A "metroidvania" exploration style side-scroller. A classically pixilated aesthetic built from the ground up. Five years of dedication from a single man who built the game in his spare time between jobs. Sounds incredible, huh?
Well, enough about Cave Story. Let's talk about Axiom Verge.
Jokes aside, Cave Story and Axiom Verge have a lot in common, mostly for the exact same reasons above. Developer Tom Happ built Axiom Verge on his own in between his professional projects for bigger publishers and started development in March 2010, a full five years ago.
The resounding difference between the two though is that Cave Story was released into a world where nobody had ever heard of a video game that was built by a single person. Nowadays, one or two man projects are becoming something of a norm and anybody with a Kickstarter account can snag funding if they so much as mention the magic word, "metroidvania."
That word just screams "Money please!"
This is the world that Axiom Verge is being released into, so is there enough here to justify its $20 price tag when there are so many other options?
Hip to be old
As mentioned before, Axiom Verge aims for a classic pixilated style with the 8-bit NES clearly being Happ's main inspiration. Recently, the 8-bit style has been a bit overplayed on the indie market. For every Shovel Knight, there are at least several dozen others that don't quite understand why the NES looked so great, and these dime-a-dozen throwbacks come off as cliché and uninspired.
Axiom Verge passes in this area with stunning fashion. Enemies animate nicely, and our hero Trace looks like he belongs in the world, blending with both the foreground and the background. Speaking of which, Happ's world screams of atmosphere thanks to many of his luscious backdrops. These ooze with classic style, and his alternate 8-bit universe looks torn straight from the days of old.
I get a feeling of a Western developed B-tier NES action game, only if they had a little bit more pizazz and consistency to them. Not so much Mega Man or Metroid, but rather the Rambos, Aliens, Terminators and Nightmare on Elm Streets of the 8-bit era.
You know what I mean. Dull colors, haunting worlds, a general sickening sense about them. Not welcoming at all, not that that's a bad thing if done properly.
Much like Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge also knows when it is time to cheat the 8-bit graphics. Trace's ammunition spurts from his gun with a fluidity not possible on the NES, but it never clashes too much with the scenery to ruin the effect. Some of the backgrounds are also crafted just a little too nicely.
We won't forget to mention the massive boss fights and other robotic creations that Happ is able to gorgeously animate. I can't even begin to fathom how long those took a single man to create!
The soundtrack too is out of this world. Axiom Verge features a few of the chiptunes you'd expect from a game inspired by the 8-bit era, but once Trace begins to branch out into the furthest reaches of this world, the blips and bloops take on more of an off-putting chant that only solidifies the insanity of this weird, twisted universe.
There is the presence of a story too, but it's not enough to garner a huge amount of attention. Trace is nearly killed when his mountain laboratory collapses on him, and he wakes up revitalized in a machine. Before he knows it, he is running errands in this bloody, horrible place for several giant lady robots who need his help restoring power and killing off a twisted villain.
Dialogue is delivered through normal text boxes, but in some places, we are treated to the Ninja Gaiden, Shovel Knight, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon style of NES cutscenes, which never failed to deliver beautiful art.
It's a "metroidvania" … and … it's a "metroidvania," people!
While the delivery and presentation are rock solid, it is in the gameplay where I feel most torn about Axiom Verge. On paper, everything feels fine. Trace jumps, fires his gun, and uses all of his power-ups with pristine response. You couldn't ask for a more responsive 2D action game than Axiom Verge.
But at the same time, I wouldn't call it a leap forward of any kind either. All the parts of Axiom Verge are working, but I still struggled to keep myself interested at times.
We'll start off with the basics and go from there, see if we can pinpoint this sucker. Axiom Verge employs the same style of 2D exploration found in the Metroid series or pretty much every non-puzzle platformer on the indie market these days. A "metroidvania" if you want an overused buzzword.
Trace starts off with nothing, but through exploration of the map, he will unlock a massive arsenal of weapons, tools, and power-ups that will turn him into a killing machine. And I do mean massive.
Trace's single gun can hold at least 12 unique weapons, as far as I've found, and they range from uses like homing beams and spread cannons to electric yo-yos and shotgun blasts of lightning. Each has a different purpose, be it in boss fights or normal combat, and Trace must use each of them at least once.
His gun also serves as a drill for digging away weak walls, a hacking tool for messing with glitches hidden within the world, a grappling hook ala Bionic Commando physics, and his coolest tool, a remote control droid which can slip through hard to reach places.
