I feel that I should begin this review with a spiel about how what would have been intricate fan games a few years ago have begun being developed a fully featured and separate titles that, while barring an obvious resemblance to another game or series, are also their own thing and deviate in pretty substantial ways. With Axiom Verge, the general aesthetic and gameplay elements are clearly based around the Metroid series, and more specifically the original 1987 title. However, I don’t really like attaching it to any series, let alone Metroid. Not because it actually transcends the comparison in some respects, which it does, but because it’s bad and I don’t want to associate it with something I like.
Axiom Verge Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One, PS Vita
Developer/Publisher: Thomas Happ Games LLC
As one could presume from the introduction, Axiom Verge is an action platformer set in a labyrinthine hostile alien planet where the main character must withstand the threats of the local inhabitants and various invading parties while exploring the depths of this place, uncovering a bounty of new abilities and upgrades in their pursuit through the world, which unsurprisingly consists of a fair amount of exploration. It is certainly a solid foundation to start things from, and with regards to the story, Axiom Verge very much does its own thing.
The main character is a hapless scientist enlisted by a series of supercomputers to stop a force that may bring destruction to the universe as people knows it, and… well, I would need to look at a plot synopsis to gather much more. Despite having reason to keep a vested interest in a game’s storyline as I go through it, Axiom Verge, despite a number of twists, turns, and distinctive story paths, failed to captivate me even slightly. I found the characters, especially the protagonist, to be boring and uninteresting, the lore to be bloated, and the various notes hidden throughout the world to be just another collectible. While I grasped enough of the plot to realize that I should care about it, doing so was hard when it was paired with such gameplay and general design.
If I were to describe Axiom Verge in a single word, it would be obtuse. Everything feels more confusing and convoluted than it needs to be, mechanics are overcomplicated, and the entire thing has a layer of user unfriendliness to it. The first clear example of this is seen in the sheer number of mechanics the that are unlocked throughout the course of the game, which are so plentiful and numerous that every button on a standard game controller is mapped to something.
There is a drill that can be used to damage enemies at close range and dig through certain blocks. A radar that causes enemies to glitch out and changes their properties in ways that, while consistent for each enemy type, are seemingly determined randomly. A bomb that does the same thing as well as destroy clumps of pixelated rubbish. An upgradable trench coat that is used to phase through walls by double tapping in a direction, which I found to be needlessly finicky and difficult to do, especially with a control stick. A Bionic Commando grapple arm that is both incredibly unreliable and immensely forgettable. Oh, and a device that launches small creatures to locations the main character otherwise cannot reach, which is then further developed by upgrades that allow for the creature to be launched further, and one that lets the main character teleport to its location.
To compound this overcomplexity, there are also twenty discoverable guns in the game. Which is a truly baffling decision considering how many of the weapons feel redundant, limited, and generally not very fun to use. It is difficult to remember what they all do, when one of them should be used, and determine which ones are best to use as primary weapons. Oh, and as if the controls were not complicated with enough, here’s how weapon selection works:
When playing with a controller, the weapon menu can be opened up by moving the right stick in any direction, and by using the L3 and R3 buttons, the player can register two guns for quick select. When toggling between these weapons using the sticks, the player also switches between on the weapon they selected on when they last entered the selection menu. It took me three hours of playtime before I figured this out by taking five full minutes to experiment with and attempt to understand how this system works. It’s that unintuitive.
While many of these mechanics are just fine on there own, they did not gel well into a cohesive whole. Heck, they don’t even gel into a good control scheme, which I’ve come to take for granted in recent years. With so many functions, every button on the controller is mapped to something, and remembering what button does what, or gracefully switching from button to button was not as easy as it should be. To the point where I actually spent a collective total of ninety minutes trying and failing to get certain secrets because the controls were making it so difficult for me. Well, that and the insanely small windows for performing these actions.
As for how things fare in more combative situations, none of the bosses are particularly difficult, and most have an exploitable strategy that I discovered relatively quickly. Instead, the main challenge of the game is actually centered around traversing environments without being killed by enemies, who function as obstacles that can rapidly drain the main character’s small capacity of health. This means it’s actually smarter to avoid enemies, or camp in a corner while deploying the headcrab to damage defeat, or simply move past enemies before teleporting to it enemies, seeing as how the headcrab has its own separate regenerating health bar.
Regarding exploration and discovery, Axiom Verge manages to make that a frustrating endeavor as well. There are a lot of collectibles in this world, and the game does not help the player with discovering them at all. There are no map signifiers, no item that locates other items, no in-game breakdown of the items in a given area, and often next to no way to reasonably assume an item is located somewhere unless the player is using a walkthrough. Calling some of the hidden collectibles in this game obscure would be putting it lightly. Calling them borderline incomprehensible would be a far more accurate descriptor.
To compound this problem, the world of Axiom Verge really is not that fun to explore. In addition to obnoxious enemies, it feels like it takes forever to get anywhere, and the map system does a poor job at meaningfully connecting one area to the next. I struggled to remember where things are, how this world is connected, and often where I was even supposed to go. It is a labyrinth I explored thoroughly enough to achieve a 100% completion rate, but lack the ability to mentally picture the world beyond the locations of a few memorable areas.
A few memorable areas that are very much visual highlights of this game to me, but for the most part, Axiom Verge looks cluttered. Locations are made up of many different tiles and it prevents environments form looking cohesive. Enemies are mostly dull creatures that iterate upon a routine concept while not adding much at all too it. Bosses are a mismatch of flesh and machinery arranged in an over designed blob. While the main character would be insufferably bland as a protagonist if not for his gigantic nose. There is some credence to the artwork on display here, with the actual pixel and sprite work looking quite good, but the general design looks like a poor imitation of the game’s inspiration.
Whenever I come away from a game like Axiom Verge with an ultimately negative opinion about it, I’m placed in a sour mood. The game is a single-handedly developed love letter to a series that I have a personal attachment to, but is constructed in such a way that I spent the majority of my time with the game irritated, annoyed, or just plain old frustrated. Nearly every aspect about its design bore some sort of contention from me, and I am left perplexed at how this game was received warmly by the majority of those who played it. It’s an obtuse irritation I’m glad to leave behind me. Soundtrack was nice though.