Axiom Verge is the probably the most genuine faux-retro game I’ve ever played, but not because it accurately recreates the things that we all liked about those classic games of yore, any game can do that. What makes Axiom Verge so authentic is that it embraces the warts and rough edges that made the NES era of gaming history so mysterious and strange. Not only that, it turns those bugs and broken code into both a visual style and a gameplay conceit, making the glitches that we used to dread and savour in equal measure into a core part of the game. Add onto that some top quality Metroidvania dungeon-delving, a truly hardcore level of difficulty, and a fantastic soundtrack, and you have one of the most interesting games to come out for the PS4. It’s not perfect and in some ways it may be a little too slavish to some of the older tropes it’s exploring, but its unique take on the Metroidvania genre and excellent use of glitches and broken code as an aesthetic make it more than worth checking out.
Why we don’t start off by talking about the story, as we normally do, though we’ll keep it brief because the narrative is suitably light in this game. The premise here is that you are a physicist named Trace who in process of doing some unspecified science destroys his lab in New Mexico, but rather than dying he instead wakes up inside a vast alien complex. He is quickly contacted by an entity known as Elsenova (basically a giant head that looks as though it was built into the facility) and told that he must help her and her sisters defeat Athetos, the being who is responsible for the corrupted and monstrous state of their world. There’s more to the plot than that and as it goes on it really starts ramp up, but for fear of spoilers I won’t give anymore specific details. What I will say though is that Axiom Verge dips its toes into some very interesting and tenebrous areas of science-fiction and while that does allow for some interesting plot twists later on, it only exacerbates the game’s already vague storytelling, making things somewhat hard to follow. As such I rarely had a clear idea of what exactly I was supposed to be doing at any given time and lost sight of the plot almost entirely at a certain point. While the gameplay is the real draw here and as such the vagueness isn’t a huge deal, it feels like they had a really cool story to tell that’s impact is lessened by the inefficiency of the way it is told. All that said though, I did enjoy the main character’s dialogue and reactions to the world around him. Trace remains suspicious and perturbed by the things he experiences and he responds accordingly, giving the proceedings a needed and enjoyable human element.
Like I said though, the gameplay is the real attraction here and hot damn does it deliver. Working off the standard Metroidvania formula (i.e. platforming your way across an intricate map while collecting upgrades and defeating bosses in order to unlock more map to explore) Axiom Verge follows closely along many of the staples of the genre but changes things in some significant ways, creating an experience all its own. Probably the best example of this is the fact that there is no double-jump, a common upgrade in these sorts of games. Instead that kind of upward mobility is replaced by a number of other abilities which are all exploitable in ways beyond just reaching a ledge that was just out of grasp. One particular way Axiom Verge likes to flip the script is with its use of corruption and glitches; a specific upgrade for instance allows you to glitch through walls much in the fashion seen in any number of mind-boggling NES speedruns. Similarly you’ll also get a corruption beam called the Address Disruptor that you can use to both break and fix the world, allowing passage through flickering static-covered world textures and causing enemy sprites to be turned inside out, completely altering their behavior. Using this tool, and the changes it can elicit from the environment, in combination with your myriad other abilities is probably the most key method of forward progress in this game. It makes for some puzzling and trippy gameplay with the limits of your abilities expanding constantly and in some unfathomably unique ways. Simply deciphering this game feels like an accomplishment and pushing at the limits of possibility within Axiom Verge’s code is a truly enjoyable experience.
Of course none of those unique mechanics or lateral thinking would matter if the core gameplay didn’t feel good, but thankfully it does. The shooting is snappy, the movement is crisp and fast, and the platforming has the right kind of weight to it. While some of the later mechanics can take a while to master and don’t always blend into the control scheme as smoothly as I’d like, they eventually start to feel natural and the controls overall feel great. This is especially important because Axiom Verge is incredibly difficult at points and if the controls were bad then the frustration would be unbearable. There is a distinct ramp up in challenge at around the 50-60% mark of the game that will be the make-or-break moment for many players. The enemy count and their overall tenacity increase significantly at this point and the consequences for screwing up jumps become a greater issue, as having to climb your way back up in certain places can be a real pain. This difficulty only continues to climb as the game goes on, introducing enemies that are functionally invincible 90% of the time, always underfoot, or too small to reliably hit while moving. There are certainly ways around these guys, especially when you factor in the impressive array of weaponry that Axiom Verge provides you with, that carries all sorts of different properties, but these more troublesome foes can make backtracking and exploration less than enjoyable at times and being a Metroidvania game, backtracking is a major part of what you’ll be doing. To be clear, the kind of intense difficulty that Axiom Verge breeds in its latter parts isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it creates a strong sense of achievement and it requires you to become intimately familiar with the controls in a way that borders on the erotic, but for some it will most certainly be too much to handle. Spending a solid hour on a single boss whose attack patterns-while predictable-felt purely unfair certainly left me feeling somewhat apprehensive and when you get stumped by the level design, the difficulty found in exploring some of the more challenging parts of the map can make figuring out the solution to your predicament somewhat daunting.
One of the most impressive things about Axiom Verge though is its presentation, which acts as a perfect recreation of later NES era graphics but with a visual flourish that sets it apart. It has the same bit depth and colour palette of games from that time, with assets being clear enough to actually look like stuff but still pixelated in a way that allows lots of room for interpretation. As for the overall style, it’s very Giger-esque, with lots of odd bio-mechanical protrusions everywhere and ungodly amounts of odious effluence coating the stark rock and metal walls of the facility that Athetos’ corruption has overtaken. And then of course there is corruption in the more technical sense of the word; there are clouds of broken static, chunky flickering walls, and enemies whose sprites have been altered in ways that make them almost unrecognizable. These affectations look astoundingly true to the way that games used to break, to the point that it’s almost hard to accept that it’s only a visual facade. It brings back pleasant memories of broken games rented from the local video store and days spent pulling out cartridges during play just to see what would happen.
Heightening the experience is a glorious sound design that combines a very eclectic electronic soundtrack with effects that are incredibly abrasive yet enjoyable in that oh-so-classic way. The music changes from level to level and progresses from heavier ’90s Electronica, to spaced out ’80s Synth, to some more contemporary cybernetically infused World Music that features what sounds like Hindi lyrics being sung by a woman who is in the process of being assimilated by the Borg. It’s a soundtrack that is well varied but also consistent and while it can be a bit harsh at times, it fits the visual design and narrative perfectly. Over top of this music is the sound of desperately crying square waves and groaning sound chips that make up the sound effects, with every gunshot causing the game to scream with electric fire. At times it can be too much, these effects are quite loud in the mix and the sound of them can be jarring and uncomfortable, but much like the soundtrack they feel very appropriate to the setting and story and only enhance the experience overall.
Axiom Verge is a game that I can easily recommend to almost anyone. While its high difficulty and somewhat ethereal plot structure will cause many people to put it down before seeing the game to its end, even the opening few hours feel worth the price of admission. The core Metroidvania gameplay is highly polished with lots of unique and interesting mechanics that expand the formula in some great ways and the overall presentation pays tribute to a time when gaming truly felt like a wild frontier, when mysterious bits of code caused untold havoc and created anomalies beyond imagination. So for providing a darkly mysterious sort of adventure that boggles the mind and vexes the thumbs, I’m giving Axiom Verge a 4.5 out of 5 stars. If you’re a Playstation 4 owner and you have any shred of patience left over from playing Bloodborne, then you need to pick this game up.