Axiom Verge PS4 Review
It is somewhat tragic that the term “Metroidvania” continues to persist in videogames today while both the Metroid and Castlevania franchises continue to remain in limbo; the term was originally coined around the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and would continue onward toward several sequels in the series as well as spiritual successors who were inspired by these games.
But when was the last time the Metroid part took precedence in the Metroidvania genre? The concept of exploring a large, semi-open world map filled with key items that would unlock further areas owes itself to Metroid, but that also tends to be as far as most developers will go with their homage. Enter Axiom Verge, a game that largely and unceremoniously lifts as many concepts out of Nintendo’s classic franchises as possible without fear of legal ramifications. Everything from the look of the world to the feel of the jumps to the transitions between doors is obviously taken from Metroid. If nothing else, developer Tom Happ deserves credit for accurately emulating all of these elements that are typically ignored when creating a retro homage.
But Metroid isn’t the only game that Axiom Verge has taken inspiration from; the pulsating, often grotesque structure of the world as well as the bio-horror look of the enemies recounts other 8-bit titles such as Abadox and Life Force, while the various kinds of weapons (including a spread beam, a close-range electric burst and timed detonators) also brings Contra to mind. The game even reproduces many of the environmental glitches and bugs that were commonplace during that era, such as disappearing pixels and glitched-out characters….except these aesthetic abnormalities also serve a crucial game element.
This is where Axiom Verge takes a cue from more recent indie games with its concept of fourth-wall breaking mechanics. Certain abilities in the world will allow players to achieve various glitch-like effects on both the environment and enemies; the Address Disruptor, for example, will send out a beam that does not damage enemies, but instead alters their appearance and behavior into a glitched-out, often weaker form. This tends to make enemies much easier to kill, but it can also result in other interesting anomalies, such as using its attack against other foes, or even healing the player with life energy. The beam can also be used to uncover hidden platforms, open up previously-locked areas, and so on. Other abilities will endow the player with Matrix-like powers to let them phase through walls, jump higher, and other nifty effects that won’t be spoiled in this review. There are also more practical tools including a drill that can break through certain structures, a controllable drone that can pass through enclosed spaces, and a couple of other nifty tools that are also lifted from familiar classics.
Needless to say, the most successful thing Axiom Verge lifts from Metroid is the satisfaction of frantically wandering around the world, discovering hidden upgrades and level paths, and finally uncovering a game-changing item that opens up further possibilities as well as new areas. This is a game that significantly cuts down on the hand-holding nature of recent Metroidvania games (as well as recent Metroid games); be prepared to aimlessly wander around until you find that one place you need to be, and revel in a whole new area filled with possibilities, item upgrades and the occasionally gigantic boss to take down. That said, a fast travel option that allowed players to instantly warp around the various save points would have been largely welcome; while the game does introduce a subway system of sorts that serves as a shortcut between areas, it lacks the convenience of other games and also comes fairly late to fully appreciate it. Likewise, the option to quickly cycle between weapons in real-time would have also been nice, rather than pausing the action to pick the desired weapon.
From a technical standpoint, the retro mash-up of simplistic-yet-fluid sprites and H.R. Giger art style successfully recreates the feeling of awe and dread felt during the 8-bit days of fighting huge, organic-looking horrors that often bellowed out a synthesized growl while also navigating the dark crevices of a harsh alien world that could kill you in a manner of seconds. Where Axiom Verge truly excels, however, is with its sound design; the synthesized music is accompanied by an appropriately heavy amount of bass that owners of the PS4 Gold Headset or a Home Theater will especially appreciate, while every other sound effect from both weapons and enemies faithfully resembles the 8-bit beeps and boops of the past. The story also spins an interesting yarn about a scientist dropped into an unknown alien world filled with bizarre friends and foes alike, and also goes in some rather interesting sci-fi heavy places.
Retro-inspired games may continue to flood the indie gaming market, but Axiom Verge proves that there is still so much fun and imagination to be had with these modern takes on old classics. This game may lean far more heavily on the Metroid homage than most, but it still manages to perfectly capture the tried-and-true gameplay elements of Nintendo’s classic while also incorporating several new ideas to let it stand out on its own, turning an homage to a retro classic into a modern classic that future titles will want to follow.