Well, that didn’t take long. It was only 68 days ago that Shovel Knight dethroned Journey for the #1 spot on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Journey had sat as king of the throne for 1,048 days. And there’s MANY more amazing looking indies coming in 2015. I tell you, we’re in the Golden Age of Indie Gaming, and ain’t it sweet?
Axiom Verge certainly had an advantage over Shovel Knight. Metroidvanias are my favorite gaming genre. They factored hugely into my gaming upbringing. Meanwhile, I can probably count the number of times I’ve even held an NES controller on one hand, and I certainly didn’t grow up playing Capcom’s NES library. So maybe it was fate that finally a Metroidvania would take the crown here at IGC. Then again, I think it speaks volumes about its quality that I was (and still am) gaga over Shovel Knight despite having no heart warming childhood stories about the time I ran through Duck Tales in a single life or the hours I spent designing fantasy Mega Man bosses. Shovel Knight holds a special place in my heart, and it does so simply by being an incredible game.
But, Axiom Verge has beaten it. And handily at that. It is the best independent video game I’ve ever played.
Think of Axiom Verge as the evolutionary Metroid. The same basic concept and play mechanics are present. The same enemy placement sensibility, where each corridor has the same enemies that you encounter one after the other. It’s so close that if you re-skinned the lead character Trace with Samus Aran sprites, put bubbles around each door, and replaced a drone you acquire a couple of hours into the game with the Morphing Ball, you would swear this really was a Metroid game. It’s that seamless.
Really, I can think of nothing else that speaks as great a volume as that when it comes to praising Axiom Verge: that you could believe this was an authentic Metroid game, made by a team of veteran designers working for gaming’s most prestigious house. But it wasn’t. One guy made this. And it’s better than any adventure the house of Mario has given their super heroine. Whoa!
Sacrilege, you scream. Look, we (or at least, people with similar taste to me) whine about how Nintendo turns out samey games. Every Zelda has the hookshot, the master sword, a boomerang, etc. Every Metroid has the Morphing Ball, the Grappling Beam, the Wave Beam, etc. Nintendo can get away with this because we keep eating it up year after year. I’m guilty of it too. Now here comes along a game that could be a Metroid, but it does things different. No Morphing Ball, the Bionic Commando grappling hook instead of the Grappling Beam (you can grab pretty much any platform instead of designated grappling sections once you acquire it), no bubble doors, new gun concepts, new enemies, a deeper story, but the same core gameplay. This is exactly what we’ve been asking for. For years. It’s the twist in the formula we’ve all been hoping for. The logical evolution of the Metroid mechanics.
And then comes the Glitch Gun. It’s not really called that. It has some stupid name like data disruptor. Just call it the Glitch Gun, everyone else does. Probably inspired by the types of graphic abnormalities that happen when you haven’t sufficiently blown on your NES cartridges enough, it’s sort of a more proactive version of Samus’s visor from Metroid Prime. When you shoot most enemies with it, you “hack” them, making them glitch out. This might make them simpler to slay, or it might make them useful, even able to open up hidden rooms. The gun will also interact with the environment, creating or destroying blocks, opening up new pathways, or unveiling secrets. It’s very clever and mostly well done. However, later in the game, once the gun is upgraded, I struggled somewhat in consistently clearing out the most advanced glitch blocks, often phasing some in while making others phase out. It’s a small niggling complaint, but it almost always happened when I was trying to clear the blocks out. Beyond that, the biggest mistake I think the developer made with the Glitch Gun was not giving it to players right out of the starting gate. It’s what sets Axiom Verge apart from its heritage more than any other play mechanic. You want to flaunt that stuff right off the bat. If someone has a flying car, I don’t want him to show it off to me by taking me on a trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Even if it’s a nice ride, I want to see the car fly! And I want to see the Glitch Gun in Axiom Verge right from the start.
Actually, since I’m complaining about things right now, I should point out that I don’t love the graphics. The world Tom Happ has created for Axiom Verge hits similar notes to other games in this genre, but it lacks liveliness and color. The story explains it to some degree (my insane fan theory: Murky and Lurky are behind this), but the starkness of the color is kind of exhausting. And it occasionally gets in the way. It’s often hard to distinguish between the foreground and background. The problem is Axiom Verge is too married to the limited color palette of the 8 bit era. Although I’m quite fond of neo-retro games, I think developers should remember that you shouldn’t handicap your own game in the process of paying homage. Cheat the rules occasionally. Use shading and color techniques not available on classic platforms, but do so in a clever way so that people don’t notice. Axiom Verge looks very convincing as a classic game, but that often works against it more than it helps it.
