For the longest while, I have been really into Metroidvania games. I have liked this sub-genre of games since the NES days, and in the past five years or so, there has been somewhat of a revival, spanning from Shadow Complex to Guacamelee. Even Castlevania, on of the founding father of the style, deviated from their recent 3D action direction and went back to classic 2D Metroidvania with Mirror of Fate.
We’re now in the new generation of consoles, and another contender is in our hands. Axiom Verge is the name of the game, and it is pretty awesome. Developed by Tom Happ (formerly of EA Tiburon and Petroglyph) and Dan Adelman (formerly head of Digital Content and development at Nintendo of America), Axiom Verge is a love letter to not only the Metroidvania style of gameplay, but also pays homage to classics such as Contra, Metroid, and Blaster Master. In fact, unlike some of the more recent games in this sub-genre (like Shadow Complex and Mirror of Fate), Axiom Verge maintains a more vertical based level design like the original Metroid. You’ll be traversing tall, vertical based levels as much as you will horizontal, side-scrolling ones. A tiny little thing like that made me feel like I was plugging in my NES more than anything else.
Axiom Verge plays so closely to a classic Metroidvania game because the decision to go with a retro-style SNES design pays more homage to the subgenre than something like Shadow Complex or Guacamelee. Both those games are brilliant and are gorgeously designed, but they are very clearly modern games that simply “borrow” the MV ideas. Axiom Verge goes that extra step in actually creating a game that is the closest thing to the original Metroid since….the original Metroid. Because of the retro style of the graphics, there’s not much to discuss in terms of graphical fidelity. It looks like it came straight from the SNES, and that’s a huge part of it’s charm. Levels are designed to look beautifully alien, with pulsating areas of alien….balls that give each stage a very organic feel to it.
The gameplay systems that we grew up with in the 8/16-bit era are all here; 8 direction shooting, endless platforming, and more backtracking than you can shake your fist at. The crux of Axiom Verge’s gameplay centers around your trusty drill (which allows you to break through certain types of rock walls), and your collection of guns. The protagonist, named Trace, starts with a simple, single shot gun. Soon, he obtains a gun that can shoot a shell which breaks off into eight different directions when you press the Square button a second time. This Nova gun allows you to reach previously unreachable crevices to unlock barriers, which require a certain lock to be shot. Soon you’ll find even more weapons like a spread gun, a gun that shoots out a wave of electricity, and of course, the trust drill I mentioned earlier.
Not only is this drill absolutely critical when it comes to breaking through walls to reach new areas, but it can also be used as a weapon. By holding down the R2 button, you can unleash your drill in eight different directions. Earlier in the game, the weaker enemies will be killed almost instantaneously by the drill. I found myself running through stages holding down the R2 button and just barreling through the aliens in my way. Of course, the enemies quickly get stronger and more clever, and combat soon became a plethora of weapon switching and quick thinking.
Oh, and did I mention Trace has the power to control “glitches?” In one of the more clever homages to 8/16-bit gaming, level glitches are not only intentional, but Trace can take control over them, allowing abilities like glitching through walls and scramble enemies. Sweet.
Much like Hotline Miami when it first launched, one of the strengths of Axiom Verge (and one of the strongest reasons the game has such great atmosphere) is the brilliant soundtrack. From the very start of the game, it was something that stuck out to me. It’s a wonderful, atmospheric blend of electronica and classic MIDI music that had me simultaneously bopping my head and dreading what awaited me in the next room. I have heard a lot of great video game soundtracks in my day, and there are so many classic themes that are a part of pop culture, but it’s rare to find a game soundtrack that doesn’t necessarily smack you in the face with epic themes, but still manages to be unforgettable.
Axiom Verge will launch tomorrow, March 31st on PS4 for $19.99. Don’t let the high-ish price scare you off. There’s a ton of content here with a great gameplay system, beautiful retro-styled graphics, and an excellent soundtrack. Anyone who grew up in the golden age of NES/SNES will want to give this title a spin, and for those too young to remember, check this game out as well. This is what all us old timers are referring to when we reminisce about the old days. Axiom Verge is a window to the past, showing us the type of game that turned the video game industry into the giant it is today.