Jeremy: By this point, I've said enough nice things about Thomas Happ's Axiom Verge that they could probably just send out a press release consisting of nothing but my quotes. I loved the game on PlayStation 4, continued loving it after letting the experience sink in for a few months, and even cherish the soundtrack I picked up on vinyl earlier this year.
Up until now, though, I've actually considered my time with the game to be slumming it, in a sense. Much as I enjoyed exploring the game on PlayStation 4, I've personally been holding out for the Vita version. My heart really belongs to portable systems, and I love Vita in all the ways that Sony clearly doesn't. 3DS may have the superior library thanks to a manufacturer that, you know, actually supports it, but the Vita as a portable device simply can't be topped. The system seems like it would be the perfect home for a game like Axiom Verge; portable consoles tend to be much kinder to retro-style action games than TV-based systems, and it's not like Axiom Verge's 2D side-scrolling visuals should tax a system as powerful as the Vita.
Much to my surprise, though, I've found myself walking away from my eagerly anticipated Vita run-through of Axiom Verge after only a couple of hours with it. What should be a perfect union of software and system won't quite sync up, and all playing the game on Vita has ultimately accomplished for me has been to instill an urge to go back and play it again on PS4. I'm disappointed, but I suppose in hindsight I shouldn't have been.
Visually, at least, Axiom Verge looks incredible on Vita. I initially played through it on a 40" screen, which is great for immersive 3D games like Far Cry Primal but does have a tendency to transmute pixel-art games like Axiom Verge into a sort of abstract Magic Eye experience in which you sometimes have to let your vision go slightly out of focus to see the game the way it was meant to be viewed. No such problem exists with the Vita version: Shrunken down to a tenth the size with the deep, rich blacks of the original model's OLED screen, Axiom Verge looks utterly gorgeous. The vivid, faux-8-bit neons of the game world pop explosively from areas of black as deep and dark as the night sky. The only way the game could possibly look better would be to somehow hook it up to a high-end CRT television to get some scanlines and phosphor glow going on to complete the look.
That would be tough to do, of course, because Axiom Verge was designed for HD consoles, and high-definition CRTs aren't easy to come by. Therein also lies the problem with this conversion of the game: It was clearly designed for a more capable system than the Vita, and cramming it into the Vita's limitations demanded a certain degree of compromise. Unfortunately, the degree to which it had be compromised takes the overall experience to a point that undermines its playability.
You can see the Vita struggling with the game quite often in the forms of slowdowns, awkward pauses, and overly lengthy loading times — problems the PS4 never suffered from. In some cases, the slowdown doesn't seem so egregious; when you move into large, open spaces full of enemies, the action drags out momentarily... just like Axiom Verge's inspiration, Metroid. It's not an intentional nod, but in a game built so heavily around fond reminiscences of that NES classic, it doesn't feel at all out of place. For the most part, though, the technical errors have a much less heartwarming effect. The unpredictable hitches in the action, where everything stops moving altogether for a fraction of a second or longer, create the sensation that the whole affair is about to come crashing down. I've experienced a few pauses that lasted long enough I was shocked when the game didn't crash outright.
While I'm not one to rail on about minor performance issues, in this case the Vita version's flaws betray one of the fundamental principles of the game. Axiom Verge revolves around the concept of computer glitches and errors, but strictly those under the player's control. In order for that concept to work, the game has to run silky-smooth so that your own abuses of the virtual environment stand out. When the game sporadically misbehaves, the impact and integrity of the deliberate glitching disintegrates. Axiom Verge invites the player to tear about its digital universe... but when the universe seems on the brink of flying apart all on its own, it becomes harder to appreciate the cleverness of the underlying design.
Plus, despite its retro looks, Axiom Verge depends very much on modern controllers. The PlayStation 4 game made full use of every input option available on the DualShock 4, and it becomes awkward to control when squeezed into a system with fewer buttons. The Vita port maps key functions to corners of the touchscreen, complete with handy, barely visible translucent circular overlays at the edges of the screen to indicate the hot spots, but in practice it doesn't quite do the trick. The game's secondary functions (aim-lock, the drill, the "glitch gun," etc.) sat on the PS4's shoulder buttons, allowing you to run and jump around while making free use of those features. On Vita, only two of those four functions can fit on the shoulder buttons with the remainder relegated to touch inputs.
This, too, has a tremendous impact on the game experience, as much of the Axiom Verge experience involves running around testing the effects of your support tools on the environment. By forcing you to hold the touch screen to activate these powers, the Vita version removes much of your mobility (you can't hold down the touch screen and tap X to jump without some remarkably nimble finger skills, after all) and bogs down the pacing of the action. You can remap all the controls however you like, but I've yet to find a solution that works as well as playing on a DualShock 4. I've also discovered that in playing fast-paced action games, my right thumb tends to bump into the right stick more often than I realized; I've lost count of how many times I blew the rhythm of an intense shootout by accidentally brushing the stick and bringing up the weapon select menu.
Don't get me wrong: Underneath it all, Axiom Verge on Vita is the same great game as it was on PS4 and Steam. But it doesn't perform as well or control as well, and for a game as finely tuned as this, those minor hitches make this a less-than-ideal format for experiencing the game. Thankfully, Sony's cross-buy means that anyone who picks up the game on Vita also has access to the PS4 version, but that doesn't make the imperfections of this port any less disappointing. Axiom Verge and Vita should be a marriage made in heaven, but in the end I just found myself wishing mom and dad would stop fighting. The game remains as great as ever, but subtract a point from the score if you're playing on Vita.
Very simple 8-bit style interface that works great.
It's no walk in the park, and if once you've completed it, you can always go back and try the speedrun mode if you want a real challenge.
Top-notch chiptunes and effects seamlessly mixed with contemporary music evoke a wonderful atmosphere.
Authentic period graphics are surprisingly moody and effective.
Although it closely follows the Metroidvania blueprint, the brilliantly designed and executed Axiom Verge adds enough new and original features to make it a truly great game in its own right. An absolute must for retro fans.