Axiom Verge is the best game you won't remember playing.
Axiom VergePublisher: Thomas Happ Games
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4
Players: 1 player
Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Release Date: 2015-05-14
Axiom Verge is a tough game to talk about. It's a good game, but it's also easily forgettable. It's fun to play, it has an interesting story, and it successfully combines the design of old-school "Metroidvania" games with more modern design sensibilities. Yet, for all of its successes, it can't escape the fact that it's still a modern twist on an old formula, an old formula that has already been twisted by countless other games before. So, no matter how good it might be, it's still destined to fall into the vast ocean of "Metroidvania" clones.
Like all games in this genre, Axiom Verge is designed around exploration. You play as Trace, who has been transported to an alien world after an accident at a science lab. You'll quickly find a gun, and just as quickly, you'll find a path that's blocked. You'll take a mental note of this blockade because you know that you'll eventually get some item or ability that will allow you to get through it. That's just how these games work.
Thankfully, even though the game plays into the predictable patterns of its genre, it's still quite a fun entry in the genre.
At first combat feels a little awkward because you can only shoot in eight directions (up, down, left, right, and diagonally), making it difficult to line up shots on moving enemies. However, you'll soon find new guns that mitigate this issue, allowing you to shoot around corners, through walls, through enemies, and more. Each new gun is a joy to experiment with.
Every time that I thought that I found a gun that was too unique to be really useful (that green shotgun thing is powerful, but I have to get too close to enemies), I eventually found a use that made it indispensable (it's perfect when backtracking through early levels because it kills everything in one hit).
The upgrades that you get to movement are the highlight of the game. Those blocked paths that you see in the early game aren't blocked by rubble or locked doors but by what look like corrupted pixels, as if the game bugged out and cut off access to part of itself. Your upgrades feel similar. Your teleport ability distorts the sound and screen, so that it feels like you're hacking the game. It's a neat style that acts as a narrative justification for your newfound abilities without needing to say a word. You’re hacking reality, using science as a superpower. The explanation is all in the aesthetics. This is art and gameplay working to express story.
The story is also very good. I found myself looking forward to boss fights because I knew I'd get more plot once I beat the baddie. What begins as a generic game morphs into an intriguing mystery about alternate dimensions and possible time travel. It’s a shame we get so little of the history of this world because the bits we do get are interesting.
For all that it does right, it still falls into the predictable traps of the genre. Backtracking is common and annoying, even after you discover the long hall that only exists to literally shuttle you from one end of the world to the other. The game falls into a rut when you get a new upgrade and don't immediately know where to use it. The map is only moderately helpful. You'll know in general where you should go since the map hints at unexplored areas, but that just means that you'll be revisiting the same dozen dead-ends over and over again, hoping that this time you can pass through.
The endgame is also quite frustrating, filled with enemies that speed around the room, using your limited movement and aiming against you. Axiom Verge thus ends on a low note, with memories of backtracking and frustrating enemies that do a disservice to the fun game that came before.
Axiom Verge is quite entertaining, but it doesn't do enough to stand out from its peers. Even if it were perfect, it would only be a perfect clone. It’s a technically proficient, fun, and well made game that lacks a distinct personality of its own. You'll enjoy it, but you won't remember it.