Thomas Happ’s 2015 Axiom Verge thoroughly impressed me: it is a superb and faithful Metroid game that is not Metroid itself; coded, designed, and composed by a single guy. The ending suggested Tom wasn’t done with “The Breach”, his narrative sci-fi take on the multiverse. While Axiom Verge 2 doesn’t feature the same protagonist—or world(s), for that matter—it does contain traces of Trace, the PatternMind scientist that starred in the original game.
The question is: what does Axiom Verge 2 bring to the Metroidvania table? The sequel does feel more confident in its own capabilities compared to the cramped faithfulness to the formula of the 2015 original. Unfortunately, some of those strays off that beaten path ended up being not that interesting to explore. Let’s try to break down what happens when Indra discovers a portal to another world in an abandoned research center on Antarctica.
Decades later… Or is it centuries earlier?
Life. Afterlife. Real. Virtual. Dream. Nightmare. It’s a thin line. It’s Axiom Verge.
The first thing that becomes apparent when taking your first steps in Axiom Verge 2 is the lack of claustrophobic environments connected by tubes—although the separation by sections persists. Instead, you explore the “Overworld”, which is reminiscent of ancient Earth, including many artifacts inspired by Sumerian culture. Happ deliberately selected that culture as it’s the first with a written language. Of course, it wouldn’t be Axiom Verge without mixing in futuristic self-conscious nanotechnology that may or may not go rogue.
As in the first game, the story is fed to the player through notes you pick up, only this time the amount of notes has been quadrupled and contains information of both the current story and the overarching multiverse. There were partially cut off writing tablets of priest speeches, secret messages from multiple parties involved in a long lost war, investigative notes from scientists researching The Breach, … There’s even one note from Trace, and I think a couple of others try to explain what happened in the first game. This overwhelming amount of confusing text was simply too much for me to disentangle and after the 10th attempt, I gave up, which is a shame, as I think Happ’s multiverse is trying to tell us we might not be as unique as we’d like to believe. The core of the message is muddled by the execution of its messenger.
Amidst this confusionn, Indra, the protagonist, is trying to find a portal back to Earth, but encounters a few other explorers from her home world that took multiple stabs at building such a machine—without much success. As she explores this desolate ancient and yet modern world, she encounters “Arms”, groups of intelligent nano modifiers that grant her new abilities but were once human (and if this is starting to sound like ramblings, it’s probably because I misunderstood a lot of notes).
In classic Metroidvania fashion, abilities such as climbing walls and roping onto ledges unlock new parts of the map that were previously inaccessible. Axiom Verge 2 comes with a decent amount of backtracking, but it never felt painful or boring: about 1/3th into the game, you’re granted a teleport ability that lets you quickly hop between save points—something you’ll be leaning on a lot. The drone from the original game makes a return and plays an even more prominent role here. Most abilities are quite inventive and overall, I liked the progression system.
What I didn’t like was the combat—and there’s a lot of that. Indra has access to a melee weapon and a boomerang, but the latter’s puny amount of inflicted damage renders it useless. You start with an ice pick from your trip to Antarctica and only find a couple of other weapons throughout the whole game. There’s little enemy variation, almost entirely bots as they fit into the story, and the attack sound is one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever heard. Melee-ing a robot that shocks you when you come close isn’t nearly as much fun as blasting stuff with Trace’s Disruptor gun.
Combat can be skipped though, it’s not an Igavania, there’s no leveling involved. What’s more, bosses can be skipped as well! They’re not enclosed in caves or chapels and you’re allowed to sneak past them, but killing them will net you a few skill points (we’ll get to that in a bit). Sadly, there are few bosses in the game, and they’re all pushovers, mostly floating there, absorbing those axe swings, occasionally taking a shot or two at you. Then there are a few hidden “bosses” that are just a pair of previously encountered ones. If you’re looking for epic fights like in GBA Castlevania or Hollow Knight, look elsewhere.
Your drone attacks using a saw blade attached to a whip that produces the same irritating sound. Since it does a lot less damage, you’ll have to spam that attack button more, making fights even more of a chore. Enemies respawn, but not after immediately revisiting the previous area.
Speaking of drones, only they can effectively enter tears of space fabric in The Overworld and explore The Breach beyond it. The Overworld is littered with portals like these and you’ll have to manipulate and move quite a few of them to discover all (hidden) items. Once you enter The Breach, you quickly realize there’s a whole new map to explore that’s somewhat connected to The Overworld. In The Breach, Axiom Verge 2 plays like an oversaturated 8-bit game with lovely chiptune music, while The Overworld has that ethnic vibe and comes with an 16-bit muted color palette that looks like washed out pastel.
I enjoyed this interesting take of interconnected but separate worlds to explore the most. As your drone also gains abilities, it’ll also slowly unlock more parts of The Breach—and eventually can exit it and end up in places in The Overworld that were inaccessible by conventional means.
The soundtrack is available at Bandcamp and paints a picture of the stark differences between both worlds. Listen to Procession of the Anunna and you’re suddenly transported to an ancient Middle Eastern human-like Overworld. I’ll be honest here, I did not like Mayssa Karaa’s chanting at all, but that’s personal. Then switch to Argentum Alias, a track from The Breach, and you’ll exactly know that I mean by catchy 8-bit chiptune. Complementing both worlds is perhaps Axiom Verge 2’s biggest achievement.
Some things that Axiom Verge 2 tries to pull of don’t really work that well. One of those is a primitive unlockable skill tree system. You’ll find these in the game as destroyable “Apocalypse Flasks”. The player is free to choose which tree to prioritize in, and in the end, you should have unlocked nearly everything. Most skills are conventional ones: more health, more damage, faster attack rates, that sort of stuff.
Only, investing in more damage barely has any effect. Only with that branch fully unlocked, I noticed a slight difference, and that was near the end of the game, where it wasn’t needed anymore. Same thing with health. And then a few skills are essential, like hacking abilities to open blocked doorways, rendering other skills less important. I liked scouring the worlds to find hidden items, but after finding Apocalypse Flasks, I always shrugged. A collectible mop-up that should excite near the end of the game, using all unlocked abilities, ends up feeling a bit useless as most of those Apocalypse skills are—just like the weapons.
If you’d like to try Tom Happ’s unique world and love Metroidvania’s, I’d suggest to try out the original game first. It’s not necessarily more ambitious in narrative world building, but most of the systems there work, and combat is more satisfying. If you can’t get enough of these games like I do, you’ll find Indra’s 10-hour or so adventure to be just as satisfying.
Just don’t expect too much satisfying action.