If you were to ask what took so darn long to complete this game, I wouldn’t really have a good answer for you!
Released back in 2015 by one-man team consisting of developer Thomas Happ, Axiom Verge has been universally praised from everything to its aesthetic, to its storytelling, to its clear Super Metroid inspiration. While I despise terms like “Metroidvania” as they act more as a broad term to shoehorn any new title into a specific category for no reason, there’s a clear connection to both Metroids and Castlevanias, more so than other titles thrown under the same umbrella term.
I originally picked up a copy of Axiom Verge as a part of the GameTrust Collection, a joint effort put out by IndieBox and GameStop. I also picked up a Steam Link so that I could play on my TV. For some reason though, I could never manage to keep the game going. I would play for an hour, and then get lost, eventually giving up and moving to play something else. Which is odd for me – my favorite part of Metroid games is the point after a boss fight or a new item acquisition where you suddenly have no idea what to do, so you just start revisiting areas you’ve been, searching out the sections that you could now safely traverse.
That was also at a strange time in my life where I was just getting back into video games in a big way, and was buying anything I could get my hands on, so my attention span was never very high to begin with. Once I was lost, I was done, ready to move on. Foolish me.
Eventually I shelved the game, never to return to it again.
It wasn’t until I was surfing Amazon and pre-ordering every physical Switch game under the sun that Axiom Verge showed up in my recommended with an October release date. I contemplated the purchase briefly, as I knew how the run turned out last time I picked up a copy – but now this time, it would be portable! That had to mean I can finally get through it, right? I had managed to finally start and finish Cave Story on the Switch, another game that I had purchased before on the PC yet never saw the end credits. Heck, this was even published by the same company, Nicalis.
Fast forward a few weeks and I had a beautiful copy of Axiom Verge at my doorstep, along with a healthy dose of determination to finally see what the fuss was all about.
I had made about two hours of progress in my PC run but ended up dying. A lot. In fact, dying constantly is just something you need to get used to in Axiom Verge. unfortunately I don’t do well with that, so it was a tough hour or two starting over on the Switch. Then again, with Metroid games, you typically experience the same phenomenon – you are weak, your weapons suck, and you are alone in the world. The outlook is generally a very bleak one – Axiom Verge is no different in this regard.
The beauty, however, is when you start finding upgrades. Suddenly those pain in the neck creatures that were guaranteed to take half your health away are made short work of. This is made possible in part by the terrific save system, of course.
In Axiom Verge, death has very little consequence, if any. You are teleported back to the last save room, but your progress right up to the point of your death is saved. So if you went exploring, found some items, an upgrade or two, and opened up the map a bit, you don’t actually lose any of that progress. The only thing that happens when you die is having to retrace your footsteps and face the enemies again, who will respawn.
This kind of save system is paramount to a game based on exploration. Punishing the player for exploring would go against the whole point of the game, after all.
I finally made a good amount of progress finding a few upgrades and some new weapons. I had gotten much farther on the Switch than I ever did on the PC, and it showed in my inventory and weapon select ring, which now had tons of options. The game was finally starting to prove to me why it was so well received!
The more I played, the more cool things I found that made me love it anymore. For example, in the video below, I show the map of the section that acts as a fast-track corridor between all the different areas of the map. It even has a bizarre looking “tram system” riding atop the head of a.. whatever you want to call it.
What most stood out to me about understanding the core concept of Axiom Verge was that “breaking the game” was key to playing it. Early on in the game you are given the Distortion Field Gun, which scrambles things that you fire it towards. It can penetrate walls and has interesting side effects when it hits certain items. It’s important for finding secrets as well, and it’s useful to identify areas that you can reach. Enemies in particular will become scrambled and have their characteristics completely changed.
In addition to the Distortion Field, the player has tons of tricks in their arsenal that continuously grows until the end game, which can be chained together to pull off all sorts of feats that practically feel like cheating. I won’t spoil what you can do with the drone, but let’s just say that jump + teleport + drone + teleport to drone can get you a lot of vertical clearance if your fingers are quick enough to pull it off.
