Believe it or not, that lab coat is the best part of his arsenal.
Next in our lineup here at Hardly Hobbies was yet another high profile indie game. You may have heard of it (or maybe not since it was Wii U exclusive up until last week), as it received some Best at E3 awards and a lot of interest due to being developed entirely by one man, Thomas Happ. Axiom Verge was hyped as the “Metroidvania” game that retro gamers like us have been waiting for. Like Shovel Knight, it is a throwback to games people in their late 20’s and 30’s grew up playing. Except Axiom Verge, while still a 2D side-scroller, pays homage to a totally different style of gaming.
First things first: Do we believe Axiom Verge lives up to its hype? Did it deserve all of the rewards it received, even before it was released?
Here’s the thing. While Axiom Verge may appear, especially to gamers who’ve never touched anything more graphically degraded than a Wii game, juvenile and simple. It is not. Like Shovel Knight, it manages to capture the essence of the games it nods to (Metroid and Castlevania, with some Contra vibes thrown in) excellently, while still being its own game. I’d rate Axiom Verge as having slightly less independence than Shovel Knight, it’s still worth playing if you haven’t played the old Metroids or Castlevanias. Provided you have patience for backtracking and exploration, that is.
You can’t tell me this doesn’t scream METROID!!
Axiom Verge tells the story of Trace, a scientist whose lab explodes during an experiment during the opening cinematic. When he awakens, he is in this strange, alien(?) world, with only a few beings to interact with. The loneliness of Trace’s experience is compiled with moody atmospheres and ambient music, bellied by the shortsightedness of the bosses you’ll uncover who aren’t interested in talking things out. The soundtrack to this game really is superb and sets the mood as it should.
Oh, and those bosses that I mentioned? Aside from the Hornet boss, they certainly make up for how drab some of the typical enemy designs are.
Axiom Verge’s sense of progression is what will keep you coming back. Every play session of ours went something like this: Explore until finding a power up that changes the way you interact with the map, backtrack and find health/power upgrades, kill boss, rinse and repeat. And you know what? It works. Every power up we found got us excited to backtrack and uncover the areas of the map we couldn’t get to before. This does mean every play session involves “Hey, remember that room…?” Or, “Where was that spot again?”
And that’s okay. After all, it’s pretty much the point of these games. My one small gripe is that there’s no fast travel in this game. It’d be great if the save points acted as fast travel locations, but unfortunately they don’t. One feature that I think helps balance this development decision is how AV handles death. When you die, you pop back up at the last save point you hit. No progression lost!
These save pods are more than what they seem…
Which is a damn good thing. Because if it weren’t for full healing and progression auto saves at death, I would have lost my patience. Mostly because I died a lot in the beginning. But, thanks to the plethora of upgrades and weapons found throughout the game, by the end of it we were near-gods. There are literally dozens of collectibles in this game. We had so many guns, I was overwhelmed when it was time to experiment. Same goes for backtracking. Just got an upgrade that allows you to teleport through thin walls? Expect to spend half an hour to an hour going back through the unexplored parts of the map.
One of the best weapons in the game is the “Glitch Gun”… this allows you to purposely glitch enemies or remove glitched walls to reveal new passages. It was a clever homage to glitches in those NES cartridges we grew up with. You can also glitch enemies, and every enemy type responds differently to being glitched. Some will spit out health for you. Others will slow down. There’s an annoying crawler enemy that spits lasers, and if you glitch it the lasers hurt other monsters instead of Trace! Loved that glitch, by the way.
Axiom Verge also hides a fascinating existential plot, but unfortunately it is buried beneath poor pacing. You’re really only treated with about 3 cut scenes, and they’re much longer than they should be. Without reading the extra notes, some of which require ALSO finding passwords to translate them, you won’t really get much of the bigger picture. I find this to be a shame, because when I went online after beating the game and read some of the notes we didn’t find or translate, I started putting the pieces together and found a deeper, more interesting plot than the cut scenes in the game led on.
AV has a unique feature that I wish more games included: Speed Run! Yes, there is a mode specifically designed for speed runners, which skips cutscenes and dialogue. While I don’t do speed runs myself, I enjoy watching them for some of my favorite games. And I can’t wait to see what players will have posted on YouTube soon!
There’s a lot to take away from Axiom Verge, whether you’re playing it to relive those glory days of gaming or not. People are putting Axiom Verge off as a Metroid clone, and it is a disservice. From start to finish, I could tell the developer poured 110% of his energy into his creation. There aren’t many games created entirely by one person, for obvious reasons, but based on the production value I never would’ve guessed. I had absolutely zero technical issues as well. Nope, I’d have never known only ONE person made this fantastic indie game. Yes, Axiom Verge deserved all of the hype it received, and I thought it was worth every dollar.