Review: Axiom Verge

Come on, you poor unfortunate soul. Go ahead! Make your choice!
There is exploration in Axiom Verge.

On 6 August, 1986, Nintendo released Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System. At that moment, platform exploration games advanced in a way comparable to that which RPGs would experience following the release of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. Years later, now-classic games like Super Metroid and Castlevania retained the core Metroid game mechanics in their own evolutions of the genre, and Axiom Verge follows in that noble tradition, both in adhering to the core gameplay mechanics available in Metroid, and in presenting new innovations which enhance the already-solid gameplay experience. The result is a blend of new and old which is at once refreshing and nostalgic. It seems prudent to add that, should an enterprising reader now begin downloading Axiom Verge from the PlayStation Network, the download will most likely be completed before this review is carefully read in full.

How on earth could I miss such a sweet little succulent crab?
Some of the bosses are so large that the camera must zoom out in order to display them in full.

The plot of Axiom Verge is one respect in which significant advancement has been made since the release of Metroid. A cinematic sequence introduces the player both to the main character, Trace, and to the circumstances leading up to his exploration of a strange, alien world. There is more than a little of Another World and Blaster Master here, and the game thus aligns itself with these classic narratives from the beginning of gameplay, whilst arriving in the alien world itself connects the player to the opening moments of Metroid. Classic gamers will revel in this connexion with beloved games of yesteryear, whilst younger gamers will find in the opening moments of Axiom Verge a vehicle by which the player is swiftly involved in gameplay. There are no lengthy tutorials or long plot expostulation designed to ensure that even blockheads are following the story. Instead, Trace is given a gun and a world to explore: the rest is up to the player. Nor is the need for exploration limited to the world; each boss is a similar challenge–the weak points and strategies must be discovered and mastered until victory is obtained.

There you see her--sitting there across the way. She don't got a lot to say, but there's something about her.
Elsenova and Trace converse.

Although Trace is mostly on his own as he explores the world, he does receive occasional guidance from a gigantic, feminine cyborg named Elsenova. Apart from journal notes scattered and hidden throughout the world, it is Elsenova who fills in background details and gives Trace directions, albeit in broken, stilted English–a reference to the damaged nature of her components. Trace will, over the course of the game, aid Elsenova and her associates by repairing their damage and fighting off the gigantic bosses which infest their world. He will also learn more about Athetos, and the plague which ravaged the humans, leaving behind glitch-like fields which now impede his progress. Only as Trace acquires new equipment can he continue: jumping boots, grappling hooks, and a de-glitching gun are amongst the items that the careful explorer will find hidden–sometimes behind destructible or false walls. It is wise to explore thoroughly, lest valuable upgrades be overlooked.

You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake.
Not all friendly mushrooms are named Toad.

Despite the presence of the story throughout, Axiom Verge never takes itself too seriously: in fact, its story delivery is most akin to a lighter version of that found in Metroid Prime, with background material delivered through notes and the occasional data console. As such, it never feels overwrought or overburdened: there is an absence of pretense which is all the more refreshing compared to the deadly earnest with which modern cheese-tastic stories are delivered by stilted voice actors. The small cast of characters quickly become familiar, and the world is fleshed out historically as the player explores geographically. Everything fits together snugly: it never feels as if the story is being forced upon the player, but neither does it fade into silent meaninglessness. Gamers will want to avoid the by-now habitual practise of pressing X to skip through what is usually meaningless blather, because in Axiom Verge, it is meaningful dialogue instead.

Up where they walk, up where they run, up where they stay all day in the sun.
The surface is as inhospitable as the caves.

Lest it be thought that the music is forgettable, suffice to say it is not. Nominally an 8-bit soundtrack, the score to Axiom Verge has also benefitted from the technological developments of the modern era. Vocal samples and percussive drum effects flesh out a soundtrack which suits the world of the game admirably. And, although the soundtrack never quite reaches the lofty heights of Metroid or Castlevania‘s very best tracks, it also does not fall far beneath them. Audiophiles may find it difficult to recall the main themes of the game once separated from the software by distance and time, but when seated before the television set, immersed in the experience, it is not uncommon to find oneself humming along with electronic melodies that connect the gamers of 2015 directly to those of 1985. The aesthetic and narrative choices of Axiom Verge have been lovingly crafted and polished to pay such an homage, and in this regard it delivers again and again without fail.

Fathoms below, below!
Weapons of every variety aid Trace on his mission.

