Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Sony PS Vita
It seems with every passing month there is a new videogame entry into the ever expanding contemporary ‘retro-aesthetic’ collection. It has been an emergent sub-genre that has inflated in a short space of time and already feels dangerously close to cheapening the 8-bit era. Within this emergent trend are attempts to either pay homage or to try and add a spin on the Metroidvania genre, a true staple of a bygone era. Again these entries can at times feel mostly serviceable but never essential to the overall landscape of gaming. Axiom Verge arrives as the latest contender in the 8-bit arena, and while not perfect it is perhaps the best example of capturing authentic 8-bit gaming in recent memory.
We’ve learnt a lot of lessons from videogames over the decades and one recurring lesson is that, if you are a scientist in a game, you are more than likely about to cause some sort of disaster and so it is with Axiom Verge. You play Trace, a scientist performing a vague but obviously dangerous experiment, who thanks to a mini disaster ends up in what seems like an old world that is riddled with advanced technology. If it sounds familiar that’s because it is, the whole opening feels like a cut and paste from Another World. From this point on Trace has to try and find a way back home, unravelling the truth behind what seems to be the aftermath of a devastating battle. It’s certainly not going to win any awards for its story, but in truth it feels like a composite of elements of better stories from other games. This can be forgiven to an extent because it is so authentically 8-bit and by and large those games were never critiqued for lack of depth - so in many ways the simplistic story could be argued to be keeping on theme. If the story can be criticised as uninspired the same cannot be said about any other element of the game and when you take into account that everything was made by one man, Tom Happ, it really does stack up as an incredible achievement.
The game truly excels on a visual level, the 8-bit palette is mastered to such a degree that some of the backdrops to the levels can be truly awe-inspiring. Some games have aped the 8-bit look to merely make there game appear more interesting than perhaps it is, but the look of Axiom Verge comes from a person who you can feel understands and loves that era in gaming. From the main character of Trace to the final boss, everything looks just right and never once across the twelve hour playthrough did Happ drop the ball with anything that felt out of place. The continuity of vision and the ability to deliver on that vision is something that is not often seen in most games never mind in the work of a singular individual.
In terms of design a special mention must go to the bosses in Axiom Verge, with all seven of them being memorable. With its boss-fights Axiom Verge bizarrely harks back to bullet-hell games like R-Type, with huge grotesque machinations throwing an at times dizzying amount of projectiles to be avoided. But no matter how large these beats are there are patterns to be found, environment to be used and damage to be dealt out. Some of these encounters are extremely tough, and at times pushing close to frustrating, but enough attempts will see you succeed whether it be through skill or blind luck - with some bosses you will need to accept that you need to get damaged to actually land enough blows.
As with other Metroidvania games Axiom Verge is all about the exploration and the gradual opening up of the map to allow access to areas that you couldn’t previously reach. Again this is handled with a mastery and knowledge of the genre, with every action feeling like progress in upping that map uncovered percentage that greets you when you load up your save. There are nine areas in total, most linked in some manner that will initially be beyond you. The main method of beginning to opening up areas is through upgrades to your weapon - The Axiom Disruptor. This is a base level projectile weapon but with boss defeats, upgrades will give you more abilities. Early on you will receive a lazer drill upgrade that will allow you to open up some areas by drilling through destructible environment - and there are plenty of hidden areas to access so prepare to become obsessed with drilling every single inch of any given room. There are a good number of upgrades to help you further your exploration but to also make you go back to others areas to try and access previously unreachable ledges.
One of the most original upgrades that is added to the mix is the Address Disruptor, a passive weapon that does no damage but affects the environment and enemies. Its rays serve to corrupt enemies, generating corrupt character blocks all too familiar from the 8-bit era to the point you’ll be wanting to blow the dust out of your cartridge. When you have corrupted an enemy they can do a number of things, from slowing down their attack movements to the enemies then serving as platforms. Equally well the Address Disruptor can open up certain areas of levels, typically blocked by a wall of corrupt data. Once the corruption is fired upon the disruptor will clean up the code before your eyes and you’ll soon be on your way to areas new. It is a genuinely interesting mechanic of the game as you test your disruptor on enemies and environment alike, with each initial test coming with the excitement of what it might bring. The game has also littered upgrades around the levels that will increase your health or weapon range and damage, sometimes these are one-off immediate upgrades and some are incremental, so you’ll need to collect six of these to earn the upgrade.
Happ has done a wonderful job in constantly leading you across this surprisingly vast world in breadcrumb form, in a way that you never truly feel lost but you never feel like you are being led by the hand. There are few contemporary games that will ever make you want to 100% complete it but Axiom Verge does it with ease. As you see the item and map percentage increase your desire to unlock all the mysteries will override any sense of time and responsibility you might have in the real world. The authenticity that oozes from Axiom Verge will have you recalling the days when you used to draw maps out on a scrap bit of paper, or write down overly long passcodes to pick up your progress or unlock a cheat. Probably the finest example of how authentic an experience this is, is that there is a twelve character password that is a famous Metroid password -we’ll let you work that one out for yourselves.
With its different difficulty settings, a speed-run mode and the sheer burning desire to achieve everything possible within the game there is a lot of value on display here. Every seeming dead-end is a challenge, and you’ll be thinking about the map even when you aren’t playing the game. Axiom Verge is a lesson in how to properly take on the Metroidvania genre with utter authenticity and with a bigger team it would be interesting to see what Happ could develop, perhaps something that breaks the shackles of a genre with its own rules. As it stands Axiom Verge is highly recommended, it is a game that knows its source material, has the ability to authentically replicate its inspiration but interesting enough to add its own spin. If you want to relive the days of staying up late, making notes on maps and feeling like you are reconnecting with gaming of your childhood then Axiom Verge will not disappoint.