Introduction and Story
Axiom Verge is developed by Thomas Happ Games and was originally released in 2015. It’s a side-scroller action-adventure game, akin mostly in my opinion to a mix between the NES’s Metroid and SNES’s Super Metroid.
The game kicks off with a scientist named Trace conducting some sort of experiment in a setting that looks straight of of The Thing. Predictably, the experiment goes awry, and Trace wakes up in a new world, Sudra, your memory of what had just happened long gone.
Past that description, I don’t really want to say too much. There is a deeper story that you uncover as you explore Sudra involving other characters, lore, history and more. Axiom Verge is the type of game that rewards the player for their exploration, something I’ll get into a bit more below. The more you explore, the more you find out about the game you’re playing.
Just to kick this off, I appreciated the Metroid reference by needing to go to the left for a room until you reach the first weapon. Don’t think we all didn’t notice that Thomas Happ.
The world of Sudra overall, feels like a living organism and a character in itself. There are sections that move and feel alive, other sections that regenerate shortly after you destroy them, other areas that look like computer glitches and more.
This isn’t met without a bit of a downside though. The world can be so interactive that you don’t realize why something isn’t happening the way it should. One section of a beginning area had what looked like a normal jump, but I couldn’t get up on the ledge. After flailing around for a few minutes, I realized that the plants on the ground were stopping me from jumping to the max height, so you destroy them and jump before the plants respawn.
The map itself is split into a variety of different sections for you to figure out as you play. Each of these sections has a theme with their own enemy types, palate and purpose. For example; Kur is very vertical and requires different movement abilities to fully traverse, while Indi is really just a way station between map areas considering there isn’t a fast travel mechanic for you to utilize.
One aspect I did not enjoy was how previous sections can be gated. There is one moment when you traverse through a room in the third section and you can’t get back for a very long time. This effectively cut off half the world from you for a large chunk of the game. I would have preferred being able to backtrack through those sections much sooner.
Exploration treads this fine line between obsession and reward. Early on, you get a weapon called the Laser Drill. This weapon and destroy barriers/bricks in the walls, revealing paths forward or secret areas. Once I found this out, I felt the need to try and destroy every brick, or every section, of every wall…just on the off chance there may be a secret item or power up behind a breakable section. After I found my first item this way, It reinforced the feeling to me that I had to keep doing this. On one hand, I like that your curiosity is rewarded, on the other hand, it halted progress and made things quite a bit slower for me as I played.
Weapons and Gameplay
With that note, it’s worth mentioning that there are a ton of items in the game. You can find optional weapon types, damage upgrades, weapon range upgrades, projectile size upgrades, health increases and journal entries.
Due to the size of the game, you may run into issues with receiving too many upgrades close together. I remember receiving three or four weapons close together with two other major mechanics mapped to your triggers in a short time span. The game does a good job with teaching you how and when to use each of these mechanics when you first receive them, but there was a bit of overload at a certain point.
Once you get past issues like that, the weapon variety is great and every power up has its own unique feel and purpose. One weapon shoots three bolts out in a triangle shape in front of you, but lacks range. Another shoots a powerful burst of electricity, but you need to get up and close with your target. There really is a preferred weapon for each scenario that you will encounter.
In terms of movement, I admit that it felt rough in the beginning. I felt slow, clunky and intuitive. I’m sure this was done on purpose because as you progress through Axiom Verge things pick up exponentially with the upgrades that you receive. If you stick with it, you’ll be rewarded.
Unfortunately, those same movement mechanics that make the game feel quicker has a downside. Late in the game, you obtain an ability that requires you to press a direction button twice in a row very quickly to dash in that direction. As much as I like the actual ability, I’d say I accidentally triggered it around 30% of the time just by natural movement around the screens. It felt like it had become more of a burden as I progressed because I would inadvertently dash into enemies or harmful environments.
There are other fun details such as you gaining an extra ‘beam sword’ attack ala Zelda if you have full health, and you gain operational control of a drone which feels very Blaster Master.
Music: Each section of Sudra has its own music track, and they are all fantastic. It felt like a mix of Blade Runner, Tron and Metroid rolled into one. It’s not as minimalist as you would think given the setting, but it creates this atmosphere that set me into the world, and I appreciated that. Since playing through the game, I’ve on more than one occasion booted up the OST on Youtube while I’m working.
Difficulty: The beginning of Axiom Verge is very unforgiving. I felt that enemies were doing a ton of damage early on and health drops were dismal. It does get better as you get further into the game. There are also a few sections that are difficult for the wrong reasons. For example, there is one section where you need to go up on a platform, but can’t see the enemies above. Those enemies dash at you quickly and at an angle, giving you no time to target and react. My health bar depleted quickly. Situations like this are more frustrating than fun.
Only until after I completed the game, did I realize that the entire game was developed and published by one man, Thomas Happ, the namesake of the company described in the beginning of this review. With that, he was also the sole artist and composer for Axiom Verge, which for him, was a bit of a side project. It’s incredibly impressive to see a game of this stature; with it’s intricacies and variety, made by just one man. Does this make Axiom Verge any better of a game, no. Does it make it all the more extraordinary?Absolutely.