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Game review: Axiom Verge brings idvania to PS Vita

Another indie game proves that the PS Vita isn’t dead yet, with a Metroid style game that Nintendo could be proud of.

It’s Metroid’s 30th anniversary on August 6. And while Mario and Zelda were given a celebration worthy of their legacy the only thing in Metroid’s immediate future is the already much-lamented Metroid Prime: Federation Force. But perhaps Nintendo will have a happier surprise in store for fans, especially as they’re likely to reveal their new console in June and rumours have been swirling that a big budget new game is in development. But if Nintendo won’t give fans what they want then there are plenty of others that will…

Axiom Verge’s debt to Metroid is obvious and unabashed from the very first instant, with very little influence from Castelvania’s side of the Metroidvania equation. Although all such games follow the established formula of exploring a 2D platform world while gradually increasing your armoury of weapons, and using them to access more and more of the open world map.

If you’re looking at the screenshots and rolling your eyes at yet another retro-looking indie game, do consider that there’s a very good reason for the game’s modest technical accomplishments: it was all made by just one person.

How Tom Happ managed to create all this on his own we’ve no idea, but given that he has the game is actually surprisingly good looking – with its weird biomechnical backdrops and some grotesque bosses that could give Dark Souls a run for its money in the looks department.

There’s a complex explanation for what’s going on in terms of the plot, although the game is a little too in love with its own lore. The sense of loneliness and the depiction of a decaying world of lost grandeur is just as good as Metroid, but rather than just relying on atmosphere and the odd sparse clue the game insists on also having lengthy info dumps of plot exposition.

They’re a small hardship to endure though, and the game never loses sight of the fact that exploration and puzzle-solving are the real meat of the experience. As in Metroid many of the enemies aren’t so much aggressive as they are merely territorial. There is plenty of action but almost all your weapons have uses outside of merely shooting monsters.

Just as with Samus and her gun arm, your main weapon gradually stacks up with more and more abilities – that range from shotgun blasts to arcs of electricity. But as well as putting holes in bad guy’s heads these have many alternative uses, such as activating distant switches and freeze objects in ice blocks.

With other items the primary use is not necessarily combat, and although the laser drill you get early on is handy for attacking otherwise impenetrable enemies it also allows you to dig through rock like Mr Driller.

Some equipment, like the grappling hook, are straight out of Metroid itself and while you can’t transform into a morph ball a little remote-control robot drone fulfils a very similar role. Although it’s upgradeable nature, which eventually allows you to use it as a teleportation device, makes it even more useful.

Some gadgets are entirely unique though, most obviously the Address Disruptor. This is able to transform glitching parts of the scenery into usable platforms, but it can also change the behaviour of enemies. The effects are different for every type, and range from making them shoot health power-ups instead of bullets to turning them into allies and digging tunnels through rock for you.

Axiom Verge is a very cleverly designed game, but like many homages it doesn’t really add anything new to the formula. And is more concerned with copying and emulating than it is innovating. On the face of it having a Metroid game that actually looks like Metroid is great, but games such as Ori And The Blind Forest, Shadow Complex, and Shantae And The Pirate’s Curse all have their own distinct personalities, art styles, and stories. Which means that even when they’re cribbing verbatim from their inspiration it doesn’t quite feel so blatant or overfamiliar.

There are some neat new ideas in Axiom Verge, such as the set of secret passwords that represent a whole second layer of reward for more careful exploration, but they’re not quite enough to distinguish it. And while the controls are generally blameless the difficulty in jumping and shooting at the same time is just awkward enough that you’re never quite sure if the game is doing it on purpose to be retro or if the controls haven’t been thought out quite well enough.

The original PlayStation 4 version had the same problem, but it’s even worse on the PS Vita thanks to the, probably necessary, use of the touchscreen for various virtual buttons. There’s also some odd performance issues that kick in when the screen gets busy, which we hope will be patched out quickly.

As a one-man effort this is an extraordinary achievement, but if the recent epidemic of Metroidvania games is going to continue then they’re going to need to evolve the formula beyond its current stagnation. Because Axiom Verge isn’t just a reminder of how great Metroid is, but of how little the 2D iterations have changed over the decades.

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