Understanding the core gameplay mechanics may take some time, but once you do, the minute to minute gameplay begins to feel more fluid. You learn how to maneuver and how to avoid, how to reach seemingly impossible heights, etc. You also learn how to use your weapons properly, but that brings up an important point that detracted from the overall experience for me.
Of the praise that Axiom Verge gets, nothing gets more praise than the weapons. While there are a ton of them, and you really do acquire a tremendous amount by the end of the game, I do feel that most of the weapons are pretty much useless. That being said, there is one weapon that is clearly the best in the game, and it was, if I remember correctly, the third weapon I got: the Kilver.
The Kilver fires a short-range burst of electricity. This may sound like a crappy placeholder weapon that you get at the beginning of the game, only to swap it out the first chance you get, but what makes it a great weapon is that it is a) powerful, b) goes through walls, and c) you can spin it around by rotating your joystick, making it essentially a 360 degree attack. It is particularly useful if you are getting swarmed, because it also requires practically no aiming. Just mash and spin, mash and spin.
If I had to guess, I’d say I spent close to 95% of my ~13 play time using the Kilver, despite trying to experiment with other weapons.
Shards is a cool weapon, and very satisfying to use. It’s also one of the very limited weapons which are fired by holding down a button, ie. fully automatic. However, it doesn’t do great damage. The Lightning Gun and Data Bomb were satisfying to use, but the damage and fire rate was so poor that I would quickly change back to the Kilver anyway to finish off the job. Plus there’s the fact that just about all of the other weapons need to be aimed while you’re platforming, and you have a recipe to only use one weapon. The Kilver allows you to attack precisely while avoiding the enemies – no other weapon lets you do that easily, with the exception of the drill. I kept getting new weapons and ended up disappointed because the Kilver was still the best one.
The thing is – most enemies will try to melee you, making anything long-range utterly pointless. It seems that the enemy AI, even for those that are projectile based, is built to zero-in on the player, and avoiding melee combat seems to be almost impossible unless you attempt to avoid enemies altogether. This would not be a good strategy, for the record.
The only exceptions, of course, are the boss fights.
If there was a crowning achievement made with Axiom Verge, it would be the intensely stressful boss fights. These guys were tough, even in Normal mode, had complex attack patterns to learn, they looked incredibly creepy, but, they were fair.
Know how to prove that a boss fight is fair? When you finally take them down, you still have a lot of health left. This is because you, as the player, have not only succeeded in beating the boss, but you have succeeded in learning the boss.
The bosses in Axiom Verge aren’t so much about learning how to beat the boss, but about slowly chipping away at the boss by playing defensively. There’s seriously no room for being on the offensive in this game. Like Metroid games, the bosses are clearly far more powerful than you, and you must exploit chinks in their armor to take them down. Axiom Verge succeeds in creating some downright creepy monsters that can easily take you 10+ tries to take down, but the satisfaction given after doing so feels great.
Easily the highlight of the game for me was the boss fights.
Let’s talk controls for a bit. I appreciate a good control rebinding screen. Axiom Verge has one. What it doesn’t allow you to do, however, is remove some bindings entirely.
For example, you can set pressing down on the joysticks to auto-switch to your two favorite weapons. I did not use this feature once (particularly because of disliking most of the weapons) but in frantic fights, found myself constantly switching my weapons accidentally. Eventually I was able to learn to control my mis-taps, but it still brought for some frustrating moments.
Of course, nothing was more frustrating than when I got the teleport move.
At a certain point in the game, the protagonist gains the ability to do a short-range pass-through teleport. This allows players to move through small obstacles and access more parts of the map. It’s activated by pressing Up, Down, Left, and Right two times quickly.
At another point later on in the game, this move is updated, to allow the user to teleport a much farther distance.
