No school like the old school

When compared to some of the EGM Crew, I’m admittedly kind of slow on the Indie uptake. Something that helps motivate me to take notice of the latest Indie darling that’s burning up the popular forums, though, is when it’s dripping with nostalgia from my 2D-game upbringing. The latest offering that fits that bill is a result of the one-man development wrecking crew that is Thomas Happ and Axiom Verge.

The action-adventure shooter puts players in the lab coat of a scientist named Trace. When one of his experiments accidentally triggers an explosion in the lab, Trace is knocked unconscious. Upon waking up, he finds himself on an alien world that proves to be quite hostile—and he has no recollection of what happened after the blast. Trace must now explore this unfamiliar landscape in the hopes to not only piece together his fractured memory but also find a way back home.

Trace’s story isn’t the centerpiece of Axiom Verge, though. In fact, it’s far from it. I only ever got small nibbles of the carrot that is solving the issue of Trace’s mysterious appearance on this alien planet, and many questions remained unanswered in the process of my playthrough. Normally, this would have me pulling my hair out. I’d be ready to come up with any number of loose connections to fit together what little plot I came across, filling in the blanks and creating a coherent timeline in my mind as best I could. Instead, Axiom Verge reminded me time and again, through its novel twists on stereotypical gaming devices and old-fashioned design, that the story is never the focus here—it’s always on the gameplay.

Axiom Verge is like a love letter to the original Metroid. It’s exploration tempered by a healthy dose of shooting all kinds of alien life-forms with a pinch of platforming, a wide assortment of weapons, and just enough narrative hooks to keep pushing you forward. Collecting a cornucopia of items that would open up more of the ever-expanding map, lengthening Trace’s health bar, or beefing up the various bioweapon blasters he comes across was a thrill as I watched my completion percentage climb. Deducing the patterns of gargantuan bosses with pixel precision became more and more of an obsession as I played, flashing me back to my childhood and the great gun battles of my gaming glory days. This is as solid a gameplay base as it gets.

In some aspects, however, Axiom Verge tries too hard to stay true to its gaming roots, and it could’ve take a page from other modern games in the genre to deliver a more pleasant overall experience. A prime example? The map system. The game would’ve been well served to include some sort of marker feature that I could’ve used to remind me the location of items I missed or areas I wanted to explore so that I could more efficiently plan my paths—especially considering the sheer size of the world.

A fast-travel system would’ve been welcome as well, because once I reached the 12-hour mark and collected around 80 percent of the items, I got really tired of schlepping back and forth across a map that features more than 700 unique rooms, gunning down the same enemies over and over. In fact, I pushed forth with the endgame sequence before hitting that magical 100-percent mark to prevent what had been a wonderful adventure up to that point from starting to feel like too much of a grind.

To that end, I realized that Axiom Verge truly shines when it breaks away from the restraints of the past it emulates and instead builds on top of those gameplay foundations. For instance, one of the most powerful weapons you get early on in your adventure is best described as a “glitch gun.” Firing its waves of distinctive radiation at walls comprised entirely of blocks of retro texture glitches from games of yesteryear will reveal new paths or items. Lambasting enemies with this gun, though, can have a wide array of effects—they might turn friendly toward Trace or simply become easier to defeat. When under the influence of the glitch gun, some enemies even open up new pathways; unwitting foes barrel through obstacles that would be indestructible by any other means. Taking an unwelcome by-product of past hardware limitations and development issues and turning it into a critical game component only encouraged more experimentation with each new room I entered, and it was a welcome twist on traditional 2D exploration.

The gameplay twists don’t end with just the weapons, though. You can use many items to bypass barriers—years of gaming experience has ingrained in us the need to hit a switch or acquire a key to make areas accessible, but that’s not the case here. Axiom Verge goes out of its way to remind you of the multitude of tools that open up the paths before you.

While on the subject of all those tools, though, Happ may have gone a little overboard in regards to how many items he crammed into Axiom Verge. One of the other reasons I gave up on that 100-percent run was that it dawned on me about halfway through my playthrough that a lot of weapons and items are useless. I’d say three-quarters of the guns are style over substance and offer little to no value in terms of furthering your exploration or combat proficiency.

And if you get stuck at any point—like I did toward the end of the game before finally figuring out one particular obstacle—and start doing literal laps around the world trying to figure out where to go next, it’s pretty damn frustrating when you stumble upon a secret room that you think may finally push things forward. Instead, you get a completely useless gun. It makes the otherwise tight design come off a bit haphazard, whereas the best Metroid-like games have a laser focus and no real overabundance of anything, especially when it comes to the weapons.

Working in the shadow of something as massive as Metroid and other games of that ilk is no easy task, though, and Axiom Verge does more than enough to earn its place among them. It manages to work within its limitations and still innovate in subtle-but-effective ways. Even with its classic motif, a little modern polish would’ve gone a long way, but it’s hard for me to be anything but immensely satisfied and impressed with Axiom Verge as a whole.

Developer: Tom Happ • Publisher: Tom Happ • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.31.15
8.0
A wonderful throwback to a bygone era, Axiom Verge’s focus on classic gameplay provides a welcome change of pace, even if it could’ve benefitted from a hint of modern design.
The Good Old-school side-scrolling shooter action and exploration that could give Samus Aran a run for her money.
The Bad Too many useless weapons; the desperate need for a fast-travel system.
The Ugly Uruku, the giant, gun-toting slug boss.
Axiom Verge is available on PS4, with PS Vita and PC versions coming later. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.
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