If there is one Nintendo property that hasn’t received a fair shake lately, it's Metroid. Zelda, Mario, and Pikachu have thrived under Nintendo’s banner, with game after game offering a new spin on the formula or serve as cheap nostalgia fuel. The last time Samus got proper attention was with Other M and it painted an odd portrait of the beloved, ass kicking bounty hunter. Left without a game to makes use of the franchise’s oft-repeated structure, indie developers have taken it upon themselves to keep the spirit alive. Axiom Verge takes every compelling element from Metroid to create something fun and compelling. Although it feels almost too much of an homage than an original create, Axiom Verge doesn't suffer for it in the least.
The story of the game feels ripped from the pages of Half Life. Tracer is a scientist working out of a facility designed to explore the mysteries of the universe. When an experiment goes horribly wrong, Trace is transported to an alien, biomechanical world. His only ally is an ailing, disembodied AI-like being that is a victim of a malevolent being. In order to survive and fight back evil, the system needs Trace’s help and sends him on a journey to save her brethren. Axiom Verge proudly wears its inspiration on the open as the allusions to Metroid are many. From its non-linear progressions, blocked pathways need a special item to access, to its grid-based map, the game plays exactly how as it did years before. There are a few variations on the formula that offer pleasant conveniences like the ability to lock the character’s firing direction and a forgiving death system. If Trace is killed, he is immediately warped back to the last save spot. Enemies will respawn but any items or weapons collected before death remain in the player's possesion. This is a welcome adjustment, considering some enemies are particularly tough without the right weapon (though, honestly, any weapon will ultimately suffice).
Exploration is what drives Axiom Verge because it is the only way to collect new weapons, weapon boosts, and health upgrades. As I said previously, the Metroid design of non-linear play is in effect. Trace can only go so far before his path is blocked and for the most part, the game generally steers the player towards the tools they need. There were a few times where I felt unsure of where to go and in this situation, backtracking never hurts. The map is a big help, as it lets you set markers for areas to be explored later. Getting around is simple enough by hopping to and from platforms, though some areas and passages are inaccessible without the right tools. Enter the laser drill and the hacking gun. The drill is useful for cutting through solid rock, bringing to mind the function of Samus’ super bombs, to reveal secret areas and shortcuts. For the most part, drill-able blocks are easy to spot but Axiom Verge likes to be devious and masks such blocks with the environment, making their near accidental reveal all the more exciting.
The hacking gun is a particularly cool addition to the game. This beam-like weapon can fix environment glitches to expose hidden platforms and new routes. It’s made even more special because of the unique and game changing effect it has on enemies. As an example, there is an enemy type in one area that is mostly harmless, as all it does is move up and down. They’re easy enough to dodge and do not fight back when shot. I found myself in a room filled with these targets and just for laughs, I hacked one of them and was surprised to see that every enemy of that type in the room took on a new glitched out appearance. The real surprise came next: killing one of the newly hacked creatures ended up destroying every single one in the room, leaving my path forward unmolested. The ability to change the behavior and attack pattern of an enemy is an empowering feature. Experimentation is actively encouraged because you never really know what sort of effect it will have on opponents.
Axiom Verge is a fun, polished game to play and the controls are just right. Graphically, the game has all the charm of the 16-bit era, complete with a soundtrack that matches the mystery and allure of Metroid. I can’t say more than that about the music because it didn’t take long before I tuned everything out and rocked out to a copy of the Super Metroid soundtrack. The game is colorful despite its Giger-like aesthetic. It even includes of bit of Mega Man 9-style screen flickering when things get visually busy. For the most part, this effect is mostly for show and has no adverse effect on the game's performance, though I would subconsciously stop for a moment as if I needed to wait for the game to catch up (which wasn't necessary but done out of habit).
Axiom Verge is a great game that will scratch the itch for anyone scorned by Nintendo's failure to give Samus a needed and deserved shot in the arm. While I feel that game hugs a little too close to its inspiration, it nonetheless does a great job of recreating the classic experience while putting its own spin on the design. The game is sizeable and meaty, with many secrets to explore. There's even a speedrun mode that will test the skills of seasoned players. As we wait for Samus’ grand return, Axiom Verge is the perfect game to play until the ranking queen of video game characters returns to claim her throne.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.