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Axiom Verge

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, WiiU, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: BadLand Games
Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Release Date: Oct. 17, 2017

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Switch Review - 'Axiom Verge'

by Andreas Salmen on Dec. 26, 2017 @ 2:00 a.m. PST

Axiom Verge is a side-scrolling action/adventure that applies a fresh take on classic 8-bit games by using glitches as an important game mechanic.

Buy Axiom Verge

When the Nintendo Switch launched earlier this year, many people were quick to dismiss it as an underpowered tablet that lacks the necessary software support. While that may have been true for the first few months, the system has recovered quite well. As it stands now, the Switch features an ever-growing library of indie games and AAA titles. One of those indie titles is Axiom Verge, a 16-bit Metroidvania homage that is reminiscent of Super Metroid on the SNES.

While the immediate inspiration for the title is undeniable, Axiom Verge is more than a simple cash-in on retro-inspired feelings, and it's more genuine than a rehash of the old formula. Even though the core experience may look and feel familiar, the rest of the title cleverly defied our expectations time and time again.

Developed by Tom Happ over the course of four years, Axiom Verge is a successful passion project. The title was released on the PC and PS4 in 2015, and it was followed by the Xbox One, PS Vita and Wii U in 2016, and it was met with praise on every platform. The Switch version is identical to prior versions, which is definitely a good thing.

In Axiom Verge, we play a scientist named Trace who, after a severe laboratory accident, awakens on the foreign planet of Sudra. Giant war machines beg us for assistance to defeat Athetos, who destroyed the local Sudran race. What starts out as a relatively straightforward zero-to-hero storyline quickly gets multifaceted. The main point of the story is reasonably obvious, but the setup and multilayered approach feels fresh and engaging. Unlike many other similar 2-D adventures, the engaging story is more than an excuse to explore an expansive world of dangers and secrets. Even if the story didn't hook us, the gameplay did.

If stripped to the core, Axiom Verge is what one would expect from a 16-bit Metroidvania title. As soon as we start, we stumble upon our first blaster weapon, and from then on, it's open season. We explore different areas of the map in search of clues, items and power-ups, which in turn progress the story and enable us to gain access to new areas. The highly addictive formula hasn't changed in decades, and it feels as solid as ever. Even if we'd stop here, Axiom Verge is still a highly enjoyable game, but its creativity and willingness to disregard genre conventions are what lift it above similar titles.

Axiom Verge knows its customers well enough to play with their expectations in a way I hadn't previously experienced. The alien setup, the first weapon, and early enemy types behave, feel and look just like ones from any Metroidvania title. I'd go as far as to say that the initial area feels like a lost level from Super Metroid. While that may sound underwhelming, it sets the scene for what's to come because Axiom Verge sells us on how similar it seems to Metroid — only to do something completely different.

Within the first few minutes, we run into obstacles that are clearly in place for us to revisit at a later point. There is the obligatory high ledge that we cannot reach without a double-jump and a small corridor that would require us to roll through. We immediately jump to those conclusions because they make sense to us from Metroid, as those two mechanics never seem to change — but Axiom Verge changes them. Some vary dramatically from well-known mechanics, while others differ in minor details. In this case, we can access smaller corridors with a little drone that looks like a headcrab from Half-Life and we can reach higher ledges by manipulating gravity to jump a little higher than usual.

The most notable difference is in the title's approach to tools and guns. We start with a simple blaster, and we assumed we'd get some heavy artillery in the form of rockets and charged attacks. Instead, Axiom Verge showers us with an incredible variety of guns: clustered lasers in all shapes and sizes, short-range electronic bursts, and more. Different enemies are best tackled with various weapons, and boss fights vary in difficulty depending on which gun we use.

While this makes the overall gameplay more varied and deep, it is not without its flaws. Some guns make it very easy to attack enemies from angles and areas that they cannot reach, posing an advantage that almost feels like cheating. This carries over to boss fights. There are straightforward ways to trick bosses and avoid otherwise tough fights with a few well-chosen moves or weapons. These may be intentional, as the game has an active speed-running community that thrives on exploits to avoid lengthy or difficult confrontations whenever possible. The game is challenging apart from those moments, and it remains just tough enough to be engaging.

Another minor annoyance is the backtracking required to advance. While that is to be expected of the genre, the areas we have to repeatedly traverse can be annoying, and the whole system feels archaic. A simple fast-travel system, even if it's used to reach specific areas, would've been much appreciated and made the experience less frustratingly.

The undoubtedly most significant feature of the game, however, has not been mentioned yet: the address disruptor. This nifty little tool can be found in the first quarter of the game and can potentially change the experience quite a bit. It reveals hidden platforms to jump on and is needed to enter previously inaccessible areas, but it can also be used to glitch enemies. Neglecting all rules set forth initially, the disruptor changes enemies in different ways. They may become more vulnerable, it may change their movement and attack patterns, or it may make them glitch in numerous ways; the results are varied, surprising and sometimes help us to progress. Regardless, the disruptor is satisfying to use and encourages experimentation.

All those little, unexpected features make Axiom Verge a fun ride. It uses the well-known foundation from Metroid and builds its fun gameplay on top of it, fully aware of where it came from and where it wants to go. Accompanied by a perfect science-fiction score and beautiful visuals, there's a lot to praise here. It isn't perfect, and the underlying principles are far from new, but the approach is as fresh as one could wish within the limits of the genre. Considering the amount of available decent Metroidvania games on the Switch, Axiom Verge is a recommended purchase for fans of the genre — and every hardcore gamer looking for a fix.

Score: 9.0/10

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