Follow the video game industry closely enough and you’ll hear a common refrain. Something to the effect that it’s a miracle any video game gets made, regardless of quality. Ensuing explanations cite a myriad of ways that development could have, and may well have, gone off the rails. Bearing this in mind, it’s astounding that Axiom Verge is the product of a sole individual: Tom Happ of Las Vegas. Never mind the fact that it’s a nigh-perfect action-adventure experience, paying homage to Metroid and many other classic influences while introducing mechanics that differentiate itself. Originally released March 31, 2015 for the PlayStation 4, it has since been ported to numerous platforms, including the Switch, where I played it last week.
Assuming the role of Trace, a contemporary scientist who just perished in a lab explosion, I explored his newfound alien surroundings seeking answers; after all, he was dead… wasn’t he? In conversations with the Rusalki, enormous sentient war machines immobilized across the planet Sudra, I discovered Trace’s purpose there. Collectible documents scattered around the planet provided further context, as did his personal recollections and monologues, often portrayed through Ninja Gaiden inspired cutscenes. Despite these methods of enlightenment, an air of mystique surrounded Axiom Verge and I was never confident in my level of comprehension. This did little to dampen my motivation to continue playing, which was driven mostly by rewarding exploration and enjoyable combat.
Divided into nine expansive areas, each with their own dank 8-bit visual style and distinct geographic features, Sudra was a varied planet. It was also a planet of dead ends, designed around a system of progression gating, a hallmark of Metroidvania games. The immense amount of backtracking resulted in a cycle of elation and frustration. Exploring Sudra, I’d forge a path as long as I could, eventually stumbling upon a tool that would allow me to further my efforts somewhere else. In peak form, a location or two would immediately come to mind and I’d continue on in seamless pleasure. Frequently however, I felt “stuck,” unable to figure out where I needed to go.
In those instances, I’d study the map meticulously, seeking out the hallways and rooms that hadn’t been fully charted. Of the dozen hours I spent with the game, the last few had me backtracking across the planet repeatedly, sometimes unsure of where to go next; I would’ve appreciated some form of fast travel to expedite this process. Nonetheless, my aimlessness was always vanquished by those eureka moments when I recognized the path forward. Utilizing the handful of tools Trace had access to, I drilled, dashed, and grappled until all possible avenues were exhausted. Launching his drone into hard to reach areas was a particularly satisfying action, especially later on when he could also teleport to it. With dozens of hidden power-ups and weapons, the game world was designed in such a way to encourage and reward experimentation with the tools.
On Sudra, there was always something worthwhile just around the corner. Even when I struggled to make forward progress in the game’s waning hours, I continued to discover cleverly hidden health upgrades and power-ups. It wasn’t uncommon to find a new weapon either. When credits rolled, I’d obtained about a dozen weapons, each with a unique shooting pattern harkening back to the variety of weapons in classic Contra and Mega Man games. I gravitated towards three in particular: the standard straight shooting Axiom Disruptor, the Kilver which released a short-range shotgun like blast, and the effective, homing Lightning Gun. Still, I found uses for each, switching between what I’d found infrequently depending on the situation.
Enemies were as diverse as Trace’s arsenal and could be efficiently lethal if I wasn’t careful. Surprisingly, I encountered very few reskinned enemies. As my favorite weapons weren’t effective against every enemy, I regularly experimented, finding valuable qualities in most. No better was this practice exemplified than when fighting bosses. More often than not they towered over Trace and offered a stiff challenge: I never beat them on my initial attempt but checkpoints were forgiving – I also never lost progress. Bosses followed simple patterns that I could exploit once memorized. It didn’t take long to develop a strategy and find a suitable firearm to whittle down their health.
The game’s exceptional chiptune soundtrack alternated between foreboding ambiance and sinister synth-pop backing tracks seamlessly. The latter style I was particularly fond of, as demonstrated by entrancing songs like “Inexorable” and “Trace Reborn.” The soundtrack’s inclusion in Spanish publisher Bad Land Games’ Multiverse Edition has prompted repeated listening on my part. Apart from the uninspired box art and loose informational sheet, this special edition comes with a handful of goodies that make it a worthwhile package. Specifically, I found 2 Player Productions’ half-hour making-of documentary and lengthy interview with Tom enlightening, not just in relation to the game itself but regarding his son’s rare diagnosis of kernicterus.
Developed over many years, Axiom Verge was clearly a labor of love for Tom Happ, or to riff off the similarly developed Undertale, an act of determination. The game’s narrative was mysterious, simplistic yet convoluted, perhaps more comprehensible upon further playthroughs. Though I was curious to learn more of Sudra and discover Trace’s fate, I found exploration of the planet to be far more motivating. With so many items to uncover, I was sufficiently entertained, even when dredging the planet, hopelessly trying to advance the storyline. In addition to exploration, experimentation with tools and weapons was promoted through combat against the game’s numerous enemies and intimidating bosses. Importantly, a fitting soundtrack, all the way through, scored the challenging experience. Taking all these aspects into consideration, Axiom Verge stands alongside its influences, not just as a composite of their best traits but as a high-water mark for the action-adventure genre.