With the release of Thomas Happ‘s Axiom Verge 2, I thought it might be a good idea to bring you a review of the game where it all started: Axiom Verge.

As a fan of the retro ’80s and ’90s, getting to review an old-school style of game is, on the whole, an absolute joy. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy playing through every single one of them. With Happ’s Axiom Verge, though, I had a good feeling. The screenshots immediately reminded me of a certain Super Metroid, which also helped.

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What It’s About 

It begins with a nerdy scientist-type called Trace. He and his colleagues are carrying out an experiment that inevitably goes wrong and leaves the lab in ruins. In the midst of this accident, Trace finds himself transported to another dimension, where he must figure out what’s going on, how to get back home and what the deal is with these giant sentient machines who want your help to defeat Athetos.

The problem is that it can take a while before you get this part of the story explained to you. Until then, you get to do a fair amount of wandering. However, once you do get to this point, it’s a ride that has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at.

The story is one of those where, just when you think you’ve got it figured out and have a good idea of what’s going to happen next, it heads off in a completely different direction. For example: Why do the boss characters refer to Trace as a demon? It’ll mess with your head in a way that only a sci-fi thriller can … or a Metal Gear Solid story.

Image from Axiom Verge game.

The Gameplay

Okay, the plot is all well and good, but all you have is a visual novel without some decent gameplay. Luckily, Happ has put together some shoot-em-up action that’ll challenge you and keep you fully engaged. The keyword is “challenge.” There are two difficulty levels to choose from. One is Normal; the other is Hard.

The former will consist of your character dying a lot. The latter will have him dying a whole lot more. The enemies you’ll encounter are varied in every way possible. Some have regular routes that’ll be quite easy to pick up and take care of, but others are far more erratic in their movement and will have you running and jumping about.

The early bad guy meetings are a little more forgiving, but you’ll quickly find yourself overwhelmed with several different types on-screen simultaneously. Add to that as you progress, they’ll take far more shots to kill, and you’ll find yourself frantically mashing buttons in your bid to escape them.

To counter this, you’ll be collecting some fascinating weapons you can fight back with as well as a few gizmos to influence the environment directly. Some of them are your standard fare, like a three-way blaster or a single shot that you can detonate with a second push of the fire button. Then, there are your less traditional forms of gun power-ups like the one that fires a single blast but periodically lets out extra blasts vertically as it moves.

Some of the weapons in Axiom Verge are also environment-specific, so they may assist you in opening up a new area or fighting a particular boss. You could potentially only need to use it once. Personally, I found myself reverting to the initial weapon for most of the game, and it served me well enough to take on about 80 percent of the baddies.

A particular power-up/weapon that really stood out during my playthrough was the “Address Disruptor.” It’s a fantastic piece of kit for when you encounter barriers that look like pixelated/glitched areas that stop you from progressing. You fire the disruptor at the necessary area, and it’ll revert it to a normal piece of scenery. The real killer feature of it is when you unleash this tool on your enemies.

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You can glitch them out, which creates some interesting behaviour, but I don’t want to give too much away. It’s just good fun to try it on everything. Something that Axiom Verge does particularly well with the nostalgia stakes is boss creatures. They’re huge, and they look very, very nasty.

One of them is so large that the camera zoomed out to fit the entire thing on the screen. Also, in keeping with the traditional bosses, they have specific patterns that you have to learn to defeat them, which means you have to observe and learn. It’s not only blind luck.

Image from Axiom Verge game.

The Technical Stuff 

The controls are easy to pick up with a gamepad and are very responsive. Running, jumping and shooting, etc., all behave the way they’re supposed to, so any mistimed jumps will be your own fault. Luckily though, there’s no fall damage to worry about, but watch out for the ground hazards, which consist of pools of pink acid. Plus, there are the enemies that’ll jump out of these pools to shoot at you.

Weapon switching also provides another retro reference with a “ring system” style of selection for your choice of monster death-dealing, although if you find you’ve got more gun variations than you know how to deal with, you can pop into the inventory screen and take a little more time to make your selection.

Sticking with the technical aspects of Axiom Verge, there were no issues to be found. Nothing crashed, no bugs, slowdowns or glitches (apart from the intentional ones you can remove with the disruptor or the bombs). I wouldn’t expect to find many graphical issues since it’s an old-school, side-on shooter. Still, it’s a testament to Happ’s attention to detail that this game has come out pretty much bug-free.

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Graphically, if you grew up around the ’90s consoles, then what we have here is nothing short of a masterpiece. It stands up very well on higher-screen resolutions despite the pixelated nature of the game. Each area of the huge world you journey through has particular colour themes to let you know that you will encounter a very different set of enemies and challenges.

You might even find some areas that are even more old-school in appearance that introduce the horizontal scan-lines you would have seen on older TVs.

The music is good fun to listen to and really complements the action. With the aforementioned colour scheme changes, you would also be treated to a different 16-bit track upon entering a different area. The sounds make a quality contribution to the experience with that slight white noise-style distortion that you’d associate with the older lower-quality sound effects.

Axiom Verge 4/5

Developer: Thomas Happ Games LLC Publisher: Thomas Happ Games LLC Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Switch
Release Date: May 14, 2015
Liked: Fantastic value for money. Disliked: Some late-game moments can become frustrating as it’s more luck than judgment to progress.

In Conclusion

Thomas Happ has created a wonderful game in Axiom Verge that should appeal to various gamers. The obvious attraction would be to the retro fans like myself that want to relive the ’80s and ’90s console eras. At the same time, I feel it will also catch the eye of those that love a challenge, as this game certainly provides that in bucket loads.

Another thing that really stands out is you won’t complete it quickly despite having an option for a Speed Run. Of course, a game taking a long time to complete isn’t okay on its own, so it’s good that you’re provided with elements such as a great (if sometimes confusing) story, fantastic action shoot-em-up gameplay and responsive controls to back up the large area of play.

Axiom Verge is available now for PC through Steam and most consoles! Check it out, and let us know your thoughts!

Article written by Richard Camfield

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