Further powers expand on the hacking of glitches. Some enemies can be reprogrammed to destroy walls or fight one another. The ground and barriers can be forced to disappear or simply reappear as drillable dirt when the glitch gun fires their way. Lab coats give Trace the ability to glitch his way through walls in ninja like fashion.
As you can imagine, Trace not only has plenty of firepower to get the job done, he also can vary and change the way he gets around this world too. Thank goodness for that because he is going to be doing a lot of backtracking. Without waypoints or hints, just like a classic NES game should be, Trace will have to guess at where his new power up must be used to unlock the next.
Of course, it all comes to memorization through exploration, but our minds aren't trained to do so much work while playing a game these days.
This is one area where Axiom Verge falls a bit short of what the best of the genre has to offer. Even though these worlds are considered open and should be explored at their own pace, the developers are sometimes able to slip an invisible wire into the game to subconsciously drag Samus, Alucard or Lemenza into where they must go next.
Axiom Verge feels more like guess work. Look at the map, and perhaps this uncompleted hallway has the next power-up or boss fight that Trace is looking for. There is no worse feeling than searching the wrong area after traveling the entire map to get there.
The game doesn't spoil its audience with "fast travel" either, and only a speedy brain robot stuck in a transportation tube will grant quick access to the general area that Trace might be looking for.
Happ also included a "Speedrun" mode knowing that hardcore fans would want to find the fastest possible route through his game. He knows his audience well. I managed to sequence break in two areas, and I wasn't even trying, nor have I ever tried to in any game of this nature. I can only imagine where speed runners are going cut chunks of time away.
Boss fights steal the show away from Axiom Verge's exploration. Each is well thought out and kicks up those old feelings of memorizing boss patterns and reacting to animation cues. The final boss encounter seems about as impossible as they come, but with a little thinking and planning, he and his robot minions don't stand a chance.
A little late to the party
I liked Axiom Verge a lot, and I think it is a stunning achievement that a single human being built this game from nothing. If you are in the market for a solid "metroidvania," then you have found your game.
That being said though, Axiom Verge is a "metroidvania" and just a "metroidvania." Nothing more, nothing less. My main issue with it was that it lacks an X-factor that most indie games need nowadays, and that goes double for a genre in which everybody is trying to discover the next biggest thing.
Rogue Legacy has its randomization and legacy systems. Guacamelee has is hilariously unique Mexican aesthetic and its fun combat system. SteamWorld Dig has its "just one more time" mineral digging, and LA-MULANA has its challenging puzzles and cheeky sense of superiority looming over the player.
Axiom Verge has just its tools and nothing else to really help it stand out in a crowded market. I need a bit more than that 8-bit appeal to call the game exceptional.
It might not seem fair to reference so many other games, but that's just where the indie market finds itself these days. Everybody takes from everybody, everybody is looking to get ahead, and you really need that original kick to get onto people's consoles.
Again, adding that extra bit is a lot to ask from a single person working on a game between jobs. We should be grateful that Axiom Verge feels, looks, and plays as nicely as it does. It is light years ahead of the forgettable "metroidvanias" out there.
However, the unfortunate side effect of being made by a single person is that it took five years to make, one of its selling points. Thanks to the lightning speed of the indie scene, what might have been a fresh and interesting idea five years ago has been tried and done already.
Axiom Verge comes loaded with this feeling. It might have been a revelation if Happ released it within a year of when he started development, when the indie market was still fresh. Nowadays, it's just a solid game. Nothing extraordinary, making me wonder if the extraordinary $20 price, a few dollars on top of typical PSN indie releases, is worth it.
Think of it like this. If you want to support Tom Happ for all of his sweat and tears that he poured into this game, don't wait for a sale. I would say that the extra money is well deserved for him at this point, and you'll be getting a really good game along with the chip on your shoulder for the support you've shown a deserving indie developer.
The 10 percent off sale at launch is more than fair, and Happ will announce any PSN sale weeks in advance as well.
Compared to some of the other "metroidvania" games out there that have that extra dash of "it" though, you can find something a bit more satisfying for a smaller price. A PC version will also be released on an unannounced date, and the incoming PS Vita version will retroactively support cross-buy.
Disclaimer: We were provided a review copy of Axiom Verge for the PlayStation 4 and played through the game's campaign before writing this review.
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