Here we have it. Once again, this year has a few must-plays for me on the way, and Axiom Verge is the first one. Unlike last year, however, this one took me by surprise. I had no idea it was even in the works until it released for PS4 back in March. When I saw the first screenshot of a giant head looking down at your character from where it was connected by bio-technological tubing straight out of some nightmare induced hybridizing of Alien and Akira, it had my attention. From there, everything I saw and heard only sold me more and more on the game, and when it launched a few weeks ago on PC, I had to pick it up day 1 and start playing. I've now finished and overall, I have to say this was an amazing title that more will need to play.
Story: In the year 2005, Trace was running a very high tech experiment. He and his team had tried this several times before, but it always ended in failure... until today. Today, it is unknown how successful the experiment was, because the lab and the building containing it blew up. However, somehow during the explosion, Trace did not die. At least, neither we not he can be sure if he died. What we all know for sure is the next thing he knew, he woke up in a giant egg-like pod as it opened up with a voice calling his name with two messages... the first telling him he needs to collect a weapon from the other room, and the second to hurry, since she is not strong enough to "keep him away."
From this rather vague and random beginning, you will take Trace on a journey to discover just where the hell he is and what the hell is going on. And while the game will explain this sufficiently and even throw a few descent turns along the way, it will not go too out of it's way to explain much. Basically, the entire story is told through a handful of narrations between a few characters that are fighting for survival and Trace, usually just before or after boss fights. The only thing really keeping this from being a throw-away plot we would expect for a video game is that it is actually very well written and leaves you with enough at each point to wonder what is going to happen next (which I will leave you to discover for not wanting to give spoilers). Would I call the story some masterpiece everyone needs to see and hear? Absolutely not, but I would say there is more effort here to pull you in then many other games you have and will play.
Graphics: This game is another case where I could just say a few words (this time "Super Metroid") and walk away having explained to anyone who has played that game. (And by the way, if you haven't, you need to. Arguably the best side-scrolling game of the franchise, let alone of the system.) But for anyone who has not been fortunate enough to play the older title, that would be a disservice. As you would suspect with that introduction, Axiom Verge is a 2D platformer in image that is just drenched in retro-style. From the moment you see the opening, this becomes blatantly obvious as the title uses a background made of tiles form the game in resolutions we haven't seen in console gaming NOT made to imitate the old days since the mid-90s. The result is a first impression that is fairly lackluster, to be quite honest.
And hitting start doesn't help right away either, for the intro is made of still and lightly animated pictures of the same style, all of which look like they could have easily been made to fit on an NES cart. If you need a direct comparison, the closest I can come up with is the way Ninja Gaiden back in the day did it's cutscenes, but sadly the artwork at this point doesn't match up yet. You see, this game really only gets to shine once the game begins as the single human character you see until then really does not look good, but rather shows quite well this game was made by a single person, and that person probably can't draw people particularly well.
But that is all over in a few minutes as the game begins, and now, you will be wowed. Yes the game is still 8/16-bit and at a low resolution you expect for emulating what those systems were like, but you will be greeted with a liquid smooth animation of an egg-like machine opening up and Trace waking up, as well as a communication from a shadowy-face urging you forward. The world around you will be a cavern with moving red goopy-bubbles, and generally feel alien before you even see your first enemy.
From this humble start, you will find yourself quickly in varying locations from tunnels of stone, to clearly metallic alien structures, to organic tumorous surroundings, to even the open air of the surface of the world you are about to explore. It is actually very varied and will not leave you wondering where you are because everything looks the same. It simply doesn't, doing a brilliant job of giving each area it's own feel, from relatively peaceful fields to graveyards where you know shit went down and killed THOUSANDS, but you can't be sure it's over. There is even some outright horror brought into the mix before this game is done!
And that does not include the glitches you will see that will really separate this game from anything else. If you remember playing old cart-based NES games, you remember how that system was prone to graphical glitches after a while. You may even remember all the old tricks kids used to use to fix them. This game has them as a kind of tribute to the old days, which I will get into a lot more later in this review, as they play a crucial part in how you play. But for once, you will be looking forward to a lot of them rather then dreading the inevitable.
Sound: Being an old-school style game, as you expect there is no voice work here at all. Also, the sounds effects fit the theme being the kind of things you would expect to hear on your old NES. Every weapon has it's own blip, bloop, or low grade explosion sound effect that will harken back to the games of old when fired while enemies have a handful of different sounds when they are hit. The result is a very satisfying throwback for the ears to a simpler time of gaming.