The controls are smooth. If there’s a problem with them, it’s that there’s just so much shit to do. By the end of the game you’ll be using pretty much every button on the controller, and unless you’re one of those freaks that can rub their head and pat their belly at will, you’re bound to slip up. I also felt the lack of ability to shoot at a downward diagonal angle while moving made the search for hidden rooms a bit more tedious than it had to be. I had to stop and shoot straight down, move a couple of spots forward and do it again while on the hunt for hidden stuff. It took me twenty-six hours to finish Axiom Verge, and you could probably shave at least an hour of that off just by giving me the ability to fire downward while running. Oh, and the dead zone for the right stick is too small. Combine that with my tiny hands and I kept accidentally bumping it, interrupting the game to select a new weapon. The dead zone should just stop short of maximum range, since it’s unlikely anyone is going to just nudge the stick to pause the game and choose a different gun. Then again, that might have been my fault. I have extraordinarily clumsy hands. Really clumsy. Dangerously clumsy. The last guy I gave a hand job to now goes by the name Sally.
Exploration and meaningful backtracking are the backbone of Metroidvanias. Something I’ve noticed about indies is they often just don’t fucking GET IT with that. Yea, you force players to go backwards, but when you do, you have to make it interesting by including hidden goodies along the way that were previously out of reach with the weapons and items you had access to the first time you were in that area. Huge props to Tom Happ for grasping this. There is so much hidden crap in Axiom Verge that I don’t think I went ten minutes between any pick-up. Even when I would occasionally get lost trying to figure out where the next event would take place at (some kind of Metroid Primeish GO HERE beeping spot on the map would have helped), I was stumbling upon so many goodies that I never got annoyed with it. By time I knew the game was getting ready to wrap up, I decided to take a stroll through all the previous stages just to see what I missed. Shockingly, it was a lot. Even in places where I was certain I had gotten everything, I was wrong. And I didn’t even get a 100% item pick-up, despite having 96% of the map explored. Holy fuck. As much as I’m grateful, I have to wonder if Tom has some kind of mental disorder that led to this. Dude is like a demented Easter Bunny.
I grew to love its story. The plot is problematic for some, because it fails to grab you immediately. This happened to me too. For the first several hours, when friends asked me about it, I said “you’ll want to buy this for the gameplay.” But once the story gets rolling, I actually did care. Quite a bit. I just don’t think the game handled the delivery of the story well. Part of that comes down to the lack of voice acting, because, once again, the game is married to being old school. Oh woe be it, if only we had access to the types of space-age technology that would allow voice acting in video games. Oh wait.
But, I did grow fond of lead character Trace, and skeptical of whether or not the mysterious giant mecha baby heads that drive the plot were friend or foe. I just wish it had been told better. Having said that, there’s a couple “okay, that was cool” story moments that are integrated into the gameplay that were very risky to include from a creative standpoint. They worked, grabbing my attention and leaving every gameplay moment that followed feeling like the stakes were higher, with tension added that was totally authentic. Axiom Verge might have one of the most interesting sci-fi gaming storylines I’ve ever seen. Saying it gets off to a slow start is an understatement, and I’m guessing many players will be so underwhelmed by it that they’ll blow off the remaining dialog, but they’re missing out.
I loved Axiom Verge. I can’t believe how much I loved it. I never expected to walk away from it having enjoyed it more than any of Nintendo’s entries in the Metroid series. Axiom Verge isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a tribute to Metroid. My expectations were set to “respectable tribute.” Not “better than the originals”. But it is. And yeah, I’m a whippersnapper who was in my twenties when I played Super Metroid for the first time, so I’m not nostalgic for those SNES and GBA classics. You know what? I think even those who would burn me at the stake for saying Axiom Verge is better than Super Metroid (and it is) would have to at least stop and think about whether I’m right or not. It’s that good. It’s for real. It’s the best indie of all-time, at least in this Chick’s book.
Special Note: I am friends with Axiom Verge producer Dan Adelman, whom I previously interviewed on this blog. My friendships with game developers do not and will never influence my opinions on their games. My friends are my friends because I give them my unfiltered, often blunt opinions on their games. Ask my friend Marc. They expect nothing less from me. As for me, I would never be friends with anyone whose friendship is conditional, based on me liking their stuff. That’s not the way real friends treat each other. But my readers deserve to know who I’m friends with, so I’m letting them know.
Axiom Verge is Chick-Approved and Ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard
A review copy of Axiom Verge was provided to Indie Gamer Chick prior to the game’s release on March 31. Indie Gamer Chick has since purchased a copy. All games reviewed by Cathy are paid for by her with her own money. For more on this policy, check out the FAQ.