Between its charmingly blocky textures, vibrant environments and bleakly beautiful monstrosities as bosses, Tom Happ’s Axiom Verge remains head and shoulders above the competition. While the sheer number of metroidvania side-scrollers being released these days is beyond number, even experienced veterans will find themselves challenged by some surprising breaks in genre conventions.
Fatally wounded in a lab accident, a scientist by the name of Trace awakens in an alien universe of cybernetic nightmares, with the player left to discover how he can return home. Along with skirting the edge of becoming a Silver Age superhero origin story, the plot here is perfect for these kinds of games. Easily skipped, those seeking puzzles and mechanics can move forwards unhindered by the story, while others are rewarded for seeking out answers with more details. Minimal as it might be, the sense of mystery and the quest to understand the unknown is more than enough to give a player real incentive to see just what lurks just up ahead.
What quickly stands out is how the game avoids obvious solutions. Upon seeing a slightly higher ledge, players by this point have had it ingrained in their heads to expect a double jump or bomb-boost ability to show up. Axiom Verge instead opts to offer everything but the tried and true methods to traverse terrain, with grappling hooks, drones and more bizarre power-ups arising in their place. Equally, the weapons prove to be astoundingly diverse with some delightfully destructive options from very early on, notably a cluster-explosive weapon and arc lightning gun. These are designed to be rapidly switched between, and the Playstation 4’s controllers – using the left stick as a select menu – prove to be especially well suited to this style of play.
However, while the weapons variety and methods of travel prove to be relentlessly fun, the combat itself is sadly lacking. Due to the limited pathfinding capabilities of the AI and with so many spread-shot weapons, many players will often find themselves just tricking enemies into getting caught on edges of the terrain rather than outright fighting them. What’s more, the sheer number of dead ends all throughout the game proves to be relentlessly infuriating. Backtracking is core to this genre to be sure, yet at the same time you can easily be stuck for hours when the number of these areas doubles about halfway through the campaign.
Despite a few aggravating shortcomings Axiom Verge nevertheless proves itself to be among the far better metroidvania creations. The creativity and obvious love from its developer shines through despite a few flaws, but it means it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
AXIOM VERGE / DEVELOPER: TOM HAPP / PUBLISHER: THOMAS HAPP GAMES / PLATFORM: PC, PLAYSTATION 4, PLAYSTATION VITA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW