Not to diminish the incredible work of Retro Studios with the Metroid Prime series, but the last decade has not been too kind to Samus Aran. If Nintendo doesn’t think that Metroid is enough of a worthwhile investment to make another real Metroid game then it seems that rest of the gaming community has been picking up the slack. Just like with the 2014 release of Strider, another developer has been able to take the format of the Metroid series and apply it to another, original, title.
I would also like to point out that I am, intentionally, not using the term “Metroidvania” to describe Axiom Verge. That term, to me, implies some amount of RPG mechanics, and Axiom Verge is completely absent of them. This is as much a Metroid game as you can get: the player gets to explore a creepy, cave filled, world have a graph paper map slowly start to fill in, collect power ups and fight bosses. Locations inside of Axiom Verge are restricted by the power ups that the player may, or may not, possess. Lacking an ability to pass an obstacle prevents progression until the necessary power up has been acquired. There are are some clever little twists thrown in which act like the cherry on top.
Axiom Verge is also not a short game. My Steam timer shows that I have played this game for over 10 hours. This is partially because I was taking my time and backtracking to previous areas of the map when I got a new power up just to see what hidden areas became unlocked; but also because I, occasionally, found myself getting stuck. The map of the world never has any indication of where your next objective should be, despite how linear they sometimes are. This resulted in me running around aimlessly two times before finally finding out where to go by accident. Not everybody will clock in with 10 hours of gameplay time. Some people will not explore at all, making it faster, and some people will get a lot more with the built in speed run mode of the game, trying to get the best time possible.
The mechanics are complimented with top notch controls, which are a deal breaker for an action platformer. A lot of the enemies are small and move around the screen quickly, which means that being able to move and shoot with precision is a necessity. I am glad to say that the controls of this game are top notch and more than up to the task. I found myself very comfortable being able to run, jump, and shoot with ease and precision. The one caveat of this would be that I was playing the entire game with an Xbox 360 controller on my Ubuntu partition and not with my keyboard. This may be make or break for some people, and I am unable to describe how this game controls with a keyboard as I did not play it with a keyboard. Axiom Verge is also available for the Playstation 4, where a controller would be required (I presume) so that may be the platform of choice if you do not have a controller connected to your personal computer.
Unlike other games in the genre, which have moved to a “2.5D” visual style (two dimensional gameplay with 3D / polygonal characters and environments), Axiom Verge opted to go with a complete retro aesthetic with beautiful, creative and unsettling pixel art. Sometimes the artwork in the environments can be a little bit repetitive, a drawback with the choice of art style, but Axiom Verge completely makes up for this with character and enemy design. This game has some of the most creative and creepiest looking characters I have ever seen in a video game. Some of the bosses are down right disturbing to look at. Many of them look like grotesque abominations, somewhere between alien and machine.
While it is easy to see how this game is inspired by the Metroid franchise, but it is shocking to see just how much the original Metroid was a direct inspiration to Axiom Verge. The art style, while not an exact copy of Metroid, has been carefully crafted to create a feel for the original. A lot of the early game is spent exploring dark caves filled with monsters, that crawl along the ceiling and walls, with goop and gunk clinging to all of the surfaces around you. Thankfully the entire game is not comprised entirely of these repetitive caves and you do get to explore some outdoor areas.
Sadly the plot of Axiom Verge is the weakest point of the game. A scientist wakes up in a parallel dimension and is conscripted, by a telepathic floating face, into killing another mad scientist / tyrant. There are plot points that are set up as secrets, unfortunately these plot points are directly revealed to the player a long time in advance of when the proverbial bomb is supposed to drop. The fact that Axiom Verge has a weak story is actually not a deal breaker, as the challenging mechanics and unsettling visuals are strong enough to carry the game completely through to the end.
Overall I am overwhelmingly pleased with the time that I spent with Axiom Verge. The game is challenging and creative to have kept me playing straight through from beginning to end, uninterrupted. I did not play a single other game while I was enjoying my time with Axiom Verge. The same statement can not be said of Strider, a game I did enjoy, but I had put it down to pick up some other games. It is currently $21.99 CAD on Steam right now and I would have no issues paying that price for it.