There was a time when ‘Metroidvania’ titles were flooding the market. Recent trends have a seen a move towards the super hard ‘Rogue-like’ game and with no new Castlevania or Metroid on the horizon gamers have been at a loss as to how to scratch their map filling itch. But fear not because Axiom Verge is here and it’s a little big special.
The brain child of one man studio Tom Happ, the game follows the long twisting story of a scientist who awakens in a strange world after he dies in an accident. It’s certainly closer to Metroid than Castlevania but there’s also enough of a difference to not make it seem like one of those carbon copy knock offs you used to get called things like Poc-Man or Space Invaded. Considering the lack of this type of game around at the minute and the fact the last proper 2D Metroid was back on the Gameboy Advance there’s certainly a gap in the market.
If you’re not familiar with this type of game then let us explain. In Axiom Verge you explore and leap around the various landscapes shooting monsters and looking for useful objects. Upgrades normally give you a new move of some kind. In this case the first few you find add a drill for destroying certain types of wall, a high jump and shift scrambler thing. These objects then allow bypassing of certain obstacles and exploring further. You basically keep going until you meet a boss or hit an area where you clearly need something to progress and it’s wonderfully addictive as your little map constantly updates and fills out the layout of the areas.
Of course, you have to want to explore and Axiom Verge does a good job of keeping you locked into it. The environments are beautifully realised in their old school pixel style and each area has a unique look and characteristic. Enemy types also vary widely from area to area and the accompanying musical score sets the scene perfectly. The game also does a good job of keeping interesting looking things just about out of sight so you are always intrigued to go back later and see what they are.
The bosses you come up against start off large and proceed to get bigger and badder as the game progresses. They all require decent dexterity and brain power to overcome and this is a throwback to the shoot the 'glowing weak spot’ of old days. We didn’t come across anything crushingly difficult but you do need to be your toes. The difficulty level in general is set just about right. There is the odd spike here and there but our exploration was never stopped for too long. It can be annoying to be sent back a long way to the last save point but you do keep your exploration progress.
The save points are spread around each area and see our hero entering a pod which regenerates their health. These aren’t exactly everywhere so you do have been careful when exploring as there can be a bit of distance between them. We did find this a little frustrating to begin with but once we found a few upgrades it became much less of an issue. The one thing we really would have liked to have seen is the ability to teleport between save points. It was the developer’s choice not to integrate this but it would have solved the frustration of realising you need to be all the way over on the other side of the map.
There isn’t much hand holding here either. Don’t expect map markers of flashing squares to guide you to where you need to go. We didn’t really have much issue with this as you nearly always have to go to the bit you haven’t been able to explore yet so it wasn’t exactly rocket science to work out what to do next most of the time. If you do find something that looks interesting the PC version now allows you to drop a little reminder marker there for you to come back to later.
Level design is strong throughout, which is good as there’s a serious chunk of game to get through here. It’s massively impressive to think this has been created by a one person team as it has the production values and feel of something made by a much bigger collection of people. It’s filled with moments that you’ll remember and it seems to have been so carefully created that you can’t help but marvel at what has been achieved at times.
Overall, Axiom Verge is a highly impressive game. It remains original enough while playing off core values of classic games to keep away feelings that you’ve seen it all before. It offers up surprises and fun new things to play with at regular intervals and gives players some big beasties to test themselves against. It’s a well thought-out game that has moments of genuine brilliance among a core of all round good design. It’s very easy to recommend this to fans of the genre as there hasn’t been a Metroidvania this good since Zero Mission.