Now, the problem with this, is that when you are platforming, avoiding enemies, battling bosses – you are inputting many directional commands per second into your controller. That is, you will probably be pressing a direction twice in a row, in many cases to correct your position, or change the trajectory of where you are falling. It’s very rough in the platforming sections, because a double-directional-tap to change where you land can have disastrous consequences, as I often found myself teleporting right off of platforms and falling down to the very bottom, forced to repeat the whole section again.
Doesn’t sound that annoying? Well imagine being in a boss fight, just about to take down the boss itself, and then you go to dodge a projectile – until the slight double-adjustment you make teleports you right into another projectile, and it kills you.
This happened to me dozens of times, and I can’t help but think there could have been a better binding for this. Unfortunately, this move was the only one that you couldn’t rebind! The double-tap binding practically forces you to use the D-Pad for more precise controls, but that also opens up the possibility of mis-teleporting. It got pretty frustrating and took hours of gameplay to correct that behavior.
If badass boss fights are in the top 3 requirements for this genre, hidden areas are definitely in that short list. Axiom Verge has many of them. They are very difficult to find in most cases.
Having recently played Metroid: Samus Returns, one of my issues stems from the fact that most of the secrets are so randomly placed that I can’t believe I ever found them in the first place. Samus Returns has the Scan Pulse which showed nearby areas, and I can’t help but feel like a better method of tracking down items would have been nice.
Of course, by the end of my playthrough, I had only found 78% of items, so I didn’t do a terrific job seeking out upgrades, but I spent at least 3 hours out of my playthrough trying to drill out every wall I could find, and sending my drone into all manner of sketchy areas. Truth be told, in a game like this, 78% items in a first time playthrough isn’t bad at all, but having played many Metroid titles in the past probably gave me enough intuition for about 20% of that completion percentage.
Aside from a little identifier on the map screen to show whether or not you got all the upgrades in an area, there isn’t much else to help narrow down where to look for the missing upgrades. While it’s easy to say “but that’s the point! It’s a hard game!” there isn’t anything inherently challenging about guessing – it’s simply mind-numbing and time-consuming to the point of bordering on pointless.
Still, just like in Metroid (and even more so, at times), the szzz-GONG! sound you get when finding a pickup is like an instant endorphin-drop. In terms of exploration and reward, there’s nothing quite like finding secret items in Axiom Verge.
If you were to ask someone what their favorite part of a Metroid game is, they’d probably speak to the exploration, and the culmination of said exploration. When you add together hours of searching out upgrades, what do you get? A massive powerhouse of a player. Perhaps this is the greatest reward for your work, I know it is for me.
There are plenty of upgrades throughout the map for health upgrades, but you’ll also find upgrades that upgrade your damage output, as well as the range of all of your weapons. By the time you’re doing a final pass-through of your map, filling out places you missed, you are fully capable of taking any creature that stands in your way and just shredding it to pieces. This is where Axiom Verge truly shines – the End Game. As you make your way up to the final boss, you finally feel like a god, a markedly improved version of the 120 pounds of chewed bubble gum that you started out as.
I’ve played every 2D Metroid game to date, and towards the End Game, you get some mental synergy experience that’s hard to explain. You know the map, you know all the monsters, you can kill anything by just running into them a few times and spamming any weapon attack – you are ready. You’re ready to be done and take down the final bad guy.
Well I did, and it was as satisfying an ending as I could have expected. The final boss was actually fairly easy, but again, that is the beauty of this game. I could have skipped a handful of upgrades and made it a little tougher, or just picked Hard Mode, but the fact is that Axiom Verge is built incredibly well. It punishes the player for even attempting it, but rewards them in some ways they don’t realize until that final push. It took until beating it to realize how well this game was made, and I haven’t felt this satisfaction from finishing a game in a long time.
Axiom Verge is a modern masterpiece that will have games compared to it for years to come. Those comparisons are well-deserved.
Have you played Axiom Verge? No? Well what’s stopping you? It’s out for every system! If you enjoyed this Thoughts On piece, leave a comment and let me know – I’m making some good progress through my backlog lately and want to keep putting these Thoughts pieces out. See you next time!