If you're a Metroid fan then you'll be happy to meet Tom Happ. The developer has decided to create a game - all by himself we might add - that feels very much in the spirit of Nintendo's classic adventure series. On the surface, Axiom Verge looks and behaves like that NES game. The visuals are pixelated, audio a throwback to the low-fi soundscape of the time. The gameplay is almost identical. At least, as we said, on the surface.
Dig in though, and you'll see the game offers some astonishing depth. The satisfaction comes when you upgrade the main character Trace, or the feeling when you finally defeat the gigantic scorpion boss fight after losing for what feels like years. It's so refreshing to finally see a developer who has chosen to focus and reduce a game down to its core: the joy of playing - and in Axiom Verge the joy of playing is undoubtedly the main focus.
You start the game by grabbing your weapon, and this one weapon will follow you through the entire game. You'll find upgrades for it that make it more effective, and it'll also give you new abilities (for example, explosive projectiles that create a towering inferno in front of you). Most enemies in the game have a single unique weakness, and it's your mission to find out what it is. As with Metroid you have checkpoints around the environment, and when you die it'll be where you restart. The game never ends then, because you're constantly able to reincarnate. Neat. Other upgrades involve adding extra health points, or different lab coats that give you a tactical advantage over your enemies. You will also eventually gain access to a drone, one that lets you access places that previously were out of reach.
The world you explore is divided into sections, and all of them have their own boss battles. The world is really big, and when you think you've discovered it all, you find new places tucked away here and there that you've yet to visit because they were previously sealed off. There is always something to see and do, and the sense of progression feels very in keeping with its Metroidvania heritage.
The music is fantastic. In the beginning you might almost believe that you're playing a genuine NES game. The more you play, the more layers are added into the mix, which means it tunes end up intense, heart-pumping, but fused with a mystical edge. The sound effects are also exactly as you would expect and want them to be for a game with this kind of style. It's all very retro.
When it comes to visuals the game truly shines. Yes, it looks like something from the NES era thanks to the colour palette, but the level of pixellated detail here reaches heights that would have been impossible for the thirty-year-old machine. The developer has also left certain bugs and glitches in the game on purpose, both for nostalgia's sake, but also because they help hide certain parts of the environment. All this gives Axiom Verge surprising depth, and an edge of innovation in amongst all the homage. Though the game looks and feels old fashioned, there is enough here to keep you from drowning in nostalgia, and that's something other games could learn from.
Having said all that, it's tricky to talk about specific elements, because you really need to experience it all as a cohesive offering. There's no tutorial from the get go, and some of the functions aren't even mentioned until you discover them for yourself. No handholding whatsoever here, and that's something we think other games do far too frequently. In Axiom Verge the focus is always on exploration, and finding quick solutions to the encounters and problems you may encounter along the way. You're alone, exactly like Trace is in the game. Yes, you might receive a message every time you collect a new item, but the information is reduced to tidbits like: "Pressing the X button will do stuff."
Axiom Verge is the work of just one man, and it's been in development for five years. That's an impressive feat in the world of tripleA titles that cost an arm and a leg to produce. That the game is hugely enjoyable only makes this feat more impressive. It'll certainly appeal to those out there who fondly remember the 8-bit days of yesteryear, but there's also no reason why a player with more modern sensibilities wouldn't have a great time discovering its quirks.