Platforms PS4
Developer Tom Happ
Publisher Tom Happ Games

Axiom Verge is a 2D action adventure, science-fiction game where you play as Trace, a scientist who suffers a near-fatal injury and awakens on the planet Sudra. Sudra is a world almost destroyed by the sinister Athetos and an anomaly known as The Breach. He’s enlisted by Elsenova, a barely functioning robotic guardian of Sudra, to close The Breach, stop Athetos and try to save what’s left of the world.

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If you’ve come this website you probably don’t need me to tell you how a “metroidvania” game works, and that is exactly what Axiom Verge is. In fact the game draws heavy inspiration from Super Metroid, one of the games that gave birth to the genre. You explore the world of Sudra, finding new weapons, abilities and power-ups hidden everywhere, and it’s these collectibles that are key to your progress through the game. Enemies are plentiful and varied, boss fights double as puzzles, forcing you to work out both how to defeat them and avoid being annihilated in the process.

I could make comparison after comparison to Super Metroid. It’s a very easy point of reference to make, as Axiom Verge could very easily be described as a Super Metroid for 2015. While such comparisons are apt, they’re also highly reductive. While the game may look like Super Metroid, sound like Super Metroid and play like Super Metroid, Axiom Verge is very much its own game. Tom Happ takes much inspiration and many gameplay cues from Nintendo’s classic action game. But he does so with enough of an understanding of what made Super Metroid a classic to build on its formula, rather than outright copy it.

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The result is the best “metroidvania” in years and a game that easily equals, and might even be better than, the game it was inspired by. Before breaking the game down I also want to dedicate the rest of this paragraph to recognising how big an achievement Axiom Verge actually is. The entire game was developed solely by Tom Happ, who alone is responsible for all of the art, coding, music and game design of Axiom Verge, started as side project in 2010 while he worked as a developer on games such as Grey Goo. Developing an entire game single handedly and releasing it on PS4 is an incredible enough achievement in its own right, but having that game succeed on every level is frankly amazing.

First off the world of Sudra is a marvellously intricate place. World and level design in a game like Axiom Verge is probably the most critical thing to get right and Sudra is alive with things to do and see, and secrets to uncover. Sudra is split up into different sections, with each part of the map having its own name, aesthetic and, more often than not, enemies to contend with. Finding a path to one of these new sections is an awesome moment, as a whole new map lies before you, filled with new secrets for you to uncover.

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Few games this year can equal the satisfaction of slowly finding and reaching every square of Sudra, taking mental note of where unreachable items are for later exploration. One of the best parts (of an admittedly excellent game) is finding that part of the wall you can drill through, or seeing a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to an all important health upgrade, and using your wits and equipment to find a way to it. While everything from the combat to the platforming is extremely well done, it’s collecting the various items where I was having the most fun with Axiom Verge. And there is a great deal of variety with the items you can collect in Axiom Verge.

New weapons, health, power and range upgrades, new abilities such as remote controlled drones or teleporting, journal pages…there’s a lot to go forth and find. And you’ll want it all. By design the game encourages you to seek out these items, even including a progression tracker in the menu to let you know how much you’ve missed. But collecting these items is never about hitting that elusive 100%, or collecting a trophy. Getting these items is its own reward, and you’ll be doing it because you want to, not because the game tells you to. More games could stand to take a lead from Axiom Verge in this department, making collectibles worth collecting because it’s fun to do so, rather than have them exist solely for padding.

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You get to these items and secrets via the new abilities that you pick up, usually collected after boss fights, though the more powerful ones are deviously hidden throughout the levels themselves. When you begin Axiom Verge, Trace can run, jump and shoot his single, basic weapon. By the end of the game Trace is practically a superhero, able to lay waste to enemies with a dizzying arsenal and a remarkable array of special abilities.

What Axiom Verge does perfectly with its huge selection of weapons and abilities is present them merely as tools, to be used however you see fit to progress through the game. Yes, there are areas you cannot reach without a specific upgrade, or a combination of specific upgrades, as is a core part of the “metroidvania” experience. But when it comes to travelling through each section of Sudra, defeating enemies or fighting bosses, you create your own solutions. There is no wrong way to go about defeating a boss, for example, there is only your way.

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There is no wrong way to approach any challenge the game throws at you and Axiom Verge pulls this off beautifully. How many games have we all played that give you a wealth of different weapons and abilities, yet offers you challenges that can only be overcome in one specific way? Forcing you to beat a challenge the way the game designers want you to. Axiom Verge says to hell with that, and Tom Happ has given us a game that truly allows you to approach (almost) any challenge in any way you see fit, allowing progress specifically designed around how you want to play the game.

Take the way I approached the games fourth boss, Gir-Tab, for example. Don’t worry I’m not about to launch into a massive, spoilerific description. After finding Gir-Tab I tested him, as you do with any boss in Axiom Verge, testing him for his specific weak points and learning his attack patterns. After a few cautionary experimental runs I figured out a solution to killing him and set about doing it. Later, after wandering Sudra lost for forty-five minutes, I took to the Internet to tell me which direction to go and found multiple solutions to the Gir-Tab boss fight. All of them were vastly different from my approach, yet all of them were equally valid, and all of them resulted in success.

