The term “Metroidvania” gets thrown around a lot when describing games of a certain ilk, and while the word gets its point across with relative ease, the portmanteau also catches an awful amount of flak for its inherent laziness. In turn, some of the same can also be said of the games that “Metroidvania” describes, wherein the mechanics, exploration/action tempered by item gathering most commonly performed in a 2D space, have become so common and widespread that they are a genre within themselves, a genre that is increasingly harder to penetrate with new and exciting ideas.
Its this establishment of sameness within platform-adventure, or “Metroidvania,” games that makes Axion Verge special. Nothing about it should be, mind you, from its inauspicious opening story frames, to its unmistakably Metroid look and feel. It gives off the air of a clone, a clone that's done its homework sure, but a clone nonetheless. And just about at the point where you think you've seen everything Axiom Verge has to offer, it takes a corner and slowly begins to subvert every expectation you've set against it.
Axiom Verge opens with Trace, a scientist working in a lab doing Michael Bay-like science with lasers. Bad things happen, the lab collapses, things explode and Trace falls unconscious. He awakens inside of a mechanical egg, and his thoughts are immediately invaded by a voice not his own imploring him to move into an adjacent room to arm himself before something named Athetos comes. After some exploration, he eventually comes face to giant face with the voice in his head, the slowly dying giant robot head belonging to a member of an alien race known as the Rusalki. She explains that he was chosen to help save them.
Trace, like any rational person not immediately predisposed to being a wayward hero, has some problems with this. If he was chosen, why doesn't he remember anything from after the accident? On top of that, why does he end up back in the metal egg every time dies? And why does every giant monster he has faced so far act surprised and scared before being compelled to violence? Nothing seems to add up, and his responses to this drive home just how different Axiom Verge is from its contemporaries. There's a questioning of both himself and his surroundings that gets passed on to the player, adding a genuine mystery to the exploration aspect of the game.
Building on top of the story's foundation is a tight, exciting gameplay loop of exploration and discovery. Trace's weapon, the Axiom Disruptor, starts with a satisfying straight shot. Minutes later, you find a shot that bursts when you hit the fire button again, and from there the variants only get more outlandish and interesting. There's a type for nearly every situation and play style, and even though I managed to find 12 different types, the box they are stored in on the inventory screen was still only half full.
Rather then finding your favorite and sticking to it, Axiom Verge encourages a broadening of your personal style, especially by way of its boss fights. While I found the last few susceptible to a brute force approach, the others felt like crazy races to finding the best way to exploit the bosses weak points.
As should be expected, locations are often locked off by ability requirements, something akin to seeing a door or item behind a wall and having no way to access it. Until you get a drill. Or a drone that digs. Or a teleport that breaks rocks. Or a beam that disrupts the very fabric of reality like it was made out of computer code. I found very quickly that if there was something I could see, there was often a way to reach it that either I hadn't considered or just not found, and I was always pleasantly surprised by the answer Axiom Verge provided.
The only time this fell apart for me happened about three quarters of the way through the game. I had back tracked some because, naturally, I found an answer to an environmental question posed in an earlier area, and I lost the thread as it were. I had no idea where the next area I was supposed to go was, and I kept running into blocks to progress that I hadn't yet found a way through. The map provided in game is an immense grid of squares and I found that even searching rooms I had not fully explored was proving fruitless. On verge of asking someone else for assistance, I stumbled upon a solution in a room I had been to more then a dozen times which used two abilities that I had never combined before.
Can I blame the game for this? Of course I can. But I won't because the fault I found was in my trying to apply modern game logic to a classic game problem. I was given the tools, both inventory and map wise, and I was the point that failed, which led to a fantastic bit of fist pumping when I actually figured out just what the hell I had to do. This instance, one of triumph over a seemingly self made adversity, was easily the best moment in gaming I have had this year.
That moment, or rather the multiple moments of discovery whether planned or not, serve as an excellent metaphor for Axiom Verge itself. Where a lesser game might have been simply happy with being a clone, this one breaks that mold in some real terrific ways. Its story is simple, yet subverts convention with its attitude. The exploration loop is incredibly satisfying, and combat feels both tight and adaptable, like a complex dance where the partners both accentuate each others strengths, allowing any weak points to fade into the background. I could go on, but honestly, the next sentence sums everything I need to say up quite nicely.
You really, REALLY, should play Axiom Verge.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!