EGX Rezzed 2015: Axiom Verge Hands-On Preview – Metroid Comes to PlayStation (PS4)

March 16, 2015 Written by Michael Briers

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Five years. That’s how long developer Tom Happ has been running his one-man operation to shepherd retro-inspired platformer Axiom Verge to the finish line. In that time, he’s taken the lead as an artist, designer, animator and programer — your very own indie swiss army knife, if you will — as he slowly massaged and honed this most passionate of passion projects into existence.

Infused with the rich, 16-bit style found in the likes of Contra and Super Metroid, Axiom Verge is a side-scrolling 2D platformer from a bygone era. Everything from the old school level design to the wonderful and nostalgic soundtrack helps conjure up some of the best gaming experience of your childhood, and picking up Happ’s opus feels like a step back in time in the best possible way.

Channeling the Greats

Make no mistake, this is a title that is Metroidvania down to its very core, with players unlocking new weaponry that in turn opens up new areas of the alien world. It’s this concoction of exploration, hidden secrets, and boss battles that bestows the game with its genre credentials, but it’s Axiom Verge’s inherent depth that sets it apart from its contemporaries.

From the get-go, players will pick up their blasters as Trace, a budding scientist who stumbles upon a hostile alternate dimension when a lab experiment goes awry. And in keeping with all great sci-fi tropes, each and everything in this adjacent realm wants to nudge you toward your inevitable demise.

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But along this mysterious journey you’ll acquire a hoard of new, increasingly powerful armaments that will not only help you mow down enemies standing in your way, but also open up parts of the map that were once out of reach. In fact, from what we gather, the world of Axiom Verge boasts no less than 60 items and power-ups, so don’t fret too much if you’ve strayed from the beaten path.

As for the stylized, retro aesthetic, there’s no doubting the craft on display. Each stage is incredibly well realized, whether it’s the blood-red caverns lined with alien goo or the eerie, green-tinged levels that wouldn’t look out of place on LV426. Couple this with the excellent, pulsing soundtrack and it is as though you’re playing through the lost levels of Zebes, haunted by the ghost of one Samus Aran.

That said, while Axiom Verge undoubtedly owes a lot to the genre’s forefathers in the style and gameplay department, there’s evidence that Happ is striving to ensure that the title is judged as its own beast. The Speedrun Mode, for example, caters to the Twitch and YouTube communities, and while this feature was still in its nascent stages in the build I played, there’s no doubting its potential to blossom in the competitive scene.

Granted, there’s certainly no lack of twitch-based platformers in the online space, but early impressions of Happ’s labor of love point to an experience that will come up in conversation when judging my favorite games of the year, not least for its artistic achievement.

That’s the feeling that resonated with me the most after setting down the controller. Axiom Verge feels special. The emphasis on non-linear exploration imbues the environments with a tangible sense of majesty, as you delve further and further into the labyrinthine, atypical levels. In fact, the alien locales aren’t the only element that is unusual within Happ’s universe.

Here’s to You, Speed-Runners

In mixing up the gameplay, the developer has added a curveball into Axiom in the form of glitches — and no, not of the game-crashing variety. Rather, this mechanic will allow Trace to transcend the boundaries of the world, discovering never-before-seen details of his environment. It’s a fascinating tidbit lurking within Happ’s design, and one that only adds to Axiom Verge’s peculiar, yet fascinating nature.

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Of course, with an aesthetic rooted in the 16-bit era, the developer’s project may only appeal to a certain audience, one willing to put up with the limitations of the genre and enjoy a true blast from the past. But based on our time with Happ’s creation, you can color us very intrigued indeed.

Due to release at the beginning of April, Axiom Verge will make its debut on PlayStation 4 before arriving on PlayStation Vita at a later date. But fear not, Vita owners, for Happ has assured would-be buyers that the sci-fi title will support cross-buy.