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Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) artwork

Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) review


"Release this thing under the Nintendo brand, and it'd be the best thing to happen to the Metroid series since Prime."


Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) image


Axiom Verge is a Metroid clone that's better than most actual Metroid games.

Okay, I suppose I should qualify that statement.

See, I'm a far more rabid fan of Metroid's formula than I am of the series itself, which, as far as I'm concerned, has produced only one exemplary title in the 2D circuit. I adore the sort of world design in which levels fold over one another to create a cohesive whole, and the process of gaining a new piece of equipment and then retracing my steps to find all of the places I've already passed where it would have come in handy speaks to a younger me, a completionist who only owned a handful of games and got the most out of them. Super Metroid remains the golden standard for this genre, and it's a peak that Nintendo hasn't even come close to matching in the two decades since, at least in the 2D realm.

What's worse, though: disappointing Metroid games (Other M, the most recent release, is widely considered the franchise's low point), or no new Metroid games at all (the upcoming Federation Force is just a co-op shooter that doesn't even involve Samus)? That's a question that impatient fans have been confronted with over the last few years, but I propose that it's no longer relevant.

Axiom Verge, you see, is a straight-up homage to this IP that I keep name-dropping. It doesn't simply employ the same design principles, as many indies do, to often successful effect. It's an unabashed clone. The look of the tiling, the functionality of the map, the enemy behavior, the platform layouts, the feel of each beam weapon... it all screams "first three Metroids," occupying a space somewhere between the NES and SNES eras as many modern retro-throwback platformers do.

Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) image


It's authentic as hell, and it's good. Like I said, better than most of the games that it's actually mimicking. It's more approachable than the original Metroid, more coherent than Metroid II, and more trusting of players to find their own way than either Fusion or Zero Mission were. It involves a number of familiar mechanics, too, but with transparent filters to avoid the label of "rip-off." Opening secret passages is now done with a drill, narrow passages are now traversed with a remote-controlled drone, and various goofy proper nouns have been tacked onto weapon upgrades that are still basically the Wave Beam, the Plasma Beam, etc. Swap out the main character for Samus, tweak some of the lore and release this thing under the Nintendo brand, and it'd be the best thing to happen to the Metroid series since Prime.

I wonder how this review must read to someone who's not familiar with Metroid. If you aren't, perhaps this is a good place to poke your toes into the water. It's an action-platformer in which the immediate challenge is studying enemy movement patterns and the overarching challenge is figuring out how the various pieces of a persistent world fit together. You get a power-up that heightens your jump, and suddenly you want to comb the levels you've already completed for ledges that were out of reach the first time. Axiom is designed in a way that's open to backtracking; its levels are not laid out in linear fashion but rather "stacked." Determining where to go next is a matter of checking your map and investigating the places where you hit a dead end last time.

Naturally, Axiom's faithfulness to its inspiration means that it's rather low on new ideas of its own; its few divergences from the framework of Nintendo's own IP still feel familiar on some level. (The grappling hook, for example, is ripped right out of Bionic Commando.) Most of the game's unique quirks are visual. While it does a remarkable job of replicating both 8-bit and 16-bit platformers, its vast, beautiful alien landscapes take on a life of their own, and I was particularly struck by Axiom's rather fourth-wall-breaking use of NES graphical errors to convey that Something Is Wrong in this universe. One of the central mechanics involves manipulating environments in such a way that a passerby might be fooled into thinking you'd accidentally dropped the cartridge in a cup of coffee.

Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) image


There's some intrigue where the story is concerned, but it's ultimately more ambitious than it is well-executed. Axiom involves a scientist who finds himself in a strange new world after a lab experiment goes wrong (obviously), and there's a nifty bit of "unreliable narrator" going on regarding protagonist Trace's connection to this place and what his giant robot mentors need him for. (Watch for a standout hallucinatory sequence midway through the campaign.) Despite its surprises, though, Axiom delivers exposition in massive, unwieldy deposits, going hours with no progress at all and then suddenly rewriting its history with scores of narration all at once. The hero himself is also too thinly-defined to be sympathetic; he's that same brand of wisecracking white dude that feels ubiquitous in this post-Nathan Drake industry. I respect developer Tom Happ's attempts to mine some actual science fiction out of a sci-fi-themed game, but it turned out to be the last thing I was concerned about.

Also, while I do believe that Axiom could stand favorably against most of the games to which it owes its existence, it doesn't top Super Metroid as the reigning king of its subgenre, largely because its final moments are excruciatingly difficult in ways that don't feel entirely fair. The last boss in particular is essentially just a damage-per-second race in which players shoot at a glowing box on the ceiling while an indefinitely respawning army of flying drones constantly picks away at their health. C'mon, devs. Be more careful about this. It only takes one overly-frustrating late-game boss to sink one of these things.

Another issue: The Metroid games typically have terrific, anthemic music, and that's one area where Axiom fails to ever live up to its inspiration. So soon after Jake Kaufman proved in Shovel Knight that there's still tremendous value in 8-bit soundtracks, I found myself frequently muting Axiom and subsequently taking painkillers to battle the ensuing headaches.

Axiom Verge (PlayStation 4) image


Still, none of these missteps can change the fact that the 12 hours it took me to finish Axiom were essentially spent in marathon mode, with me only stopping for bodily essentials. The Metroidvania blueprint works wonders on me, and while I have slightly more admiration for developers who front the formula with unique worlds and mechanics (look to the recent Ori and the Blind Forest for an example of how to do this), there's room in the industry for the brand of full-on homage that Axiom represents, especially when the series it's aping has been so MIA lately. It's damn good at what it does and has no pretentions to being anything else.

4/5

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (July 06, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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pickhut posted July 06, 2015:

You have a really descriptive, vivid review here! Not once did I feel lost, and the constant Metroid comparisons never felt cluttered.

Also, wanted to point out you forgot to complete the word "been" in the second to last sentence.

This was a fun read.
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Suskie posted July 06, 2015:

Thank you very much for reading and commenting! Hope I convinced you to give it a try sometime. Also, I was on trazodone when I proofed this last night, so I'm gonna lean on that excuse.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted July 08, 2015:

Dammit, Suskie, you make it hard for me to refrain from adding more games to my backlog.

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