At long last, Axiom Verge made the jump to Xbox One, but did it stick the landing?
In Axiom Verge, you step into the lab coat of scientist Trace who is sent to a whole new world after an experiment goes horribly wrong. Upon waking up, Trace is prompted by a voice that guides him along the story. What really happened to you and how you ended up in this place covered with hellish bug monsters is drawn out over the campaign, and I admittedly felt lost at certain points. Still, the sense of wonder by the beautiful pixel architecture and backstory that fleshes out the world before Trace arrived is elaborate and impressive. It was easy to give myself to the narrative and feel like I was in Trace’s shoes – something that’s not always easy in a 2D platformer with retro graphics.
Once gameplay opens up, you’re thrown into the world with little direction and are forced to figure out the ropes of the game on your own. This isn’t negligence by developer Tom Happ; instead, he wants you to feel like you’re right there with Trace trying to figure out what the hell just happened. With a gun in hand, Axiom Verge reveals itself to be an easy to play, hard to master 2D platformer with punishing combat.
The enemies and environments around Trace change frequently in Axiom Verge making each new room and level a fresh challenge. Some enemies shoot deadly projectiles, some get in close and suck away your health. Other enemies let you fall into their traps before you even have time to fire a shot in their direction. Perhaps this is what made Axiom Verge such a fun (and occasionally intimidating) platformer.
Scattered throughout levels are different bosses that will test your might and stamina. It’s not uncommon for a boss battle to take half of a dozen attempts to really master move sets and find effective weapons. While normal enemy designs are all interesting, Happ’s cyborg bug boss creations are truly incredible.
Unlike pretty much any other video game out there, Axiom Verge is willing to let players walk right past a weapon or upgrade. Early on, the rooms are a little more linear and items are hard to miss. As you start to feel more comfortable with the game, you’ll find you need to revisit a room to find something you missed before. There are tools that you’ll need simply for the sake of progression, but for the most part, you’re free to collect as little gear and upgrades along the way as you want.
Amplifying the desire to really rake through each room is hidden pathways you can drill your way through. Here, you’ll find weapons, health upgrades or damage boosts. Finding something developer buried for only the most dedicated players is always incredibly rewarding.
One chief complaint I have with gamepad controls is the difficulty to aim in diagonal directions without moving. Because it’s a single stick platformer, you’re forced to push in the cardinal directions for movement, but enemies are often somewhere in between which means you have to make sure you have a runway to pull of diagonal shooting. The game also features d-pad movement, but I found it equally difficult to fire at diagonals. Control clunkiness doesn’t stop combat from being fun, but it can be frustrating when you’re in tight combat situations.
The developer opted to use in-game cues for health so the HUD isn’t bogged down by intrusive notifications. While Trace’s health is in the upper corner, it’s difficult to look at it in the middle of a fight, so after too many hits, a vitality beep blares loudly over the (stellar) soundtrack. Audio indicators are actually a pretty helpful tool although it can get irritating and cause distractions in the heat of a tough boss fight. Like most bosses of old, Axiom Verge’s are bullet sponges. Instead of using an enemy health bar, the bosses only turn darker hues of red the more they’re hurt.
Axiom Verge is obsessed with precision. Navigating rooms and levels, especially in the game’s later hours, will require carefully planned jumping shooting and evading. In my time with the game, I never felt like I had totally perfected combat flow or even my traversal tools. While this is just another way I felt as lost as Trace, it can be frustrating to constantly feel like you’re a step behind the world and its inhabitants.
The controls can sometimes detract from Axiom Verge’s precise gameplay, but it’s far a mar on the experience. In some moments, it’s easy to feel as lost as Trace, but this sense of lost wandering serves to immerse the player further.
Axiom Verge is a tough-as-nails and deeply rewarding 2D platformer. More than anything, it plays like a passion reminiscent of games of yesteryear while making some much-needed gameplay improvements to keep up with the times.
Axiom Verge was reviewed on a Xbox One press copy courtesy of the developer.
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