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Axiom Verge is also blessed with an excellent control scheme, with slick and precise controls, which is something else that’s crucial in a game like this. Running, jumping, dodging and shooting all feel excellent. When you come upon a jumping challenge, or a new enemy, you’ll be able to piece together what you need to do to overcome  it, and the controls won’t let you down. On those occasions where you fail, where you miss a jump or an enemy gets the better of you, it won’t be the controls that have failed (unlike in many, many other games of Axiom Verge’s class) and you’ll know exactly what to do differently to succeed next time. Axiom Verge also allows you to move Trace using the d-pad rather than the analogue stick, a very welcome addition to proceedings.

While you’re exploring Sudra you’ll come across the various enemies of the world, and there are a ridiculous number of them. Enemy variety in Axiom Verge is mind boggling. Each area of Sudra comes with its own different enemy types, enemies that fit with the aesthetics of the section of the world you’re in, and enemies with new attacks. As you continue to press forward across Sudra you’ll keep meeting new bad guys for you to shoot (or run away from). Every now and again you’ll encounter enemies that are tougher variants on ones you’ve encountered earlier.

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It’s these tougher variations of previously encountered enemies that give Axiom Verge its excellent difficulty curve. More powerful enemies don’t just mean that they take more bullets (or energy blasts) to take down, although they absolutely do, they also come with an upgraded set of attacks. Maybe they move faster, or their movements are more erratic, or their attacks are faster. It’s this re-use of previous enemies, upgraded rather than just having more hit points, that creates a consistent difficulty curve. When you encounter one of these enemy variants you still know how to defeat them, but maybe they’re able to attack from a longer range, forcing you to adapt rather than just tasking you with filling them full of even more red bolts of light.

The apex of this difficulty curve comes in the form of Axiom Verge’s boss fights. At the end of each section of Sudra you’ll find an ominous red travel tube, indicating that there is a boss fight coming your way. On the other side of the tube is a huge, hulking monstrosity that is guarding your passage to the next part of the map, or an ability you need to make more progress. There are a few boss fights scattered throughout the game, each one extremely different from the last, and holy hell are they amazing.

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Boss fights in Axiom Verge are akin to puzzles combined with almost rhythmic reflex tests. As I mentioned earlier when discussing Gir-Tab, when you approach a boss for the first time (or first few times) you’ll be testing it, finding out where its weak points are and how to hit them, while making note of its variety of attacks and how to dodge them. While killing a boss can be done on the first try (it must be, even I managed it once) you’ll more than likely engage in a few trial and error runs, before beginning your assault for real. Fighting bosses in Axiom Verge is the epitome of the games combat, and the most fun you’ll have while playing.

I feel I should also give special mention to the games soundtrack. Created by Tom Happ, yes he literally did create everything in the game, it’s in the same vein as the rest of the game, a throwback to the 8-bit era. It’s chiptune heaven, awesomely scoring everything you do in the game, whether you’re simply exploring the surface of Sudra or engaged in an intense fight for your life against a tough boss. Like the different enemies, the music in Axiom Verge will change to match your environment and perfectly underscores your playing experience. You can check out the soundtrack on YouTube (and I recommend you do whether you’ve played the game or not), but if you want to support Tom Happ you can head over to BandCamp and buy it for $10.

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There is one thing in Axiom Verge that, while not being bad, is a bit of a let down, and that’s the games story. After a lab accident protagonist Trace finds himself on the hostile alien world of Sudra, recruited by a mysterious voice to save the planet from The Breach. What follows is a fairly standard, and maybe even boring, weird science, Sci-Fi story that is predictable and ultimately forgettable. There’s no big twists that you don’t see coming from a mile away, no interesting characters to speak of and no real point to it. At best it’s serviceable, average. But when the rest of the game ranges from excellent to mind blowing, its average-ness sticks out like a sore thumb.

I do have one annoyance with Axiom Verge. Later in the game, when you’ve collected the majority of your different power-ups and abilities, you’ll find yourself travelling back through the game to gain access to all the areas that earlier on were inaccessible to you. The trouble is backtracking can be a huge slog, as enemies will constantly respawn in your wake, and it’s actually quite far to go from one end of Sudra to the other. This could have been fixed by including some kind of fast travel between save points for easier backtracking, but I can completely understand the reasoning behind not including such a feature. It’s a minor gripe however, and one that doesn’t really take away from the fantastic experience that Axiom Verge is.

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Axiom Verge also comes equipped with a specific Speedrun Mode, designed for players who are interested in completing the game 100% as fast as possible, or players who are looking for a different challenge after finishing the game the first time around. Speedrun Mode works slightly differently to the main game. Exploration is kept to a minimum, with secret worlds that are randomly generated on each playthrough disabled completely, and enemies will always start in the same place in each area of the game. Dialogue and custscenes are also turned off. You can approach a speedrun in a few different ways, as the mode comes with a timer that charts how quickly you’re moving through the whole game, but also how quickly you make it to each boss. It’s an interesting addition that serves to present players with a whole different kind of challenge.


Summary

Axiom Verge is a tremendous game, and a hugely impressive achievement, having been completely developed by one man. It’s an impressive throwback to a bygone age, but rather than simply copy/paste the design of the games that inspired it, Tom Happ has created a game that is not only a successful retro game, but a phenomenal game in its own right. Axiom Verge may look like Super Metroid, sound like Super Metroid and feel like Super Metroid, but it quickly becomes more than the sum of its inspiration, and might even surpass the game that inspired it. If you own a PS4 then you owe it to yourself to own a copy of Axiom Verge. You won’t be disappointed.