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Axiom Verge: A One-Man Love Letter To NES Metroid


In March 2010, after witnessing the success of early indie video games like 2008’s Braid, Tom Happ started building a virtual world as a side project. Five years later, that sci-fi hacker-inspired world was released into the wild and met with the deserved critical acclaim. It was ported to various platforms, including in 2017 on the Switch where I played it on—and even received a Limited Run physical release that I’m proud to own.

The question is: what axiom? On what verge? Axiom Verge plays with the idea of many alternate worlds and civilizations that, even compared to our current technological advances, are much more skilled. The Sudran nation that the protagonist Trace comes in contact with, however, has gone extinct thanks to a disease aptfully called “the pathogen”, which was spread on purpose by an evil human called Athetos that discovered this Sudran race hundreds of years before you did. The Sudran people invented many technological masterpieces like the Breach that acts as a portal to even more alternate dimensions that hold potentially limitless scientific advances—but the Sudran refuse to disturb. Allured by this premise, Athetos kills everything and everyone to harness the tech for himself. Trace gets “ported in” by the Rusalki, giant bio-engineered machines that aim to stop Athetos, as this Breach he messed with also traps them in that world.

Or something like that. The plot gets confusingly complex quite fast. If you’re interested in what Tom is trying to say with the story of the game, read this The Omniverse: A Simple Example blog post, summarized as follows:

A “reality” is an algorithm operating on a set of data, and all possible such algorithms exist. They will seem “real” to any thinking entity they describe.

This is the kind of stuff you’re dealing with in Axiom Verge. Oh, and it’s also an excellent Metroidvania.

See that green distortion? I need an upgrade to get through. Unlockable map portions indeed.
See that green distortion? I need an upgrade to get through. Unlockable map portions indeed.

What stands out when looking at the first screenshot here? The pipes on the lower left and right that are ripped straight from Metroid? The blocked pathway that you’ll have to come back later, in true Metroid fashion? The mini map on the upper right? The health bar that no doubt can be enlarged by scouring for upgrades? Or the NES-style 8x8 sprite blocks and equally limited palette?

Axiom Verge doesn’t try to be something it’s not: it’s a very clear homage to early NES days, specifically to Metroid-style games. Thankfully though, it includes some modern quality-of-life adjustments. For instance, if you die, you respawn at a save point. No wait, that’s business as usual. Your progress is saved instead of loaded, AND you respawn at that save point, how about that? Discovered something but died just before reaching a save point? No problem! This reduces a lot of pressure in games with excruciating difficulties that focus on exploration—I’m looking at you, Hollow Knight. Axiom Verge isn’t very difficult—at least not in “normal” mode, in which you should definitely start your first run. I died 32 times before seeing the credits roll, and thanks to the beautiful save system, none of those deaths felt cheesy.

Speaking about deaths and difficulty: yes, the expected huge boss battles that are part of stereotypical Metroidvania games are present. One can be skipped, and unfortunately, the last boss battle is a complete pushover. About 10 hours in, I accidentally stumbled upon the admittedly bland end game portion, and it was over before I realized it. There’s enough to keep the adventurer adventuring though: hidden items and powerups and very cool secret worlds with heavy scanlines as the game hints you’ve reached a “glitched” part of the Sudran world. I only managed to find one, but according to online walkthroughs, there are plenty.

Expect to spend a lot of time in this map screen, figuring out where to go next.
Expect to spend a lot of time in this map screen, figuring out where to go next.

The most impressive part of Axiom Verge is the fact that it’s essentially a one-man love letter that pays homage to the classics. Tom Happ created the world, graphics, music, and coded the whole thing. In doing so, he set the scene for a very compelling “omniverse” that contains interesting ideas that go beyond emulating Metroid. There’s a special tool that can be used to “glitch” enemies and parts of walls, which will pixelate them and alter their abilities (you can use them as platforms, they lower their firing rate, or you can even control them). This Disruptor ties in neatly with the rest of the hacky atmosphere, with Trace being a scientist trying to find his way back to Earth.

Storytelling is mainly done by collecting various notes—most of them require deciphering first as they’re written in Sudran or Vykhyan, the language the giant Rusalki machines use to communicate. At one point the game, you’ll have access to a Passcode Tool that, with the right password, translates these documents. There are even hidden secrets that implicitly make use of this! I love things like that, although to be honest, sometimes had trouble navigating them. You’re left to your own devices when it comes to piecing note clues together. Axiom Verge takes a jab at environmental storytelling but ultimately fails to reach the heights of Super Metroid.

I thought I discovered an upgrade but all I got was this?
I thought I discovered an upgrade but all I got was this?

After a few hours running around in Sudran, each map or separate section of the game starts to blend into each other. Some parts, like Edin and Zi, are more exciting than others, and although enemym color palette, and a generally excellent ambient soundtrack variation made sure there’s a distinction, some maps could do with a more unique feel. Games like the aforementioned Hollow Knight and Super Metroid ooze with atmosphere, with each portion of the game having a completely different feel. Don’t expect something like that in Axiom Verge.

Another design choice that didn’t pan out that well was the various mods for your gun that turn it into a plasma rifle, flamethrower, shotgun, mini-gun, etc. These look different, but most of them are useless, and you’ll resort to only two or three as your go-to mods. Finding one of those useless mods in mid-to lategame felt like a let-down: I just slogged my way through this semi-secret part only to get this? Some weapon upgrades are highly useful, most are interesting but a bit bland, and some completely lack inspiration. The conventional power and weapon upgrades are present as well, but it doesn’t help that while trying to retrieve those, I encountered three game breaking bugs that had me quit and restart the game.

That being said, as a one-man show, the game deserves to be cut some slack. The Rusalki, initially seen as giant human-like heads with a lot of mechanical alien tech parts, make up for dreadful and impressive encounters, as do the early boss fights. The game managed to spawn a cult of speedrunners and a dedicated Fandom page full of lore that cleared up many but not all answers.

My temporary ally, Elsenova, who instructs me to activate power filters to start healing her.
My temporary ally, Elsenova, who instructs me to activate power filters to start healing her.

Here are my final stats of the game, as revealed after the end credits:

  • Difficulty: Normal
  • Total Time: 10:28:52
  • Items: 62%
  • Map: 86%
  • Death Count: 32

This is one of those games that grabbed my full attention and kept me thinking about it even beyond the screen. Some tracks of the electronic soundtrack can be real earworms, and if you can’t get enough of it, the soundtrack is available at Bandcamp. It’s not a perfect Metroidvania, but the unique setting and the fact that it’s made by one man alone makes it worth discovering who Athethos actually is.

Verdict: 4/5 —Great.

Categorized under: Metroidvania

Me!

I'm Jefklak, a high-level Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others to join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about The Codex here.

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