With a vast array of weapons and power-ups, a huge world which is rewarding to explore, scores of hidden items, a soundtrack which fits perfectly, and an engaging storyline, it is hard to find anything about Axiom Verge which fails to live up to expectations. Too often, hype is built for a title to the point that its release cannot but fail to disappoint. This time, however, the promises have all come good. Axiom Verge‘s challenges are finely tuned, with Normal mode presenting a difficulty roughly on par with that of Super Metroid, and a Hard mode available at start. Frequent save points and the ‘return to save’ nature of death avoid the undoing of exploration whilst not removing all the costs of failure. A Speedrun mode is also available. The passwords of past platforming adventure games (JUSTIN BAILEY) have their place, too: they are now a part of the game mechanics, giving Trace new abilities and powers as they are entered and activated. In short, nothing of value has been overlooked; no rough edges remain unpolished.

When all is accounted, Axiom Verge is the kind of game that comes along once in a decade or more: it is both a faultless homage to the classic Metroid-style platforming-exploration games of the past, and also a glittering triumph all of its own which surpasses the achievements of earlier titles. It would have been easier for Tom Happ to have made a game that reached no farther than Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and such a game would have served well, would have pleased well, would have sold well, would have satisfied. But Happ has gone farther–he has innovated, not iterated–and the result is a timeless experience which delivers now as it will deliver again when it is inevitably replayed. Axiom Verge is therefore the best kind of retro game: one that deserves to be played not because it merely copies the classics, but rather because it is itself a classic, fit to stand alongside Metroid, Castlevania, and Blaster Master, with which it will remain a source of fun and inspiration in the years and decades to come.

Axiom Verge Box Art
Box Art
Review Grade A
Review Grade

Game Information

Title: Axiom Verge

Genre: Platformer

Developer: Thomas Happ Games

Publisher: Thomas Happ Games

Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 4 (NA)

Release Date: 31 March 2015


  1. Little droplets of H. R. Giger abound! I’m happy to see the story not being there just to fulfill the need for some plot. My only question is how the controls will translate to Vita, which is likely needless concern, as Tom seems to understand the importance of doing things right.

  2. Another excellent addition to a PS4 library (at last). I’m still glad old games are being honored by the people who grew up loving them, even if their creators (Konami!) no longer seem to care.

  3. @Mel: That’s an excellent point, and one which we’ve all been saying for a long time now: the salvation of classic-style games won’t come from the big, increasingly faceless and personalityness AAA developers. It will come from devoted fans who loved those games and who became small, indie devs–in short, people like Mr. Happ.

  4. I’m intrigued by the frequent comparisons to Blaster Master which is a forgotten gem.

  5. @Ethos: ??? What?

    @Wolfe: There are plenty of storyline connexions, although the switch between vehicle/personal mode is not in this game.

  6. Oh yeah, and though this is probably the most irrelevant comment ever, the giant anime head featured in screenshots? The mechanical profile with all the tubes wired into it? That is straight up Gally from Gunnm/Battle Angel if I ever saw it.

    Lusi: I didn’t figure as such, but still the game sounds rather appealing. Though I doubt I’ll find time for it in the near future unfortunately.

  7. @Wolfe: That’s a terrible shame. It can be played in a few afternoons with a few hours here and there. And, if you have any love for Metroid/Castlevania platforming, you really owe it to yourself to make the time for this game. It is a gem, and I can scarcely praise it highly enough.

    @Ethos: You aren’t making one whit of sense.

  8. I plan on purchasing this immediately once the Vita version is available, which I’m already itching for thanks largely to this review. Thank you!

  9. @Lusipurr: Ethos just wants to be part of that world. Or under the sea. I often can’t tell which.

  10. @DefChaos: I hope you enjoy it. I am going to be replaying it again on harder difficulty, in fact.

    @Java: What world? Am I missing something?

  11. @DiceAdmiral: Oh… kay. But why are we talking about the Little Mermaid? My review is of Axiom Verge!

  12. I woke up in the middle of the night last night and played Axiom Verge until 0530.

    It’s that good.

  13. Note: I am still exploring. I did not find every item, &c. before I beat the final boss, and there are things which make me think that there may be multiple endings. So, I am trying to track down missing items and to figure out how to get through some obstacles that have still got me stumped.

  14. This has been on my radar for about a year. I wouldn’t buy a PS4 for it, but I can’t wait for it on PC. It looks so far up my alley that the alley itself looks like it. Tanks for the review!

  15. Games like Shovel Knight, Axiom Verge and Bloodborne are so good that it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to play mindless games during the times I do not want to give full concentration to a good game. It happened last night when I opened and closed both Costume Quest 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition. Too mindless for even a mindless state. I ended up watching Mushishi instead.

  16. Which is distinctly not a mindless show, but better suited to the pace my brain was operating at last night. My mindless games will now be the likes of Tomb Raider and Shadow of Mordor which at least have interesting mechanics at some level.

  17. @MattDance: I don’t think you will be disappointed. This is a great title for classic gamers.

    @Ethos: I’ve given over on ‘mindless’ gaming entirely. I have so little time to game that I now spend it exclusive on things to which I can devote attention. The closest to ‘mindless’ I have is Pokemon.

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