Gone are the golden days when a 2D platfomer could garner hype and excitement from the gaming populous. Once heralded as the pinnacle of game development achievement with titles like Super Mario World and Super Metroid, the genre went away for awhile as new technologies ushered in new genres and gameplay mechanics. The remnants of the genre continued to endure however, with certain gamers for years. The recent rise of the indie space and new gamers thirst for something new has lead to a resurgence of the genre. The 2D platformer is officially back and no game proves this more than Tom Happ’s Axiom Verge.
Axiom Verge is a 2D retro-styled platformer that many will refer to as a “Metroidvania” game. I generally despise using the term but in this case, no other word can describe it more clearly or evoke images of its gameplay style. The two games that the word is derived from, Metroid and Castlevania, are the two games that developer Tom Happ has himself used before in describing his influences for creating the game. It should be noted that when I say “created the game,” he literally created the ENTIRE game. Tom drew every pixel, coded every gameplay mechanic, and even composed every track and sound effect. Axiom Verge is indeed the creation of one man.
The game pits you in the roll of Trace, a scientist who wakes up in an inhospitable world after a terrible lab accident. The game’s story is mainly rolled out through speech bubbles but some of it is created by the atmosphere and truly unique environments the game puts you in. The mystery of what happened to Trace and the unknown of what is behind the next door is what drives players to keep exploring and keep pushing forward. Sometimes however, to progress in the game, you have to actually look back at locations that you’ve already visited. Backtracking is often a negative to some players but in Axiom Verge’s case it’s actually the appeal. Tom Happ has nailed the pacing in this game with abilities and tools being dolled out at just the right pace to help players find new paths and mysteries to send Trace towards. I never really found myself frustrated and the sense of accomplishment through discovery is what helped avoid it.
The world of Axiom Verge is populated with enemies and bosses ranging from those that are alien in appearance but familiar in their actions, to some truly unique ones that force you as the player to utilize your abilities and current weapon arsenal to take them down. Some weapons and abilities may seem familiar to players of the genre but Tom Happ has found a way to make them feel new and fresh. He has also created some new ones that distinctly fit in the world Axiom Verge. These new abilities help change and shape the players mobility through new and already visited environments. I don’t want to spoil any of them but lets just say that by the end of the game, you will be crossing some spaces just a little bit differently.
The game isn’t without flaws of course. One somewhat annoying flaw is that there is no fast travel in the game. Sure its a pure game in its genre in every sense without it, but in today’s player base this may be somewhat of a turn off. Personally I didn’t find it as troublesome as others might. I enjoyed traversing through old spaces to find what mysteries I may have missed due to lacking certain abilities when I first went through them, but to each his own. Another misstep may be in the story itself. It is somewhat convoluted and doesn’t quite have the draw that some may hope. There are notes scattered throughout the world that help to fill in some backstory and setting but overall they don’t help too much. The gameplay however speaks for itself and is just fun to play. This is one game where gameplay trumps story.
Axiom Verge is a testament and clinic on how to take an old genre and make it feel new again. In every sense of its existence Axiom Verge should feel like an old game. On paper it really shouldn’t be garnering any hype or excitement. It shouldn’t wear its influences as a badge on its sleeve. The great thing is that Axiom Verge does indeed do all these things and I love it for it. A wiseman once said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That wise man was right, but I think he forgot to mention that iteration on that imitation just makes things better and in Axiom Verge’s case, it’s made it the best in a genre in a long time.