Axiom Vergeis a rare breed of video game. While many titles borrow aesthetic and gameplay elements from their peers, Axiom fully embraces it’s influences in an effort to recreate a prior work. In a word, it’s a homage. Anyone familiar with the 1986’s classic Metroid will find more than a few strikingly similarities. From it’s 2D gameplay, 8-bit tile environments and "Stranger in a Strange Land" story, the key source of inspiration is obvious.
But what makesAxiom successful is it’s thoughtful adjustments to the formula. It’s far darker, stranger and more philosophic than its progenitor. In many ways, it uses a recognizable template to lull players into confidence before unleashing a startling barrage of wholly original concepts. Rather than limiting itself to duplication, Axiom emulates the feeling of entering an alien world. While there are faults to be found, it’s an incredible accomplishment that makes Axiom Verge an early contender as one of the best games of 2015.
Late one night in the secluded laboratory of Dr. Trace, a breakthrough in physics is about to take place. A failed experiment decimates it’s surroundings and seemingly it’s inhabitants. Trace awakens to find himself on a unknown planet ravaged by genocide and survived by the warped, murderous creatures of a bygone war. Beckoned by a dying artificial intelligence, Trace is tasked with restoring the millennia-old order of the godlike computers in the hopes of returning home.
To go any further would spoil what little story is here.Axiom Verge does weave an interesting tale with many themes borrowed from classic science fiction novels. Trace quickly adapts to his role as a intergalactic savior, but only out of necessity. After witnessing the tragic remnants of a once thriving civilization, he gradually accepts his mission out of personal duty. Though his pacifistic roots return once he becomes more proficient at eliminating the towering monstrous entities.
Yes, "The Hero’s Journey" is left mostly intact, but Trace’s moral conflicts and loss of identity are logically written given his horrific circumstances. Trace starts off as a survivor before becoming powerful enough to decide his own destiny. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is relegated to dispensing plot details or simple one-sentence threats. But the overall narrative and lead character arch do a good job of establishing a world and pushing the player through to the end.
For the uninitiated, "Metroidvania" is a style of game that emphasizes exploration over a large map. Traversal is limited until you obtain a selection of abilities, power ups and weaponsAxiom Verge does little to change the overall genre, though it’s methods are definitely unique. Throughout the 10-hour campaign, Trace will gradually utilize his evolving skill set, including dashing through solid matter, grappling to ceilings, controlling a small drone and even recoding his environment.
Early on, Trance will acquire the Address Disruptor, a tool with the ability to transform enemies and objects into visual glitches. It’s fascinating to watch a detailed sprite be converted into a mess of code with an entirely different function. Enemies can be slowed down, controlled by the player or even dispense health. This device encourages a lot of experimentation and broadens the already deep sense of mystery. By the end, it’s applications become apparent. But for the majority of Axiom Verge, the Address Disruptor is an exciting and original concept.
Thankfully, the same amount of creativity can also be found in its vast array of weapons. Trance begins his adventure with a standard long range blaster before quickly expanding his unique arsenal. The Reflector bounces large projectiles, the Kilver delivers a close range blast and the Voranj quickly spreads a series of thin electrical bolts. Each offer a different but equally viable approach to combat, though before long most players will probably find a small selection preferable. Those that take the time to become diversely proficient will discover a deep and rewarding combat system.
Axiom Verge’s world is simply huge. Traversal is not only a large component of Axiom’s gameplay, it’s also its highlight. Trace’s ever-expanding abilities greatly freshen up exploration regularly. Once impossible obstacles become a breeze after adapting to newly found talents. The combination of drilling, dashing, clinging and teleporting to reach far off platforms proves satisfying. But Axiom won’t spell out it’s secrets. Players must recognize potential avenues in order to recover hidden weapons and notes. Regrettably, this can also carry over into the game’s regular progression. Due to the enormous size of the map, players will experience long stretches of aimless wandering while searching for the next boss, cut scene or mandatory upgrade.
Enemies, on the other hand, are far more forgettable. Small wall crawlers, turrets with limited mobility and swaying homing enemies of varying speed and power flood the hostile planet. While the design of these native creatures is always personable, their existence feels more gameplay-centric rather than natural. The creatures' methods of attack can also become quite dull and on occasion, cheap. Bosses fair slightly better with their grotesque visuals and challenging pattern of attack. The large collection of creatures is diverse, but their methods are often all too similar. They don’t detract from Axiom’s excellent gameplay, but the enemies are by far the weakest aspect.
Early on Axiom Verge establishes a retro aesthetic with square based level design and synthesized soundtrack. Though as it progresses, a plethora of visual effects and designs advance far beyond anything its decade old influencers could achieve. Trace’s dash trail, large enemies and highly detailed sprites and backgrounds do a great job of established the sci-fi vibe. Pulsing chiptunes introduce each new location and the growls of dormant bosses haunt their repulsive lairs. The world design can often be too similar for the majority of the map, but a distinct color palette helps to differentiate environments.
At it’s core, Axiom Verge successfully replicates the gameplay and style of the originalMetroid. But it's inventive weapons and tools greatly enhance well-trotted mechanics. Nostalgic creations can often lose their own sense of identity due to sycophantism. Axiom Verge avoids these pitfalls by resisting complete mimicry and replicating the feeling of a new experience. It’s something you’ve more than likely already played, but it feels like the very first time.