Axiom Verge marks a curious footnote in the ever-rotating cycle of video game development. In an age where huge 300-strong companies often squander vast amounts of investment on unnecessary frills and thrills, we’ve seen the consistent rise of the lowly independent team void of any contractual or shareholder obligation, guided only by their own creative intuition and proficiency.
In a further evolution from that, we have Axiom Verge, a brand-spanking new adventure derived entirely from the mind and indeed perspired matter of one man: Thomas Happ; a 13-year veteran of the video game industry who’s worked with such companies as Electronic Arts Tiburon and Petroglyph Games during that illustrious time. For the past five years, however, Happ has dedicated himself solely to this singular pursuit, creating literally every single aspect of the game by his lonesome. The music, art, code, direction are all the sum of his austere talent, acting as a modernly penned love letter to the revered video games of yonder.
From the opening minutes, it becomes emphatically clear that Axiom Verge takes many of its cues from famed 8-bit classics such as Metroid, Contra and the original Bionic Commando, harkening back to the halcyon days of being scooched in front of a television, clutching a well-worn controller with grubby mitts all the while attempting to beat the latest release before the rental store demanded its safe return from your grasp. It’s a warm, well-needed dose of nostalgia, that’s for sure, but beyond the similarities undoubtedly present in Axiom Verge’s retro exterior, the core of its mechanics are as refreshing and refined as a modern development spate would permit.
You play as Trace, a young, scraggly-haired scientist who falls victim to a fatal laboratory incident that renders him stuck in a mysterious alien-like dimension, unsure as to whether he’s alive or dead. As he traverses this cryptic plane, he becomes entangled in an enduring mechanical war between enigmatic factions that wish to use him for their own means. Torn between his natural inclination and newfound purpose, Trace resolves to uncover the secrets shrouded in this contorted labyrinth and escape if it’s even possible at this point.
The game employs all the hallmarks of that classic ‘Metroidvania’ mould; you’ve got that sort of free-roaming open expanse that’s only inhibited by your lack of abilities during the opening hour or two, but once you’ve ploughed through those first few weapon upgrades you’ll be revisiting old areas en masse to uncover more pathways and soak up every little detail of the game’s frankly wonderful 8-bit aesthetic.
Speaking of your armoury – a stockpile which consists of over twenty different weapons – you’ll have a whole manner of gadgets at your disposal, ranging from the self-explanatory Laser Drill to the slightly more obtuse, but impeccably conceived, Recon Drone, that deploys a small critter to scurry up to those hard-to-reach crevices so abundant within the game’s design mechanics and uncover hidden avenues and rooms. What’s more, you can teleport to whatever location your drone ends up in, meaning that the gameplay remains a consistent, cogent experience and never falls into the trap of being stilted by its own level design.
And while your arsenal isn’t conventional by anyone’s definition, there’s still one crucial weapon-based caveat in amidst the arms cache available throughout the game – the Address Disruptor; a contraption that spurts out pulsating waves of energy causing glitched environments to amend themselves as well as turning smaller enemies into broken bits of code. It essentially mirrors the narrative structure at the heart of Axiom Verge, where our protagonist Trace is trying to reconcile with reality despite the fact he’s in a strange otherworldly place; areas aren’t entirely fixated, and either is Trace’s perception seemingly. It’s one of many alterations to the tried-and-tested formulaic approach usually found in Metroidvania-type titles, and one that works perfectly on a fundamental level. The mechanic allows for the game’s level design to become more engaging as you happen across what looks to be a game-breaking construct protruding from the edge of a room, that is until you blast it with the Address Disruptor, revealing a now-usable passageway. The mechanic isn’t just relegated to wall morphing, either, with a whole manner of clever intricacies and instances that make full use of its potential.
Axiom Verge also strikes this beautifully resonating balance between being tailored for play styles from both ends of the gaming spectrum. You’ve got the adept, tight control scheme that’s perfect for seeing off enemies in a timely fashion, but with the intuitive button mapping that facilitates the use of – and subsequent exploration with – a whole host of power-ups and upgrades that you find dotted throughout the terrain.
It’s a decidedly old-school mantra, an experience that can be completed in a conventional and practical sense relatively quickly, but still has enough depth and nuance for more methodical playthroughs that can last far longer than just a straightforward sprint to the end. What’s more interesting about Axiom Verge, too, is that it explicitly caters for those of a more fast-paced disposition with an entirely separate mode entitled ‘Speedrun’, which removes the procedurally generated instances from the main story as well as all of the dialogue so that you can hone your skills and blast through it as fast as humanly possible. Moreover, a counter is placed onto the screen that measures elapsed frames rather than real time, and can also be tweaked to only calculate time taken to reach specific boss milestones, for those who want to dabble in some semblance of competition but don’t feel up for going all-out. Of course, once you factor in that the streaming functionality housed on PS4 is just a mere click away, the potential for some particularly tense speedruns is certainly palpable.
Axiom Verge is an all-too rare occurrence in video games; a true-to-form experience that effortlessly negotiates the gulf between originality and that of paying an explicit homage to a bygone era by injecting just enough modern sensibility to make the adventure stand independently amongst its peers. All without pandering, diluting or straying too far from the blueprint set forth by games of similar ilk all those years ago. At its apex, Tom Happ’s brainchild unequivocally proves just how far video game development has come in such a short space of time and that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks.