Back in the days of old-school gaming, a good "Metroidvania"-style game is all you needed to really get you through the weekend. The term comes from open exploration games, along the same lines as Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Super Metroid and others of the type. We haven't seen too many as of late these days, but that trend's about to change, thanks to Tom Happ's innovative Axiom Verge.
Long hyped on the indie front, the game has finally come to PlayStation 4 – and its timing couldn't be better. The throwback to a retro-style design actually suits the PlayStation 4 really well (new fangled hardware and all), and the gameplay has enough novelty to keep players on edge through the very end, even if the story lacks a little bit. That's okay, the ride's more than enough to keep you going – especially considering that it is really being run by one man, Happ.
Vanished Without A Trace
The game puts you in the shoes of a scientist named Trace, who suffers a horrifying lab experiment that sends him careening to an alien world. Here, he'll need to find new tools in order to adapt, a concept that's sure to be familiar to Metroid fans. The difference here is, you're controlling an everyday guy just trying to survive, instead of a bounty hunter who knows her way around combat scenarios.
While the character and story leave something to be desired, the setting – the creepy planet of Sudra – more than fills the void. Running through this open world is really something, along with finding new items and save points and occasionally brushing against enemies that are tall as the size of the screen. It all ties in to the Metroidvania-style theme almost perfectly. In fact, there's also a new wrinkle with the introduction of "glitches" that could open up new secrets for you. Yes, these are intended.
The fact that this world is so massive and worth exploring, with secrets aplenty, adds to Axiom Verge's replay value. On top of that, there's also a Speedrun mode that will test the most avid of game skills, demanding that you finish the game in record time. You're best running through the main game first before you give it a shot, though – unless you're crazy about dying (and we know who you are, Bloodborne players).
Gameplay That Really Opens Up
What makes Axiom Verge stand apart from other Metroidvania-style affairs is how effectively you can use new items that you collect. From an Address Disruptor that can hack its way through foes (and glitches), to guns that can really pack a punch, there's a lot to find here. And you may find yourself prone to using particular weapons more effectively. Even the up-close drill, with its limited range and power, can be a lot of fun, especially when you're dive bombing some poor soul from above.
Upgrades also serve a mighty part in Axiom Verge's planning. You'll be able to expand their possibilities, including a spider robot that can collect items where you can't, and weapons that become even more powerful. And with a simple switch system, you can test them out without needing to go too far into sub-menus. It's really quite cool.
The only downside is that the bosses can be a pushover in some places, relying on a typical pattern instead of posing a genuine challenge like, say, ones you'd find in Metroid. But it bows down to old-school flavor, and players won't mind figuring a way around them and moving on – especially in Speedrun Mode.
A Presentation On The Verge Of Greatness
For an 8-bit style presentation, Happ pulls out all the stops with Verge's design. The graphics are refreshing, bringing back that NES flavor without going too far into the past, especially with the glitch design. The enemies look great (like those bosses), and the level design is deep and challenging. The only thing you'll have to get used to is the somewhat plain map system, as it can be hard trying to navigate to a new area – for example, if you don't have the proper tool to propel yourself that way.
Don't let that throw you off, though. This is an old-school style game, through and through, and there's no better indication of that than with the stunning soundtrack. It's a blast to listen to throughout, and will easily remind you of the older Metroid games, while distinctively finding a vibe of its own. The soundtrack to this is definitely worth buying.
These are the criteria I consider most important for reviewing Axiom Verge.
Aside from a limp map system, Axiom Verge delivers a terrific visual performance, akin to the better NES games.
An outstanding soundtrack, though more variety in the sound effects would've been welcome. You won't mind too much, though.
Challenging and fun throughout, and the assortment of weapons and tools available will have you picking favorites.
Replay Value: 8/10
The Speedrun mode is quite the essential for hardcore players, although the main game is a good time as well – provided you can get past the story lapses.
Axiom Verge is just the kind of retro-fitted kick in the pants that PlayStation 4 owners needed. While the story and map could've used a little ironing over, the game delivers excitement aplenty, especially with some of the bigger bosses. The diversity of weapons and tools you'll run across will keep you busy as well. Kudos to Tom Happ (with some help from Dan Adelman) for bringing us back some retro goodness for our new system. Now, sequel please. (Or at the very least, that PS Vita port we were promised…)
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