Confession time: I've never played a 2D Metroid game. I've only even played the original Metroid Prime for about 3 hours: the only game in the franchise history I've played properly is Other M. I have zero nostalgia when it comes to the series and the Metroidvania subgenre it and Castlevania spearheaded. So when I say that Axiom Verge, a modern indie game made to ape the look and feel of old school titles like those I just mentioned, is one of the most entertaining experiences on the console, it's not simply because I grew up playing similar games.
Born out of an egg-like machine, your character is thrown into the world of Axiom Verge and left to explore. While you'll be doing plenty of shooting (with an ever-increasing cache of weapons) it's the discovery of the world, new zones, secret rooms, hidden upgrades, and solutions to puzzles that stuck with me. In typical genre fashion, abilities your character possesses are added to or enhanced as you progress through the game, with previously inaccessible areas suddenly at your mercy.
For a while after each upgrade you'll feel like Superman, storming into uncharted territory with your new ability, happy to see the in-game map filling, as if you've just had a particularly impressive run of moves in a game of Dots and Boxes. These moments where the world quickly opens up into something bigger are made all the more effective by the hours of slow progress that precede them, as you maraud the map looking for unexplored passages.
Axiom Verge is a game that begs to be talked about with friends as you play through, with each person sharing what they've found and giving pointers to others. I've been lost numerous times, having roamed what I thought had been every inch of the map, only for a friend to point out what I'd been missing. And rather than spoil the experience, sharing makes the whole thing feel better, either with the game bettering you or you bettering it to help someone else out.
Whereas I'd previously only used the PS4's sharing functionality to post the odd impressive screenshot to Twitter, the tools came into their own during my playthrough of Axiom Verge. I snapped pics of my map, zones and impassable areas and sent them to others playing it. PSN became a virtual school playground that proved just as important as some of the weapons and upgrades I acquired inside the game.
This is a game that doesn't hold your hand at all, handing out the most minimal advice possible and leaving the rest up to you. At one point I even started making notes on what rooms I'd need to return to, with brief explanations of what obstacle was causing me trouble - a trio of lasers, an impassable wall, a jump I couldn't make. I won't spoil exactly what your character can do or will learn to do, as you'll enjoy your time all the more going into the game as blind as possible. Just expect that there's always something to get you where you want to go, you just probably don't have it yet.
Combat is generally tricky but not too tough, with standard foes posing an initial challenge that falls away once you've got their number. Learning which weapon is best to use against each enemy helps a lot, and the same applies to the often massive boss encounters. These kick the difficulty up substantially and test how far your skills have come on since your arrival. I won't lie. I sought assistance from colleagues on more than one occasion, having battled myself into a nervous wreck by taking a boss to death's door and dying before opening it, time and time again.
If the gameplay mechanics weren't retro enough for you, Axiom Verge's look is a glorious throwback to the 8-Bit era. Although technically far superior, there's no denying the origin of the visual style. Small touches please, too, such as the way your drill whirs up depending on how much pressure you've placed on the analogue R2 button. Sonically everything here is bang on the money, too, with a soundtrack that knows when to get your pulse racing or simply entertain with its otherworldly techno. If you enjoy a good old-school 'pew pew' of an alien weapon firing, that's all here too.
If you're looking for a story, Axiom Verge doesn't overwhelm with plot and characters, but it does have an intriguing setup that is gradually revealed through small conversations over the course of the adventure. Notes, often hidden in the most obscure places, can also be found, fleshing out the lore for those that want more than what you're spoon fed.
While it took in excess of 30 hours to finish Axiom Verge, the game has been designed with speedrunning in mind - so much so that there's a special option on the main menu. Cutscenes and other pauses in the standard game are cut so you just get on with moving through as fast as possible. Certain trophies are linked to this mode, too, with the hardest to earn surely only going to be achieved by the most hardcore of hardcore.
I had no idea I'd enjoy Axiom Verge so much. Whereas many modern takes on classic retro genres fall foul of style over substance, this has been built with such skill that it doesn't need to rely on our annoying fondness of the past to impress. I had a dream about exploring underground tunnels the other night, and I rarely ever dream about anything. Axiom Verge has made a big and lasting impression.
One man show
Although not really relevant to my enjoyment of Axiom Verge, it's worth noting that the game was made entirely by one man, Thomas Happ, a former programmer at RTS developer Petroglyph. Thomas worked on Axiom Verge as a hobby, starting in his spare time about five years ago before going part-time at Petroglyph and then finally full time on his own project six months ago.
It's an amazing achievement, showing both incredible all-round skill and dedication to work on something for so long. No doubt Axiom Verge will do well for Thomas, and the brilliant game design on show suggests that he has more games in him. Only time will tell if he goes the lone wolf route again, but the selfish part of me hopes he recruits the help of others so we can experience what he does next a bit sooner than waiting another five years.