“The legacy of Sudra is atonement. It is reparation of the sea and the stars. It is the suffering that brings our salvation.”
Steve Jobs once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” What developer Tom Happ accomplishes with his breakout title is an embodiment of something further beyond . Though it begs comparison to classic 2D side-scrollers such as Metroid and Symphony of the Night, Axiom Verge masterfully champions a unique sense of style that Happ can be proud of.
The story of Axiom Verge follows a scientist, Trace, who suffers severe injury after an accident within his laboratory. However, Trace neither dies nor comes to consciousness, but wakes in a desolate, alien environment where he must fight for his life. Arming himself with the Axiom Disruptor weapon, Trace must trek through this world filled with strange organic and mechanical lifeforms in effort to discover the truth as well as how to escape this world known as Sudra.
While set up with a potentially interesting exposition, the game never goes to great lengths to create meaningful character interaction or development. The plot is merely serviceable to what is an enjoyable and addicting gameplay experience. This leaves room for disappointment as Happ creates an otherwise wonderfully stark world to explore. Players are occasionally treated to bits of exposition, but the overwhelming majority of the game is deciphering how to progress. Not nearly enough is given in terms of clues or reasons to care about those involved. Players can collect hidden documents, but they are by and large indecipherable, only able to be read by using an item that is secret and unnecessary for the game’s completion. In addition to the main game is a timed trial mode that removes the dialogue and cutscenes from the game. Times recorded by your friends will show on the leaderboard, encouraging you to post a speedrun time of your own.
While the plot supplies cause for moving from point A to B, the gameplay is what spellbinds players to their joysticks. Following suit with classic “Metroidvania” style games, getting from one area to another is never simple. The map is completely hidden from the player’s view until he or she travels to the new areas and charts them out. The challenge lies in gathering the cleverness to deduce the different ways one can progress. Some areas simply cannot be mastered until a particular weapon or tool is handy for use. Additionally, there is no manual save option as the game gives you designated save rooms to visit, similar to predecessors in the genre.
Players will find themselves getting lost frequently and potentially dying while straying into areas they shouldn’t be in. This game in particular maintains a punishing attitude that is becoming less prevalent in modern gaming.
Some of the unique gadgets you will unlock are tools that give skills, such as the ability to phase through barriers, a remote detonator, and a distortion field that allows you to disrupt a segment of the map in order to pass into a hidden area. The game packs twenty-two different weapons for you to discover as well as unique powerups for your lab coat. However, some of these are not necessary to complete the game and are hidden by cleverly designed puzzle rooms. Also scattered throughout the game are power and health nodes, which increase the damage from your Axiom Disruptor and health, respectively.
The most frustrating part about the gameplay can also be its most rewarding. The experience can harken back to players drawing out their own maps on graph paper. I would discover several new items, only to backtrack through five different open areas while trying to remember where they could be usable. Because of this, it is not uncommon to spend several hours in frustration while trying to proceed forward. However, once you finally discover a new path, it is supremely gratifying – until you reach the next wall of progression. It’s important not to hold the player’s hand, but some form of visible objective can go a long way in improving the experience.
Periodically throughout Axiom Verge, Trace will encounter giant alien lifeforms that attempt to make sense of who or what the scientist is. The meeting always results in a unique boss encounter that require their own special mechanics. Many of the games battles will force you to experiment with your vast weapon wheel and finding what best suits your playstyle. You may also find yourself swapping guns on the fly.
While the level design never meets the caliber of previous games in the genre, it does possess its own flair. While many games in the genre prefer to tell their stories through the world itself, Axiom Verge’s world often feels empty and desolate. This is both a uniqueness and a detriment to the title, as the game features a healthy variety of creatures, but the lack of description and detailed plot leaves the player feeling as though they are simply barricades standing between Trace and his goal. That being said, it is undeniable that the world of Sudra bears a unique visual style with its dreary color scheme and horrifying slug monsters. The 16-bit art is a continuing love letter to classic video games.
Everyone loves a quality soundtrack as well. From the opening credits, Axiom Verge’s retro tracks are engrossing and nostalgic. They take on their own unique personality through soulful use of bass and electronic sound. Certain pieces of music possess an “it” factor when it comes to describing a mood, and Tom Happ’s compositions (yes, he wrote the music as well) satisfy the game’s universe with finesse.
Axiom Verge is a short campaign (around ten hours) that derives additional playtime from the vast amount of collectibles that exist for completionists. The game keeps an internal log of your map and item completion. Obtaining those trophies and achievements will take considerably longer than a standard playthrough. Seeing as the game derives its success from gameplay and progression, players can easily spend many hours backtracking to areas long past, discovering hidden areas that cannot be revealed without meticulous attention to detail. What follows is a satisfying amount of gameplay for a standout indie title.
The most astounding aspect of the 2015 title is that a sole developer was responsible for the game in its entirety. It is a game molded around one gamer’s deep respect and passion for video games of the past. Playing through Axiom Verge allows you to embrace that wave of nostalgia and make it your own. It never shies away from features of its predecessors, but carves out its own unique place in the Metroidvania genre.