When Axiom Verge was initially released on PS4 back in March 2015, it was met with critical acclaim. I’m not exactly sure why. To be fair it isn’t bad…but to be honest it isn’t good either. Created by Thomas Happ Games, Axiom Verge finally made its way onto the Xbox One. I had extremely high hopes for this game, maybe that was part of the problem, but I was ultimately let down.
When you first boot up Axiom Verge you will instantly notice similarities to a slew of beloved retro games from the 8-BIT and 16-BIT days. Most specifically Metroid. Fans of metroidvania games will honestly see nothing new here. There are certain aspects that will appear fresh and new on the surface but in the end essentially everything is just a re-skinned and re-hashed version of past game mechanics.
This review took me a while because I could only stomach an hour or two at a time before needing a break. This is the kind of game where you will backtrack, backtrack, and backtrack some more for roughly ten hours. I have no problem with some backtracking and exploring in games as long as the payoff is worth it and the game gives you motivation to keep pressing forward but each new area you visit offers nothing of true worth. You find a new weapon and then go back to a past area to unlock a new door only to gain entrance to another bland area. Rinse and repeat.
At any rate, the game does have a pretty decent story. It would’ve made an excellent 80s sci-fi movie. You play a scientist named Trace who appears to be killed after he starts up a machine that levels the building. It makes me think of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Just saying. He then wakes up in a futuristic and somewhat bio-mechanical looking environment and tasked to locate a power filter by a ‘mind machine’ named Elsenova. The cut-scenes certainly replicate the look of the old 16-BIT titles, including the text style. At this point, however, is where I have my first complaint. The sound effects in this game are atrocious. They sound like they were dug up out of a massive library comprised of all of the stereotypical retro sound files and then exaggerated to the extreme. They are relentless on the ears and reused over and over. I might as well use this to segue into the music. Each area has its own theme song, but all of them are horrendous. The only decent tunes are during boss fights. The music has a real industrial/electronic vibe done in a 16-BIT style. It mercilessly berates your ears with sheer repetitiveness and piercing noises. Imagine having a mosquito-filled glass bowl over your head and listening to them incessantly buzz around your ears for hours.
Throughout the game you will unlock dozens of weapons and power-ups. The weapons are quite varied but still your standard fare of shotgun, rocket launcher, lightning gun, and machine gun types. You also unlock a drill that can break through blocks, a weapon that ‘disrupts’ or alters the enemies and certain environments in order to glitch or un-glitch them depending on your needs, and a power-up that allows you to phase through walls…just to name a few of the more unique items.
The level design is rather bland. Each area offers nothing really special and the colors are plain and lackluster. These types of games must rely on the level presentation to encourage you to explore. Because of the backtracking required, the environments must be pleasing to look at and varied enough that travelling from one area to the next is exciting and rewarding. Not the case here. I never felt curious or excited to see what the next section would bring. The particle effects are decent enough when firing weapons or destroying enemies. Speaking of enemies, there is a decent variety in each area, but it is tiresome when you must destroy the same ones over and over each time you go back to an area. So even though they are varied, the enemies become redundant solely because of the amount of times you are forced to revisit them.
I suppose I will round out this review with two high points…the controls and the bosses. The controls are very solid and I never encountered input lag. I also never experienced any framerate issues, so I guess that’s another good thing. The buttons are mapped well to the controller and are easy to become acquainted with. The bosses are huge and each have unique weak points that you must exploit in order to defeat them. The best tunes in the game play during boss fights and the upbeat nature complements the frenetic action of dodging attacks and firing at the massive creatures’ weak spots really well. These moments are when I had the most fun but unfortunately they were few and far between.
I was incredibly excited to give this game a go, but it certainly did not live up to my expectations. Ultimately, I feel it was the lack of originality, creativity, and charm that led to its downfall. There’s just nothing to keep you wanting to go back for more. If you thoroughly enjoy metroidvania style games, then perhaps wait for a sale before you pick it up. The retail cost is $19.99, which I personally think is criminal. It is clear that Axiom Verge is a love letter to classic games like Metroid, but I’m afraid it will only result in a bitter break-up.
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