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Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge
AXIOM VERGE
Release Date: 3/31/2015
Platform: PS4
Developer: Tom Happ
Publisher: Tom Happ
Sites: Official | IGN | Gametrailers

Tom Happ is an indie game veteran, having already produced such gems as Cave Story, Shovel Knight, and World of Goo. His latest passion project is Axiom Verge, a downloadable PS4 exclusive that isn't shy about taking inspiration from the classic Super Metroid. Is this just a bit of throw-away, old-school fun, or is it the kind of game all indie developers should aspire to?



STORY

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He's not Samus, is what he's saying
After a terrible accident during a science experiment, Trace awakens in an alien world to find himself in the middle of an epic battle between giant, intelligent machines and an enigmatic god-like figure known as Athetos. He quickly gains a weapon and sets out to solve the mystery of where he is, how he got there, and what his role in this strange conflict should be. There are twists and turns involving a deadly parasite, clones, a rejected scientific hypothesis about the nature of reality, and more.

It's not the most emotionally riveting tale. There are some deep philosophical questions raised--though inadequately explored--but the characters all come off as bland and unemotional. The hero, Trace, isn't particularly memorable, though I appreciate the effort to buck convention and have a geeky scientist doing all the running and gunning instead of a buff space marine. There is the potential for some provocative development following one fairly major plot twist half-way through the game, but the story never really goes there.

[Story: 7 - It lacks character and depth, though it teases players with a complex narrative and some philosophical questions that beg to be explored]



GAMEPLAY

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You know what's scarier than a giant robotic scorpion? A giant robotic scorpion with a bunch of big guns on it.
It's impossible to talk about the gameplay of Axiom Verge without comparing it to Super Metroid. At the outset, the controls are remarkably similar--you shoot in eight directions, jump on floating platforms in a 2D environment, find secret tools and upgrades hidden in the walls, and change weapons on the fly. You don't turn into a ball the way Samus does, but you do get to control a drone that can fit in tiny spaces. And though you don't gain missiles, you do have a giant drill that can bore through weak blocks and enemies. Your weapons don't stack the way Samus' do, but the game more than makes up for it with a staggering variety of weapon types that easily doubles all the weapons Miss Aran has ever carried. Instead of new power armors, you can find experimental lab coats that let you warp through solid walls. The most original gadget in your arsenal, though, is the glitch gun, a beam that manipulates glitches in the environment, does bizarre things to enemies, and can even take the form of power bombs.

The controls are fluid and intuitive, though I was constantly confusing the drone button with the grapling button. The game gets more satisfying the further you get into it, when you have mastered complex moves like warping through an enemy, launching a drone up in the air, and then landing on a ledge that previously seemed unreachable. The game actively encourages you to exploit all of your tools, and there were multiple times when I was certain I had pulled off a sequence break only to discover that I was actually doing exactly what the game was expecting me to do.

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Those who don't think the Lightning Gun is the best all-around weapon are just wrong
This, in other words, is a game for gaming veterans. It is challenging, and it doesn't hold your hand. You will not find any tutorials or hints, and if you don't go out of your way to backtrack, explore, and learn new moves and techniques, you won't get very far. Still, the difficulty curve isn't too steep, and with a little patience, even the most apparently insurmountable obstacles can be overcome with ease. The only parts that really test your mettle are the boss battles. These aren't like Zelda fights where you use the environment and your latest toy to beat the boss--these are straight-up wars of attrition. Luckily, the map always has a save station nearby, and when you bite it, there is very little delay between death and resurrection.

If you have fond memories of scouring Zebes, discovering secret passages in well-trodden areas, and anticipating Samus' next big upgrade in Super Metroid, you will absolutely love Axiom Verge. It is the closest you can get to a new 2-D Metroid game, and it feels so much better than Metroid Prime 3: Corruption or Metroid: Other M. This is what I imagine Metroid games would be like had they never made the transition to 3D. (Don't get me wrong--I love Metroid Prime even more than the next guy.)

[Gameplay: 10 - This is a flawless (and moderately challenging) experience specifically designed for old-school gamers who grew up playing Metroid]



PRESENTATION

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Get ready for some meta-weirdness
For a game designed almost entirely by one man, Axiom Verge is spectacular. It is certainly designed with an eye for ancient, 16-bit aesthetics, but it is nonetheless polished. There aren't any glitches or graphical oddities that aren't intentional, and the various areas of the game are all suitably different in style. The music is good--definitely matching the rest of the experience, though it can get repetitive in some areas--the design is endlessly clever, and the environment is huge. There are a few cutscenes--done in the style of Ninja Gaiden--but no voice acting or jaw-dropping cinematics (which would feel out of place).

The game comes preloaded with two difficulty settings and another setting dedicated solely to speedruns. There are a handful of cheat codes that can be entered in the pause menu--including one particularly famous one--and when you beat the game, you are shown stats that include how much of the map you uncovered, how many items you found, and how many times you died.

[Presentation: 10 - Despite retro graphics and sound, this game is as polished and carefully tweaked as any triple-A title]



CONCLUSIONS

Tom Happ has created something quite remarkable, carefully channeling all the joy, energy, and excitement of Super Metroid into a modern, indie title. This is a love letter for older gamers like myself, and it does not disappoint. Sure, the story isn't very memorable (and it doesn't have any set-piece moments like the climax of Super Metroid), but in terms of gameplay, Axiom Verge just might be better than Super Metroid. That's the highest praise I can possibly heap on a game like this, and it borders on heresy. Still, if you have a hard time believing me, play the game and then tell me I'm wrong.




FINAL TALLY
STORY: 7
GAMEPLAY: 10
PRESENTATION: 10
SOLO GAME SCORE: 10

TOTAL SCORE: 9.3

This is the best of what indie games have to offer



-e. magill 4/10/2015










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