single try, but more often you’ll have to face them several times. At one point I spent over an hour trying to defeat a giant wasp-like creature. Switching guns, measuring the actions, and eventually conquering it in what was one of the hardest fought battles I’ve ever had.
Unfortunately, some of these battles can highlight the controls’ lack of precision. The only way to aim is to move in the desired direction, and while L1 can alleviate this issue by keeping you locked on the spot, this doesn’t solve the problem completely. Also, teleporting can be more of a hindrance than help due to how easy it is to accidentally activate, which during a boss battle can lead to catastrophe.
But, this is to pick nits in one of the best titles to grace 2015 thus far. Axiom Verge is a game that will be returned to again and again for many reasons. A speed run mode is in place precisely for this purpose, allowing those seeking perfection to return with minimal interference from the story.
This a further example of what was already apparent: the title caters for hardcore gamers, and fans of old school Metroidvania. Many will doubtless become engrossed in the title, and we will wait in eager anticipation to see the gamers’ feats grace YouTube; then we will attempt to outdo their achievements. The struggle for perfection continues.
Finely combing the depths of an unwelcoming world.