Axiom Verge wears its influences proudly and without shame. Taking inspiration from Metroid, Contra, and Castlevania, it crafts an explorative, open-world platform-shooter that proves new yet familiar for gamers of a certain age.
The opening moments of Axiom Verge perfectly evoke the era and style of game it imitates. Pixel art cut-scenes layout the plot, while the music is dirty enough to feel like it could be coming straight out of a SNES or Mega Drive.
And this sense of nostalgia that doesn't ease up. The first moments of gameplay seem to be lifted directly form the Nintendo classic Metroid. The reluctant (and confused) hero Trace awakens in a desolate, black-background world with no idea what to do to progress. But hunt around a little (or just walk left), and you soon discover the first item needed to progress.
This formula is the basis for the rest of the game with you discovering items throughout your travels that unlock abilities to clear new paths forward. This leaves you traversing your way back-and-forth through the environmental puzzles and tight platform action.
Thanks to the accuracy of its controls Axiom Verge is able to improve on its inspiration. Fast selection of the vast array of guns and other abilities is aided by the complexity of modern controllers. So, rather than recreating the "fun" of navigating menus, everything is conveniently at your finger tips. Most useful of these is binding all of Trace's weapons to the right analogue stick – whether you need exploding shots or lightning bolts, they are never more than two inputs away.
Most of the time Axiom Verge feels like a streamlined, modern experience. Unfortunately, it still retains some outdated elements of its 8-bit influences. Finding the way forward is often dependent on you spotting specific cues in the environment – or remembering them from hours previous in the game. This may sound easy, but given the scope of the game it often proves frustrating.
Blasting the past
This reached a peak for me around the fourth boss. Not realizing that my disruptor beam (an intriguing device that manipulates the reality of this twisted world) could solidify liquid, I couldn't see a way forward. Because of this I ended up going around in circles for over an hour, scouring the environment for a hint as to how to progress.
The map offers no help for this – with no guidance or notes (although you can add your own). It's possible I am just too pampered by modern games, but some kind of route finder would have been a real help, even if it only popped up after half an hour of searching.
The increasingly large bosses, that dwarf Trace, continue the game's action puzzle theme. Rather than demanding split second reflexes these giant foes can be beaten with intelligence and patience. Be it working out that one of your weapons can reach the enemies weak point just by firing underneath it, or creating blocks to protect you from devastating attacks, a little thought will always get you satisfyingly through.
These colossal battle are actually my favorite part of the game. As they grow increasingly large, Axiom Verge simulates the slow down that would have been seen in the 16-bit era. Stutter and strobe effects entertainingly dog these clashes in a charming way – though I could see it being a turn off for some.
This is fitting because, like so much of the game, the visuals straddle classic and modern sensibilities. The blocky pixel art sits somewhere between 8-bit and 16-bit. This is supplemented by subtle modern particle and warp effects that reveal Axiom Verge’s true origins. Add to this truly superb chiptune tracks and you have a game manages to look fresh and modern without betraying what it emulates.
Perfecting the past
Though Axiom Verge may not have corrected all of the sins of its fathers, it has managed to create a classic experience that removes many of the frustrating barriers to entry. For long time gamers it will prove a streamlined and entertaining nostalgia trip (until you get stuck). Newcomers, on the other hand, can get a feel for some of the most influential franchises in gaming without getting frustrated by design decisions that were routed in the technical limitations of the past.