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 cliché 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?