Axiom Verge is a retro-style side-scrolling in the vein of several NES games, most notably including Metroid. It’s a game where exploration is key, though the combat feels quite good as well. It takes a lot of ideas and puts it into a package that is reminiscent of the old while still feeling new.
While there’s no doubt that Axiom Verge takes a lot of its structure from Metroid, right down to its lack of non-rectangular rooms, it’s a mistake to think of the game as being nothing more than a Metroid clone. For one thing, though its graphical color depth suggests the NES, this is a game that takes many lessons from Super Metroid as well. It doesn’t hold your hand, but you generally won’t end up completely lost, either. There are a ton of cool abilities and weapons to collect, many of which primarily help with exploration.
Axiom Verge’s weapon selection is notable because it is far wider than that of Metroid or really any NES game. You can find well over a dozen weapons, all with different strengths and weaknesses. A weapon wheel mapped to the right stick makes them easy to switch between and experiment with, and the combat is tough enough that you’ll have a lot of incentive to do so. For any given encounter, there’s usually at least one weapon that will work well, often by letting you take out enemies from the safety of cover.
Where Axiom Verge really shines is in its general upgrades. A ton of these affect how the main character, Trace, moves, calling back to Metroid’s high jump, Bionic Commando’s arm, and even Unreal Tournament’s translocator. An increasingly versatile short-range teleport ability is fun to use and mix with other options, leading to some pretty acrobatic and fast-paced movement options. The game doles these upgrades out regularly, keeping things interesting throughout the game.
If Axiom Verge suffers from anything, it is perhaps that it included too many ideas. The grappling hook, for instance, is never as useful as it could be and can be a bit outclassed by your other options late in the game. Many of the weapons will likely never see use. And its plot is a bit hit-or-miss, often interrupting the action with some vague dialogue. None of this really detracts from the game while playing it, but it does make me wonder if a bit of editing may have made it an even tighter experience.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the famed corrupted graphics mechanic of the game. For plot reasons, some of the world is glitched like a dirty NES cartridge, and you have various tools to deal with this. It’s a cool idea, albeit one I needed to read about to fully understand the gameplay implications of. It’s definitely worth mastering, as glitching enemies is often the key to finding secrets, and this game contains a lot of secrets.
All in all, Axiom Verge feels like a game that would have eventually resulted if everyone had done the smart thing in the ’90s and copied Super Metroid. It’s by no means a ripoff of Metroid, though it feels more like the “Metroid” side of “Metroidvania” than many games in that genre. It’s a fun shooter with excellent exploration mechanics and a graphical style that takes advantage of the simplicity of NES graphics without being beholden to them at a technical level. It’s actually a really cool-looking game, despite the limited color palette and tiled graphics (indeed, a lot of it works because of the tiled graphics). If you like Metroidvania games or just retro side-scrollers in general, Axiom Verge is definitely worth a look.