Retro is all the rage on current consoles. Nintendo’s SNES and NES emulators have been released amongst a splurge of pixel art inspired games. In an age of polygons and Dolby Digital, pixels and chip tunes are being kept alive. Axiom Verge, from Thomas Happ Games, is a Metroidvania style title released for download in March 2015. It saw a physical release later on for PS4 and Switch in the form of collectors editions. The game was in development for nearly five years and is clearly a passion product for Happ.
Axiom Verge is set in an alien world and the protagonist, scientist Trace, has been sucked into following a laboratory accident. He has been called by an ancient race of mech like creatures that need his help in breaking free from their prison. Trace has no idea how he got to this strange world but sets out to find a way home. It is not long before you meet an ally that seemingly is trying to help you.
The story develops as you progress through the game and there several characters to meet. There is nothing groundbreaking here but there are enough twists to keep the story flowing. The main hook is Trace’s ability to wield the various weapons needed to defeat enemies. He was chosen by the aliens to fight their battle, very Tron-esque in outlook.
The game controls well with a mix of run and gun and platforming. A nice addition is the ability to stop still and fire in eight directions by pulling the left trigger. This allows for a variety of ways to play the game that should suit most gamers. The platforming is solid and it is satisfying discovering how to get to new areas. This is usually achieved by finding a new power up that increases jump, health or grants access to a new ability altogether. There is plenty to uncover and seeing the protagonist increase in power as the game unfolds is rewarding.
Visually, Axiom Verge is gorgeous. The 16-bit inspired pixel art and bold colours create a world that would not be amiss on the SNES, Mega Drive or Amiga. It has a feel similar to that of Another World or Flashback, just with more action. The dark and broody theme gives a sense of evil nature mixed with futuristic technology that is intriguing to the eye.
One criticism is a lack of variety in the room design. The wholegame has the same visual style throughout with little to distinguish the different areas except the main colour on show. A hue of purples, reds and blacks make up the palette with a splash of dark green or pink in places.
A standout feature is the games pumping sound and music. It is easy to see why the decision was made to add a CD soundtrack to the Switch collector edition. The chip tune goodness oozes with 80’s nostalgia that will bring you back to the golden age with a modern twist. A great homage to the cool adventure games of yesteryear created with modern technology. The change of music from one area to another is seamless and everything fits the artstyle. As with the lack of variety in the scenery, the same could be said for the music but this is not a problem due to its quality.
In true Metroidvania style exploration takes president over the action. Each new room will have its own enemies to defeat but once blasted the problem solving begins. It may be choosing the next path or working out how to overcome an obstacle. Heading back on yourself is crucial as you pick up new power ups and equipment. An area that seemed unreachable may require a jump boost or a drill acquired in a different area.
Boss battles are epic in Axiom Verge. They hark back to the giant sprite based titans of Metal Slug or Contra and prove to be a challenge at times. Each boss has a pattern to learn and may take a few goes to work out the best position to attack from. The artwork is delightful and you get a sense of scale as most of the boss scenes zoom out a little to fit them onto the screen.
Each time Trace dies he will respawn at the last save point. The egg shaped pods that act as save areas break up the map and you can chart your progress as you stumble upon them. An interesting aspect of the respawn feature is that you will not lose any items you collected before dying. This saves players from having to keep retracing their steps during the games more tricky sections. Purists will scoff and feel the game is making itself easy but it actually allows for fluid gameplay that keeps you moving forward.
If you’re a fan of exploration and action on a sprawling, open world then you could do far worse than Axiom Verge. It does not do anything new or particularly unique but is polished and satisfying in places. It shines in its boss battles and weapon variety but falls a little short on scenery diversity and story.