Off the Backlog – Axiom Verge

It might be a longstanding classic franchise but I have to confess I’ve not really played that much Metroid. Besides an abiding childhood memory of peering at a Game Boy screen trying to decipher what on earth was happening in Metroid II: Return of Samus, spending a vacation beating Zero Mission and whiling away long hours after school wandering with jaw agape through Prime’s incredible Tallon IV, the rest of my history with the franchise is in dribs and drabs, bits and pieces of various entries that I’ve seen little of and yet have left indelible marks in my mind. Despite not really playing that much of the series, the impact it has had has been undeniable and my own appreciation of Metroid-esque sci-fi owes itself to those early days toying with the NES original.

It should come as no surprise then as to why I loved Axiom Verge.

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Axiom Verge (PS4, PSVita, PC/Mac, WiiU, Switch, Xbox One [reviewed])

Released Mar 2015 | Developed/Published: Thomas Happ Games

Our game begins with our hero, Trace, and an experiment gone wrong. He wakes in Sudra, a world of nightmarish biomechanical lifeforms and nauseating landscapes. He hears a broken transmission, a woman hanging onto life, and he quickly finds the Axiom Disruptor, a bizarre biomech weapon and that is more or less all we have to go on. Though the narrative picks up later, Axiom Verge is content to give players a smidgen of plot before sitting back and leaving you to get on with the business at hand; namely, exploring, platforming and shooting stuff. Trace soon learns of the Rusalki, massive dormant war machines that are all that remain of the long-dead Sudran civilisation and of Athetos, the man who destroyed it, but for the most part much of the narrative is left unfilled in, implied or with space for the player to conjure their own theories. It’s a very old-fashioned approach to story-writing in games, but it’s one that suits Axiom Verge remarkably well, ensuring that the focus is squarely on the gameplay for the majority of the time.

This does come with an unfortunate caveat though, and that is that the characters are not hugely engaging. Trace starts to undergo some development but it’s never really expanded upon; he reacts to events but his dialogue is a little flat and rarely does he emote with any relatability. In a lot of ways, he’s almost as alien as the world of Sudra; certainly it is at the very least rather jarring to see him respond to some of the more significant plot developments with what is practically apathy. The rest of the minimalist cast fare little better; the remaining residents of Sudra are mostly mechanical in their dialogue and sentiments. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means; like its influences, Axiom Verge gets by on gameplay more than anything.

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The gameplay, then, encompasses that wonderful trio of platforming, exploration and combat. Axiom Verge’s environments are gloriously nauseating, filled as they are with H.R. Giger-esque imagery reminiscent of Metroid and later Contra levels alike. Bulbous, fleshy platforms hang next to twisted and distorted rocky ruins while unnatural biomechanical animals pick their way through the sinister landscapes. Exploring the planet of Sudra is a joy; the temptation surely had to be there to skimp on the design in some way but developer Thomas Happ has avoided that pitfall, providing instead a lusciously surreal and freakish world with secrets squirrelled away in every corner.

But, a world is only as good as the means by which the player is allowed to experience it and in that regard Axiom Verge again delivers. Some of Trace’s gadgetry is clearly adapted from other sources but each with something unique to it. Where Samus had her morph ball form to squeeze through narrow gaps, Trace has a drone; unlike Samus, Trace however can launch his drone to reach new inaccessible areas and allow it to scuttle and explore freely. Trace’s gun can transform into a drill, allowing the player to easily comb the walls for hidden collectibles while later powerups include a grappling claw lifted straight from Bionic Commando and, trickiest of all, the ability to phase through slim walls.

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The weapons available to Trace show a similar creativity. While the opening guns, the Axiom Disruptor, is a simple affair, players swiftly come across more fascinating options. My personal favourites were the Kilver, a shotgun-esque gun that fires a short-range spread of lightning, and the Voranj, one of the most visually-impressive firearms as it fires a rapidly diverging stream of energy bolts that spread across the screen. The variety on offer is fantastic and although most are hidden, finding them gives a great reason to explore. The combat is very straightforward; there are no real frills to it, just an old-fashioned jump-and-shoot approach. The wide range of enemies, some of which are exclusive to certain regions, forces you to constantly adapt your playing and necessitates switching between multiple guns. The gun switching could stand to be more intuitive; you can set a couple of guns onto a quick select but mostly I found myself using the weapon wheel, which was a bit clunky and imprecise.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the utterly phenomenal soundtrack. It occupies a marvellously-realised niche between a classic soundtrack, with a strong grasp of melody informed by the limited space and technology and a more modern score, with more complex arrangement and high-fidelity samples. In short, it’s fantastic. Each region has its own distinct theme, from the unearthly vocal distortions of Inexorable to the pulsing excitement of Trace Rising to the excellent main theme that greets you when you boot the game up. Listen to the entire thing here; I’d highly recommend it.

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Axiom Verge wears its influences on its sleeve proudly and that influence is Metroid. And Metroid II: Return of Samus. Oh, and Super Metroid. You get the picture. It’s a bit more than that though. Rather than work as a straight-up high-quality knock-off, Axiom Verge manages to use its inspiration as a platform from which an entirely new game with its own distinct identity arises. Rather than simply recycle ideas, visuals or themes, Axiom Verge is instead elevated above the level of mere homage, standing dignified on its own merits. It’s a hallmark of great effort and the marker of an exceptional game.

5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.

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