Axiom Verge is one of the best games I’ve ever played. And if you’re a fan of 2D Metroid, you should go and buy it right now.
A love letter to Super Metroid and its ilk, Axiom Verge took developer Thomas Happ around five years to make, and the game’s polish and depth is testament to its prolonged gestation. It originally came out digitally in 2015, but at the end of January (November 2017 in the US), Spanish publisher BadLand Games re-released it in a funky new physical edition. The standard version just includes the game, but the Multiverse Edition has a fancy art booklet with developer’s commentary, a poster, a making-of documentary and (on Switch only) a soundtrack CD. According to Happ, the explanation for why only the Switch gets a CD is that the “Nintendo Switch version is a bit more expensive than the others due to cartridge costs, so we’re including the game soundtrack on CD with that one.”
It’s a shame that soundtrack isn’t available for every version, as the game has a cracking selection of chip tunes that stayed in my head long after I’d finished the game. But the good news is that you can buy the soundtrack separately, and I recommend you do.
Axiom Verge is an unashamed tribute to the Metroids of days gone by – indeed, some elements are almost carbon copies of Super Metroid on the SNES, such as the metallic round doors and the distinctive pink map. But, astoundingly, the game actually tops its inspiration in many ways, particularly in the generous selection of items to find. As I noted in my review of Metroid: Samus Returns, one of the frustrations of Metroid games is that eventually you run out of interesting things to look for – you end up just tracking down missile and power-bomb expansions that you frankly don’t need (“Oh great, I can carry another five missiles now in addition to the 100 I already have…”). But Axiom Verge is packed with fascinating pick-ups, many of which aren’t essential to completing the game, but all of which are entertaining and genuinely worth finding.
For a start, there are more than 20 unique weapons to find, all of them startlingly different. Granted, some of them are far more useful than others, but they’re all fun to use, and experimenting with a new weapon is one of the game’s great pleasures, whether it’s a ‘boomerang gun’ or a laser that carves through everything on screen. And the upgrades are similarly inspired – in particular, I loved the tiny robot drone you acquire, which you can pilot through tiny gaps and later launch into the air to access secret areas. Like most of the upgrades, it suddenly changes the way you approach the game, and causes you to rethink your approach in terms of your new abilities – a core appeal of the metroidvania genre.
Not everything you find is wonderful though – in particular, I found the grappling hook to be an absolute pain in the posterior to use, leading to many clumsy falls and curses. Likewise, there are an awful lot of identical health and power nodes to track down if you want to aim for 100% completion (which I did, because I was having so much damn fun playing the game). It can get a little repetitive trying to find them all, and towards the end you’re already so powerful that the final few don’t make much of the difference – except that the game also has a super hard and extremely well hidden ‘secret world’, where you need all the help you can get. Likewise, if you’re playing on ‘hard’ mode, that extra health and power becomes very useful.
One thing the game does really well is story. It begins with an explosion in a laboratory that should have killed our protagonist, Trace. But instead he wakes up in an alien world, where he receives commands from a mysterious voice. I won’t spoil any more for you, suffice to say that it all builds up to a fantastic ending, and the complex and intriguing back story is fleshed out convincingly by a series of enigmatic notes scattered across the ten labyrinthine areas.
Graphically, the game is clearly a homage to the 16-bit era, but there are plenty of graphical tricks that certainly wouldn’t have been possible on the Super NES, like the shimmering explosions when you defeat a boss. And speaking of bosses, these towering monstrosities are generally a joy to fight, with success depending on careful positioning and diligent learning of attack patterns. Having said that, I found most of them to be a little forgettable, somehow lacking the gravity of Ridley, Kraid and Mother Brain back in Super Metroid.
But I’m picking up very minor niggles in an otherwise utterly wonderful game. Despite receiving Axiom Verge around two weeks ago, the main reason that I’ve only just got around to reviewing it is that I’ve been too busy playing the game itself, poking into every possible corner in order to drain every last drop of enjoyment out of it. Considering that there are so many fantastic games out there right now, the fact that I spent so long playing this one title is a good indication of how much fun it is.
In short, you should definitely buy it. And if you do, most of the proceeds will go towards treating the developer’s ill son, as he pointed out in a recent blog post:
“I’d just like to take a moment and give a special shout out to the publisher, BadLand Games. As you may have seen elsewhere on my blog and Twitter, I’ve tried to be pretty open about my son Alastair’s health situation. In short, he was born healthy, but the doctors failed to treat a routine case of jaundice during a critical period when he was just days old. The result was a life-long condition called Kernicterus that is characterized by severe neurological damage which robbed Alastair of much of his motor control and hearing. The reason I mention this is that after we decided to move forward with BadLand Games as the publisher, they offered to donate 75% of their share to a special fund dedicated to Alastair’s ongoing health care costs. They didn’t want to publicize it, since none of us wanted to be seen as trying to use my son’s suffering as a marketing tool for the game. I hope this doesn’t come off that way. I just wanted to thank them for their generosity in offering that up, since it was definitely something they didn’t have to do.”
Helping a sick child AND getting one of the best games ever made? Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Axiom Verge is available digitally for PC, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Switch and Wii U. Standard and Multiverse physical editions are available for PS4, PS Vita and Switch. We reviewed the PS4 version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for Axiom Verge was provided by Dead Good Media. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.