Side scrolling action/exploration games, or Metroidvania-style games, are very popular with a certain subset of gamers. Maybe it’s the non-linearity of the gameplay, or the wildly differing styles these games can have, but people really seem to love them. By people I mean people who actually play games, and not publishers, because they seem to have all but abandoned the genre. So whenever a new one comes around, I get very excited by the prospect of exploring, progressing and backtracking. It’s just something I enjoy about the genre. Axiom Verge by Tom Happ is a fantastic example of the genre done right.
What Is It?
You play as Trace, a scientist in New Mexico working on some super secret science stuff. During a test, he dies and ends up in another world full of strange creatures and living machines. It turns out that things are really pretty messed up in this new world, and if he’s going to get back home, he’ll have to help the local bio-machines drive off a corrupting entity.
Axiom Verge brings together elements of many classic games. There’s the fast action of Contra, the exploration of Metroid, the powerup hunt of Blaster Master, and the glitch hunt of Big Rigs: Over The Road Racing–okay, that last one is made up, but Axiom Verge does employ a mechanic that allows you to glitch out enemies and the environment to let you neutralize enemies, turn corrupt areas whole again, and find hidden areas. There is also a passcode system that allows you to modify various elements of the game. I wouldn’t necessarily call these cheats as you’ll find them in the game itself, but they are definitely interesting.
There are two distinct game modes in Axiom Verge. The main story mode, and a Speedrun mode. The former is the one most people will likely stick to. It keeps track of your completion percentages and has all of its items in static locations. The Speedrun mode is for those who want to try to blitz through the game as quickly as possible. Here, the game’s content is randomized, while cutscenes and dialog are removed to minimize downtime.
Why Should I Care?
You’ll progress through the game, acquiring new weapons, items, and powerups that will grant you access to areas that were previously inaccessible to you. This is something all Metroidvania-style games do, but it’s also something that a lot of games get wrong. You have to pace these things out. Hand out items too quickly and the game feels too easy and players will not feel any satisfaction at accessing an area they couldn’t thirty seconds after seeing it for the first time. By the same notion, if you dole them out like a miser and show the player six different paths they can’t go down, most people will just get frustrated and give up.
Tom Happ has done an excellent job of pacing the game just right. Items come in at a steady pace, but not so fast as to make them feel disposable. Save points are dotted around the map regularly, so even when you do inevitably die, you won’t lose a lot of progress. In fact, the game saves everything up to the time that you died before bringing you back to the last save point. So other than having to make your way back to where you were, dying isn’t that big of a deal. I like that, since it encourages you to explore and not worry about what might be lurking there.
You’ll want to explore the world, too. The environments you’ll traverse are widely varied, and if you’ve played a lot of eight and 16-bit games, some of them will feel immediately familiar. The same goes for the enemies you’ll encounter. You’ll see baddies that behave like those from familiar classics, but I wouldn’t say Axiom Verge is ripping them off. It’s just taking ideas from those venerable old games and bringing them forwards. Whether it be the platform hugging crawlers or the giant bosses based on pure memorization and finding safe zones to work in, all the best bits are here.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
To really make a game like this work, though, you have to get the controls and gameplay right. There’s only one word I can use to describe how Axiom Verge plays: fluid. You’re not having to fight the controls to get Trace to do what you want. A lot of little UX touches were put into place to smooth out what could have been a rough experience. For instance, switching weapons can be easily done using the right stick, and the action pauses while you swap out your weapon to something else.
It goes further than that, though. You can also map weapons to the L3 and R3 buttons so you can just switch to them on the fly. It’s the kind of thing that reminds you that you’re playing a modern game, not something that was limited by hardware constraints. What’s better, though, is that the developer didn’t choose to artificially impose those constraints on us to make the game feel more “old-school.”
This brings me to the game’s presentation. The first thing you see when you boot the game up is a title screen that looks like it would have been at home on the SNES. This is accompanied by a chiptune/synth hybrid title track that definitely evokes a Metroid vibe. Then you get into the game and you’re presented with colorful cutscenes with text narration. The sound effects are distinctly 8-bit, but the music runs the gamut from chiptune to chant. It’s a fusion of styles that somehow works. While I wouldn’t say that every track will be for everyone, on the whole, it all fits together well and presents a nice neoclassic package.
Metroidvania games are hard to do well. You can screw up the pacing of items, the layout of maps, the difficulty of enemies and bosses, or you can just set it in an uninteresting world. Axiom Verge doesn’t make any of these mistakes. It really feels like a lot of time and energy went into getting every little detail right.
Axiom Verge is $20 on the PlayStation Store and I wholeheartedly recommend it.