Rather than embody the abstract principles that make metroidvania games so excellent, Axiom Verge strangles itself in thematic pretension and mindless stylistic imitation. Though I would not assert a game must do something completely new to be creative and good, this game’s method of imitation (the term “formulaic copying” would be more accurate) lacks all freshness and heart.
2D gameplay must develop from a set of basic ideas in superposition with one another to create interest and natural difficulty. The main basic “ideas” in Axiom Verge are player position, enemy position, and 8-directional shooting. The enemies move in extremely rational ways such as circumambulating platforms to frustrate the player’s jumping, bouncing off walls at right angles, and bouncing down from the ceiling to hit the player. Although these ideas in themselves aren’t so bad or necessarily boring, Axiom Verge expects players to only face one behavior at a time, leading to exceptionally dull gameplay. Super Metroid, a good game that uses the same axioms, pits players against a mixture of these behaviors to lead to a stimulating but fair challenge. These behaviors were created to respond to the simplicity of AI available in the SNES; if a modern game really wanted players to face only one behavior at a time, it could create more interesting behaviors. At this, Axiom Verge fails as well; its more complicated enemies depend on speed and high-damage artificial difficulty to be challenging. Even the bosses seem to be designed with the philosophy: “If it shoots bullets, it shoots a lot of bullets. If the battle is getting stressful at the end, just scale the bosses shooting speed.” It’s not hard. It’s not good gameplay. It’s trying desperately to prop up a feeble combat system.
The cornerstone of metroidvania design is the nonlinear opening of game space to the player through discovery of meaningful game mechanics. While space in Axiom Verge is opened up by upgrades, I would argue the game is not really metroidvania; the upgrades bear very little on the gameplay, and do little but to let you pass the new formulaic gimmick of a barricade, and although the world is nonlinear, its topology and upgrade path is designed as if from a minimal diagram the game developer scribbled down. The whole point of nonlinear world design is to provide the experience of freedom and exploration, but Axiom Verge rarely affords the player a chance to explore; instead a player might peek into an area and immediately realize this one of two choices is not traversable with current “Axiom Disruptors,” and walk the other way.
(Semantic Rant: Axiom Disruptor is the game’s name for guns. The game’s story centers around a glitch, a broken rule, a disrupted axiom of the game world, which might be more aptly titled an axiom disruptor. The fact that the guns do damage is an axiom in itself; the guns aren’t disrupting axioms, they’re disrupting an enemy’s existence! This game is so full of itself it can’t even think.)
Axiom Verge is very proud of its NES palette pixel art. Unfortunately, the art is both weak and compromised. The screen size is so giant that the pixels become basically irrelevant to the game’s appearance; the nearly monochromatic color schemes of the levels looks more like a pink mess than a tight, communicative, and abstract NES game.
The game props up its pixel art with other effects such as little distortions or destruction particle effects that end up looking more like confetti than carefully crafted graphics. The pixel art sprites themselves are not especially well crafted – their messy, heavy dithering looks almost as if was created to be viewed under a bilinear filter and not really be pixel art at all.
How are we supposed to engage with this poor, trapped, scared protagonist while listening to this rhythmically bland, melodically goofy pseudo 8-bit squealing? This perhaps more than anything else crushes all stakes and sense of being in an alien, disgustingly organic yet digital world.
Axiom Verge’s unintellectual gameplay, level design, and music maybe could still be fun if the game didn’t insist it was so damn serious. Yes, we get the idea that axioms are the foundation of a reality, even a virtual reality; this is not revolutionary, and not as profound as this game would like to think. The ponderous and idiotic dialogue (coming from Trace, supposedly the greatest mind in the world) shatters any connection a player may have with the protagonist or world by trying to heavy-handedly tell the player what to think and feel.
“Trace, there is … gun …in next room. You must get it.”
“Wait, what’s going on here? Who are you? … Hello? Where am I? Is the gun that lady just mentioned, or did I just imagine her?”
“You must go now, before he finds you?”
“Before WHO finds me? … I guess she’s gone again.”
This is insulting to the player’s capacity for judgement. When the dialogue fills all the space for speculation, there is nothing left for the player to think, wonder, or feel.
Although Metroid is an excellent game worthy of immitation, Axiom Verge copies concretes from Metroid without understanding or incorporating the Metroid “gestalt.” Don’t waste your time on Axiom Verge, unless you want to learn how not to design a game.