But that is not the star here. Rather the music is the must-listen part of this game. Techno-industrial meets 8-bit with random touches to just keep it irratic enough to never fall too far out of the background, this is arguably one of the stand-out soundtracks of the year. It is simply amazing and if you are into chip-tune music at all, you will likely be picking up not only the game but the DLC soundtrack for your own collection. To take a personal moment, my first two encounters with this game were a screenshot that instantly had my attention as an Alien fan and this set of music (as someone had uploaded it to youtube). That was all it took to get my attention, and really, I can not recommend the music enough for this title.
Gameplay: As mentioned before, Axiom Verge is played from a 2D perspective. From the moment you walk out of that egg, you will have free roam to run and jump wherever you like. A moment later, you will pick up your first weapon and open up more places by killing enemies and blowing up dancing red bubbles that were previously in your way. Before long you will find a weapon you can fire and blow up when you desire, allowing you to shoot things around corners, which will be necessary to open even more places to go. This is an adventure game in which the main goal is to explore, find stuff to make you tougher or expand your reach to new places in the world, and ultimately get ready to fight the bosses you will find in your way and progress the story.
And doing so is an almost perfect joy on it's own. You will find yourself looking for new and inventive ways to use everything you get, especially when you first pick up the Address Disruptor. From that point on you will have the ability to "glitch" enemies to make them easier in some way or even make them useful. For example, early in the game you will find gelatinous hives of insects that until you get this weapon, you will be forced to just destroy because the bugs can really get in the way. However, once you have this weapon, you can glitch out these hives, turning them into a jumbled mess of glitched up graphics that spew health instead of insects. This is just one of the unique changes you will cause to enemies, so experimenting with this device is definitely encouraged. In addition, you will find such tactics necessary as there are areas that can be glitched or unglitched to let you proceed in the map itself, making this an absolutely essential part of the game.
Of course there are other abilities you will gain as you play. To be quite honest I've never seen a game of this nature with this much variety in weapons and upgrades, which in their own also get upgraded as the game progresses, but for how much joy there is in the exploration that makes up most of the game and this only adds brilliantly to, the game has a few very specific flaws that need to be mentioned. With a game this good, they just stick out way too much to not bring up.
First and foremost are the controls. This game heavily recommends a controller and with good reason, but it could definitely have used it better. Specifically, there are a set of coats in the game that let you glitch yourself out to "teleport" through walls of varying thickness. This is done by double-tapping the direction you want to go, which if you have used a modern controller with analog sticks for movement instead of a rocker switch, you can see why this can become a problem. When trying to do precision platforming, it is all too easy to accidentally fly off a small distance and completely miss (or go through) your jump. Add that to a specific room in which there is no pattern but the random movement of enemies to use as platforms and acid below if you fall off, and this leaves a specific point in the game that is downright diabolical for all the wrong reasons.
And let's continue with specific points because there are a handful that will leave many wanting... the bosses. During your play-through, you will face off with several of these monstrosities, but sadly, only the first three will really be satisfying. The others are literally all fights that you either can not lose or are stupidly hard (if even possible) without the right weapon which will basically let you stand (or in some cases, crouch) in one spot and just keep shooting until they die. Literally, this is how I got through every single boss in this game after the third one. To call such design when everything else shines so brightly disappointing is simply an understatement.
Bugs: I find it funny that I have to list an actual bug in a game designed around using/causing glitches as one of it's core mechanics, but there is exactly one issue I ran into when playing this game. There are a few rooms that zoom out when you enter them. This in it's own is a cool effect you don't see coming, suddenly bringing resolutions closer to what we would expect in a modern game and show off the shear epic size of what's going on at that moment, but those rooms have an odd bug where the flash that usually shows you were hit and are now invincible for a second makes you outright invisible instead. It is a very small thing in the game, but it can be annoying when it happens.
Overall: While I do have some very specific issues with this game, I can not sing it's praises enough. More then just a competent MetroidVania title, Axiom Verge is an amazing game that more often then not just shows how good retro-style games can be. If you were ever interested in the Metroid franchise in any way and wanted a new 2D game that lived up to that name, this is the first one we've had in years and you would be doing yourself a serious disservice to miss it. If you miss the old-days of gaming, I also can't recommend this game enough as it feels like and plays with that ascetic with a master's touch. Hell even if you like just being given something fun that you need to figure out for yourself, this game will do that too. Basically, this is one of those rare games I have a hard time finding any group I can't say should try it. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but it is easily one of the best games I have played in a long time.
Source’s Listed System Requirements:
- 2.0 Ghz Intel Pentium E2180
- 500MB RAM
- Intel HD 4400
- Windows XP
- 500 MB hard drive space
- AMD Athalon 5350 APU (quad core) processor running at 2.05 Ghz
- 4GB RAM
- AMD Radeon HD 8400 (built into APU)
- Broadband Connection
- and Windows 8.1