I’ve had my eye on Axiom Verge for a while now. It's been kicking around since 2010 in the form of a personal pet project of its author Tom Happ, but after almost four years of development it finally caught the eye of a major publisher. In this case, Sony, who decided to back the game through its Pub Fund program and release it on PS4 and PS Vita.
And a bloody good job too.
To get straight to the point - because you've probably already guessed as much by looking at the pictures - Axiom Verge is a Metroidvania game. However, it's one that's saturated in Metroid, with perhaps a soupcon of vania. The author himself freely admits that the game is inspired by his childhood favorites, Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, and Metroid of course, and that his goal for Axiom Verge is to make something that’s very similar, but with a few tweaks and refinements that he always wished for - such as a wider variety of weapons available to its hero.
The first question that's immediately raised by all of this is – why do we need another Metroid game when the original is such a classic? It’s the question I was asking myself as I started to play, but very quickly I stopped looking for an answer, because I didn’t care. I found myself being sucked into Axiom Verge’s action as swiftly and inexorably as I was when I first encountered Metroid almost three decades ago.
There’s a thick air of familiarity about it, as you would imagine, but it's not just in the gameplay. It's in the little things. Anyone who gamed through the 80’s and 90’s will love the meticulous attention to detail poured into the game’s looks and cut scenes. The backgrounds are authentically tiled, colors and black space have been cleverly used to create period-style shading and depth, and even the way the enemies move and fire feels absolutely spot-on. It's like somebody blew on an NES cartridge, stuffed into the front of your PS4, and it magically worked.
I’m certainly aware of the incongruity of enthusing about the fastidious recreation of almost thirty year old aesthetics on a cutting edge piece of gaming machinery, but ultimately it is exactly that: an aesthetic. Whether it takes the pixelated form of an 8-bit game, or is rendered in astonishing photorealistic 1080p, the look is essentially the wallpaper covering the most important aspect of this game – and that’s the way it plays. From the short time I’ve spent with Axiom Verge, it seems to do so very, very well. It follows the classic Metroidvania format, but has a scrupulously crafted air about it. Platforms are spaced just so. Aliens are where they are for a reason. Even the boss fights have a classic feel about them: hard, but fair. The mistakes you make are your own – a flubbed jump or poor avoidance forethought, not the result of some cheap shot, or a random pixel of doom.
I mentioned earlier that Axiom Verge’s designer wanted to make a few tweaks and refinements to the way the game works – a wider variety of weapons being one of them. A far more interesting feature, however, are inbuilt glitches. These are inspired by old cart hacking devices like the Game Genie, or the kind of glitches you could create by pulling out a cartridge and putting it back in while playing. In Axiom Verge, if you find the right spot, you can glitch through walls and find hidden areas, transform bits of landscape or even change enemies into something else. It’s an inventive addition to the game, and one that helps deepen game’s classic roots by presenting something old in a new way.
So far, I’m really excited about what I’ve seen of Axiom Verge. Whether or not the game stays the course and delivers on its promise is yet to be seen. But its E3 demo was terrific: a classic gaming format presented with perfect period visuals that feels utterly authentic. If the game’s map and play mechanics deliver the kind of intriguing puzzles and challenges that they look like they’re capable of, this thing will be a rare neo-retro treat to be savored.