It didn’t take long for Axiom Verge to cement itself as one of the best retro side-scrolling shooters around, which is something considering how many throwbacks there are these days. And yet, developer Tom Happ Games has found a way to take what is ostensibly a combo Contra, Metroid, Castlevania, and Mega Man, and make it feel wholly original.
As with any game in the Metroidvania genre, Axiom Verge’s key component involves progressing through a somewhat linear overworld map, picking up new weapons and items as players go. Typically these new upgrades unlock after defeating bosses, but they can be found out in the open as well. The upgrades and weapons can come in a variety of options, from new traversal abilities for reaching higher or blocked off areas or as stronger/varied weapons more suited for specific types of enemies. So, while the player may start out as a basic jumping, laser bullet-shooting scientist, they eventually become an extremely powerful and formidable fighter.
About that scientist – Trace wakes up from a near death experience to find himself in a virtual world overrun by all manner of biomechanical and organic creatures. He’s not exactly why he’s in this sci-fi world or what’s going on, but eventually the puzzle pieces start to come together. Axiom Verge’s setting has a familiar air to it, with tons of varied enemies to fight, but its design is no less impressive.
Visually, the game brings out that 16-bit feel in a way that is sure to tickle any older gamers’ nostalgic bones, and its sound design further reinforces those sentimental moments. Even the sound effects and music grind with that retro synth feel, creating the sense that Axiom Verge is something special. The story itself has its formulaic pratfalls, but that’s hardly a concern. This is a game where the player shoots aliens and robots with lasers, and that’s all players really need to know.
However, dispatching those enemies is easier said than done. Like many of the great shooters of the 8-bit and 16-bit era, Axiom Verge is a challenging experience that forces the player to memorize patterns, act cautiously, and mix and match weapons on the fly. Charging into a room is not just ill advised it will lead to certain death, and unless a save point (think Castlevania’s coffin rooms) is nearby, chances are that means repeating some portions of the level again. Enemies can be aggressive, passive, or some combination therein, but few should be underestimated. Strategic thinking is essential for success in Axiom Verge and carelessness is punished at nearly every turn.
That motto further extends to the game’s boss battles, which are extraordinarily difficult but brilliantly designed one-on-one fights. As Trace faces off with hulking biomechanical brutes, players will need to be precise and quick, popping in a few hits where possible and then trying to avoid the boss’s attack(s). Pattern memorization is key in these sequences, along with using the right type of weapon to hit the boss’s weak point or points, but there is also a fair share of luck involved.
Yes, players will die…likely a lot, but every boss fight feels perfectly within the realm of possibility. Ultimately, getting through these sections is about finding a rhythm, and if that’s not working trying to search out a damage upgrade or a health upgrade for a little extra support. These upgrades will also unlock new traversal moves, like a grappling hook or teleport ability, which add new wrinkles to the basic platforming. Many side scrollers can revert to that general formula, but Axiom Verge is always adding something new to the equation and as a result it never feels dull or repetitive.
By and large, though, those key elements of Axiom Verge should be plenty familiar to fans of games like Bionic Commando and the aforementioned Contra. However, Axiom Verge puts a completely new spin on things with its Disruptor ability. In essence, the Disruptor re-writes the “code” of specific enemies, and even levels, to change their behaviors, attacks, and weaknesses. Say, for example, there’s an enemy on the path that takes no damage regardless of weapon choice. At a glance the enemy may seem unbeatable, but blast him with the Disruptor and his code changes to make the outer shell permeable. That same approach can be applied to seemingly blocked areas on the map that, when hit with the Disruptor, will open. Nearly every element of the game, outside of the basic level walls, floors, and ceilings can be manipulated in some way, which encourages exploration and experimentation. More importantly, it’s a real cool and creative mechanic.
The one main gripe to be had with Axiom Verge is its lack of guide indicators on the map. Sure, that speaks to the overall approach of the game – i.e. no handholding – but it also impedes progress later on. Zipping through the map becomes fairly painless thanks to a later fast travel system, and that exploration will help players uncover new weapons and upgrades, but there were still a few times where the next move wasn't clear. It’s a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but one that hurt the momentum quite a bit. Taking down a boss is such an elating sensation that players will want to move forward immediately.
It also bears repeating that Axiom Verge is a challenging side scrolling shooter and therefore will not be for everyone. Games that rely on dexterity and quick thinking have a very particular fan base and for them Axiom Verge is going to play like a dream. Others, however, may find the game’s enemies a bit too much to handle. We’d say give the game a chance, but there will definitely be some who just don’t see the appeal in Axiom Verge.
Even so, Axiom Verge is a faithful throwback in design and approach, but the game's clever mechanics help add flair and originality. The colorful levels, the synth heavy soundtrack, and the varied weaponry create a feel that’s unlike anything seen today, and the boss battles are equal parts challenge and bombast. There are certainly some nitpicks to be hard with the game, but they do little to overshadow Axiom Verge’s core gameplay. When we talk about retro games evolving AND preserving age-old concepts, Axiom Verge is a pitch perfect example.
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Axiom Verge releases March 31, 2015 for PS4. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.