Axiom Verge Review — Retro Dope

by Jed Pressgrove

Axiom Verge functions as a temporary cure for retro withdrawal, which affects critics as much as it does anyone, regardless of whether they grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Thomas Happ is a talented developer and does manage to make a more impressive game than Phil Fish’s Fez, the corniest Nintendo nostalgia ever peddled. Even so, Axiom Verge’s impersonations mostly add up to a walk we’ve taken too many times. It’s no secret the gaming world has blue balls over the anticipation of another entry of Metroid, the franchise that serves as Axiom Verge’s primary influence. This yearning is evident in the hoopla over watered-down versions of Metroid, commonly referred to as “Metroidvania” games (the “vania” comes from gamer obsession with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a Metroid-esque disaster with countless useless items and a fake ending). To Happ’s credit, Axiom Verge showcases some ideas that are more inventive than the norm. At the same time, this love letter to 8-bit classics will be seen as a Messiah simply for filling a Metroid-sized hole.

From the beginning, Axiom Verge struggles to create a dramatic identity. The game opens with a comic-book cutscene, a device used extensively in Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden trilogy on the NES. Whereas Ninja Gaiden uses such scenes between stages to add melodramatic weight to its swift and linear action, Axiom Verge abandons this style in favor of dialogue boxes that interrupt its exploration. Through dialogue Happ attempts to establish a conflicted protagonist in Trace, who has one funny observation: “The whole ‘chosen one’ story doesn’t inspire much confidence.” With a name that suggests incompleteness, Trace takes orders from sentient, motherly machines to put an end to an unethical science experiment. The closer you get to the end, the more evident it becomes that the storytelling is hamstrung by tradition. Trace might bemoan violence here and there, yet his dry nerd-turned-badass language trumps moral consideration. Trace doesn’t have the believable confusion and anger of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa. And do players really care about Trace’s tangential moralizing as they blast away at every form of life that stands in their way? Sure, it’s interesting on the surface when you literally trade places with a creature being obliterated by a gun-toting hero, but that’s more of a cute deconstructive trick than meaningful commentary, no more profound than how the broken English of the feminine guides evoke a fanboy’s delight in poor translations of old games. Axiom Verge is a playground, not a philosophical text.

Axiom Verge’s emphasis on reexploring places to find new paths and items is a very familiar Metroid routine that goes like this: as you advance, you notice that you can’t travel all paths because of your limited ability and equipment. You start to recognize specific obstacles as they reject your desire to explore. While on the main story path, you stumble upon an ability that is designed to pass a certain type of blockage, but despite this obvious practicality, you have to retrace your steps, going through the same doors and the same environments again and again and again until you get every last damn thing you can on the map. The repetition of backtracking is somewhat tailored by abilities that allow you to move in different ways (for example, teleportation vs. jumping).

If you’re willing to accept this routine on its terms, the appeal of Axiom Verge ultimately lies in Happ’s execution of the form, which is mixed. Happ is at his most creative when it comes to the abilities and equipment for overcoming obstacles to further exploration. In contrast to Shovel Knight’s mindless pandering, Axiom Verge doesn’t mark walls for easy destruction. You have to poke around with a drill on a mad treasure hunt, and when you finally see a wall start to give, the result is legitimate excitement. Even more interesting is the drone that you shoot out and then control in claustrophobic areas that the hero can’t traverse. As the drone (which features Happ’s best sound design), you have adventures that go beyond the boundaries of single rooms. These segments have a sneaky determination that gives a needed break from the wandering hero bits. Happ’s most provocative contribution to the formula is a gun that can hack enemies and parts of the environment. While sometimes the hacking is merely a stylish way of blowing away pixelated crap, the ability does bring surprises with its effects on enemies. Still, compared to the game-altering possibilities in the otherwise mediocre Hack ‘N’ Slash, Axiom Verge’s hacking gun is quite limited and serves as another reminder of retro withdrawal with its NES glitch allusions.

The biggest shortcoming of Happ’s Metroidvania riffing is a problem that the superior Magicians & Looters avoided: the pointlessness of so many items that, in turn, raises the question of why anyone would want to find them in the first place. Axiom Verge has an appreciable number of weapons, but the Kilver, perhaps best described as an electrifying shotgun, renders almost every other gun a waste of space. The Kilver comes early in the game and not only destroys enemies quickly but also shoots through platforms and walls. When you reach a particular boss that constantly shields itself, you can make short work of it by running straight through the shield (taking damage all the while) and firing the Kilver nonstop. While the health enhancers are more useful than the obligatory guns, Axiom Verge fumbles again by pretending that random back-story notes reward exploration. I’m starting to believe that not even a prison sentence would discourage developers from hiding fragments of a weak story and presenting them as trophies to be won.

Despite the flaws, there’s nothing revolting about Axiom Verge. There’s also little that’s special about it. The hype behind Metroid wannabes reflects the low bar that game culture sets for everything and a dreadful memory (after more than 12 years, Metroid Prime is still better than the imitators). Axiom Verge will receive Game of the Year consideration just as Shovel Knight did last year, which will further propagate the clichĂ© that all games are influenced by others and that’s it’s all about execution, with few reflections on why influences matter or what we value in the execution of ideas. This boring echo chamber overlooks Amazing Princess Sarah, Shutshimi, and other games inspired by classics that go beyond gentle homage, acceptable pastiche, and momentary cessations of retro cravings. The Verge writes “Axiom Verge feels like a brand new Metroid.” So what?

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One comment

  1. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who finds the term ‘Metroidvania” kind of odd. After all, Castlevania was a very different species of platform action game than Metroid prior to SotN. While I did really enjoy the two DS Castlevania prior to Order of Ecclesia (which I did not play), I’d say they’re fantasy-themed Metroid clones with grinding…though this may be because I never played SotN.

    Another odd thing about Metroid clones is this: People seem to focus mainly on backtracking as the source of Metroid’s non-linearity, while seeming to completely ignore another, likely more endearing and long lasting element – sequence breaking. Even the Metroid series itself seems to have forgotten/ignored this element, which is a shame since if one looks at speed running communities, it’s the element that made Super Metroid transcend it’s time period and make it remain interesting for people even today.

    Yes, Metroid often has a situation where a platform is SLIGHTLY higher than Samus can reach, causing the player to have to look for a way to get past the obstacle, thus encouraging exploration. What Super Metroid did that made it even better is give the player another option: They could use the wall jump to overcome the SLIGHTLY higher obstacle, thus reaching the area without having to take a round about route and possibly facing a foe that they may not be ready for. Rather than discourage exploration, this option seems to have encouraged people even more, as seeing something completely unexpected in a game seems to make people more interested in it. I know I had such experience when I played Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, and I’d imagine people who found they could skip content and even bosses when they were used to more scripted games would be super exciting. The fact that I see very recent speedruns of Super Metroid still being made is a testament to how sequence breaking increased it’s longevity.

    Despite this, I haven’t really noticed many Metroid-style games really design themselves around sequence breaking. Cave Story certainly didn’t. Not even Metroid Prime did (In fact, the game was patched in a later release to remove bugs that allowed sequence breaking). I haven’t played too many recent Metroid-style indie games, but from what I see of them, they all appear to take more after SotN, with it’s rpg-grindiness, than Metroid. For that matter, I don’t believe I’ve seen many publicized games that are centered around encouraging speedrunning aside from Dustforce, but that may well be my own ignorance speaking. I’ve been out of the loop of more recent gaming, and my gaming time is more reserved for going over past games and trying to understand them more, and how one can make them last for a long time without using massive amounts of resources on assets and such.

    Thank you for the post, it got my brain going.

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