Axiom Verge (PS4)

Axiom Verge has been released for PS4 and with it, metroidvania is suddenly one of the most talked about genres. Still, it's not just praise that Axiom Verge is harvesting. Having put in a delightful 10 hours so far, I kind of get where everybody is coming from and wrote that down at rllmukforum. Here's a copy of the text in question explaining how I feel about Axiom Verge within the Metroid legacy.

With conflicting views all over the web, I think some form of explanation is in order.

This is not Super Metroid 2. Not many things are. Zero Mission kind of comes close, lacks a certain mystery, then overcompensates on the climax. (It’s bloody brilliant btw.)

Axiom Verge is Metroid 5 in that it evolves the template a bit again. Fusion (Metroid 4) caught a lot flack for taking away the perception of freedom by locking you into the various sectors of BSL, while shifting focus to (initially) rock hard boss battles. It got mixed reviews (for a Nintendo title) and it took a few years before people started to appreciate it for it was and did. It didn’t help that stablemate Prime came to the dance in their grandmother’s 3D-printed dress.

Now Axiom Verge is very similar to Fusion in that respect. It breathes Metroid in everything. Weapons, enemies, environments, map layouts, you name it, it’s probably in there. Just different. You won’t find the Morphing Ball, but you will be able to summon a drone. You won’t find an all penetrating Wave Beam, but you’ll have an all penetrating shotgun blast. There’s no Space Jump, but you’ll pick up a teleport skill.

It’s very fresh. It’s Metroid remixed to the point that you’ll constantly see, hear and feel familiar things, but it’s alien enough to get you excited and fearful at the right times. This, in my opinion, is the game’s triumph.

Still, I do have some doubts when compared to Super Metroid’s template or the dizzying depths of Zero Mission. Abilities and weaponry don’t always gel together in a way that seem to allow for sequence breaking. But every time this feeling becomes too strong, the game manages to surprise me again.

There’s a particular secret in Kur…
[SPOILER]at the far right of the top of the main entrance shaft, where you have drill away part of the top wall, deploy your drone into it to remove more blocks, grapple yourself to the top to swing into the corridor, excavate it further, teleport past the wall, hack the enemies beyond into platforms to jump to the top while shooting down fleas, and then deploy the drone again to venture through a hidden path to pick up a new weapon.[/SPOILER]

The entire sequence described is not exactly ‘shinesparking’, but it still floored me with the effort involved. It does this often (though maybe not always to the extent of the above example): at times you’ll feel trapped and still try a combination of abilities to get beyond, and then it works.

Every ability is one that enhances your options in exploring and might be used differently as well. The hacking gun you’ll pick up rather quickly, seems to be the most arbitrary key for the in-game locks. The equivalent of Adam unlocking sectors in Fusion. And yes, it is used like that, but at the same time it allows you to corrupt enemies and change their behaviour. Turrets become healing stations. Deadly lasers suddenly open up passageways. The fast become the slow. The cute become lethal.

Again, that’s Metroid: having options that give you mastery over your environment through the things you do, rather than getting a password or a specific key. So no, I haven’t found the complexity of Zero Mission’s final Chozodia Energy Tank shinespark sequence, but I have found inventive use for my gear anyway and it’s enhancing the way I play. It has this Metroid-feel of finding items with the idea that you've cheated and somehow shouldn't have been able to get it yet.

There are shades of Metroid II in this. Like Fusion, it seems to want to provide a more battle ready template. Super and Zero Mission stack all weaponry, here you’ll get an infinite supply of Contra-style weaponry that allows for experimentation. Not all of them manipulate the environment, but it turns every new enemy into a puzzle. It only adds to the feeling of exploration, experimentation and mastery in my opinion.

One of the things that I don’t like ties in here: the boss battles. So far they’re easy. Think Mega Man boss patterns in slow-mo and you’re not far off. I don’t like this personally (a bit of a challenge to showcase the weapons would’ve been nice), but for most it’ll mean the bosses won’t form these giant insurmountable objects of hatred (looking at you, Nightmare).

The graphics might also not be everyone’s cup of tea. They’re distinctly 8-bit. The opening area alone looks like 8-bit Brinstar and Norfair had a baby, while later areas remind me of demaked Maridia and Rygar, The Battle of Olympus, and Ufouria amongst others. Then you get these humoungous 16-bit sprites and modern day graphic effects. It helps the setting and story in that respect (the glitching truly seems to be on a higher plane), but people appreciating Samus’ breathing animation in Super or the lavishness of Zero Mission Crateria will probably feel left out. In fact, you might feel that everything looks the same, and its only after a few hours that you’ll start to notice the now suddenly huge cues that set areas apart even though it does recycles sprites.

The music has a similar feel to it. Distinctly 8-bit with 16-bit, 32-bit and other influences seeping through. Some sound effects will make your memory jolt back to specific games, while the music is an eclectic collection that somehow still feels coherent. It a mixture of the old and the new. Again.

And taking all of that into consideration, I can’t help but feel that it’s overshadowed by one thing: one person made all of this. It makes a lot of its shortcomings into tiny marvels.

So yes, Metroid 5. Unlike Ori, it’s rough around the edges, won’t hold your hand and rewards exploration. Its tale feels a bit predictable and unlike Metroid, it’s not as polished, nor as subtle in its storytelling (what do you mean, “Team Ninja”?). But it’s made by one man, it’s Metroid, and it makes me hopeful that in the future we may not even need Nintendo any more for this particular genre.

PS Trace keeps reminding me of the apprentice from Oglaf (VERY NSFW).