Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Thomas Happ
Review Date: 3/8/16
"Axiom Verge" is a love letter to anyone who played the original "Metroid" back in the 1980s. Its tiled pixel art and chip tune music are pure joy for old school gamers, and the rush of nostalgia can be emotionally overwhelming. The game begins with a scientist named Trace who is severely injured in a lab explosion. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself unharmed, but in a completely alien world. A voice calls out for help, and Trace responds by repairing a group of biomechanical lifeforms known as Rusalka. Trace learns that a demon visited the planet long ago and wiped out all of civilization, and somehow only he has the power to defeat him. And so begins your epic journey across Sudra, helping the Rusalka, learning about the planet's history, and exploring every nook and cranny for tools and skills to help in your fight to liberate the world (and hopefully return to Earth).
The game looks and sounds great, and the controls are tight and responsive. The art direction is wonderful, with H.R. Giger inspired creatures and a large variety of enemies and environments. There's always something new and different to look at, which helps keep the game from getting boring. The difficulty ramps up at a comfortably steady pace, and the increasing challenges and threats that you face neatly match your increasing skills and tool set. The environment also becomes more complex and difficult to navigate as you traverse the various regions, but the superb level design makes backtracking a breeze once you're fully powered up. The game is never particularly difficult, unless you're trying to collect all of the items and upgrades. Some of these are fiendishly tricky to locate and obtain, and some methods are so obscure and unintuitive that they require looking online for help. Boss battles can be overwhelming, but they all boil down to pattern recognition and exploiting a fatal weakness. Once you learn the tricks, the bosses are super easy to take down. Save rooms are plentiful and always next to boss rooms, so you never have to backtrack too far when you die. It's also nice that you don't lose anything that you've already collected. These conveniences definitely help make the game more streamlined and fun to play, as you're not bogged down by artificially enforced constraints. Once you collect an item, you don't ever have to worry about collecting it again as a result of an unfortunate mishap.
The story is a bit uneven and perhaps a bit too complicated for its own good (at least to this simpleton). I was perfectly fine with the way it ended, but an overly confusing and convoluted epilogue added a couple of twists that left a bit of a bad aftertaste. However, the clues that are doled out during the game kept me engaged and intrigued, and whenever I found myself lost, frustrated, or fatigued, it wouldn't be long before I'd run across some new information or a new tool that allowed me to reach new or previously inaccessible areas. Discovering new points on the map is always a thrill and serves as a strong motivator.
While I typically don't like male protagonists and I tend to avoid playing them, Trace is a likable guy with a respectable personality and demeanor. He's a scientist, not a warrior, so he doesn't have some gung ho "kill 'em all" attitude and agenda. He's kind and polite, has a strong conscience, and is just trying to get back home, which is easy for me to empathize with. Similarly, the Rusalka are also kind and polite - for the most part. But there's always a sense that they might not be telling the truth, and that they might just end up betraying you...
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the game is that it was completely developed by one person. Everything. Art, story, animation, music, programming - the works. That's an incredibly impressive feat as far as I'm concerned, and it took him five years to complete it. I really enjoyed playing the game, but if I had to point out any criticisms, I would say that the limited color palette looks unattractive in certain places, it's too easy to accidentally dash, and the grappling hook is overly clunky and difficult to use. There's also a weird strobing effect that happens with the background parallax scrolling, which I don't quite understand. There's even a menu option to reduce that effect, but it's still distracting. I'm guessing it has something to do with software scrolling versus hardware scrolling, which is how the older platforms achieved such silky smooth parallax motion. Apart from these minor issues, I found "Axiom Verge" to be a wonderful experience, and it satisfied my long-standing desire for a good "Turrican" styled adventure.
And did I mention how awesome the soundtrack is? You can purchase it here.