Load up Axiom Verge, and, within seconds, it should be clear what the game's trying to do. If you're old enough to have lived through the 8-bit era, those low, ominous tones matched with its Alien-style visual motif should immediately conjure up memories of Nintendo's Metroid—developer Thomas Happ isn't all that shy about his direct inspiration.
If you haven't followed its much-delayed development, Axiom Verge—originally due to release on Microsoft platforms in 2013—belongs to the Metroidvania genre: Essentiallty, 2D platformers that emphasize exploration—like Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, to list the most obvious examples. It's a style of game that seemingly breathed its last breath in the mainstream after Konami's Japanese-developed, 2D Castlevanias ceased to be a annual event back in the late '00s. But, as with most abandoned genres, the indie scene has taken the Metroidvania concept under its wing, with Axiom Verge being the most brazen—or perhaps, honest—about its roots.
If you've ever played any of the non-Prime Metroids, Axiom Verge should feel incredibly familiar—hell, in typical Metroid fashion, you even have to travel immediately to the left to nab your first power-up. All of the expected hooks are here, as well: Winding your way through the caverns of Axiom's space-maze, you can't help but take note of those chunks of scenery begging to be revisited once you pick up a new weapon designed to destroy or exploit them. And, like Samus Aran before him, protagonist Trace doesn't have much to say; though he fills a few more dialogue boxes than Metroid's hero, Axiom understands the best way to communicate atmosphere is through its creepy visuals and relentlessly throbbing chiptune soundtrack.
If you're expecting some unexpected twist on the typical Metroidvania formula, Axiom Verge may disappoint you—it only takes a few minutes with the game to understand just how hard it wants to Metroidvania. But, thanks to developer Thomas Happ's evident understanding of what makes this genre special, Axiom Verge's lack of ambition isn't really an issue. Just like Shovel Knight, Axiom takes a perfectly viable concept and approaches it with everything we've learned (and forgotten) about game design over the past 25 years.
Axiom Verge isn't entirely a carbon copy of Metroid, though, mainly because its main character operates with a lot more versatility. Samus Aran's weapon upgrade path typically takes a linear form, with more powerful weapons essentially "overwriting" her previous ones. Combat situations in Axiom Verge, though, have to be approached a little more thoughtfully, seeing as Trace's many weapons each have their own uses tailor-made for specific situations—usually spelled out by the enemies found immediately after picking them up. The "Nova" gun, for instance, fires out a ball of energy that explodes into a radius of projectiles on your command, making it perfect for hitting enemies from behind or taking out clustered groups of weaklings. And, like Metroid's bombs, Axiom Verge offers tools that assist in exploration: A drill attachment blasts through marked blocks (and some unmarked ones), while the Address Disruptor turns enemies into gitchy sprite blobs, which happen to make pretty good floating platforms.
To be honest, it's much easier to talk about Axiom in terms of its relationship to Metroid, so I apologize if this write-up touched on the subject too much. Still, it's hard to deny Thomas Happ's creation is unabashedly Metroid—and I don't think he'd take issue with that description. I've only invested a few hours into the preview build, and if the remaining game manages to keep me entertained with new weapons, items, and situations at the same steady pace, Axiom could shape up to be an amazing spiritual sequel to Metroid. Frankly, it's a game that could stand to be borrowed from a whole lot more.