There I was, at one o’clock, on the morning of Friday November 29th, finally reaching the front of a line that I had waited in for almost 3 hours. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, palms sweating and I was very, very aware of my breathing. The moment had finally arrived, I was about to enter a new generation.
Shaking as I approached the counter, I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out an envelope and, in the excitement of it all, I dropped it – spilling over £400 across the tiled floor of the shop. I scrambled to the floor, clawing at my fallen notes, sprung back to an upright position and positively threw my money at the attendant behind the till. Moments later, he handed it to me – my very own PlayStation 4, my portal to the future of gaming.
In this moment, there was absolutely no way that I would have predicted that it was to be a 2D, 16-bit inspired, side-scrolling action-adventure game that would become a showcase experience for my powerhouse, next-gen games console. But Axiom Verge is just that. It may look like the product of a bygone era but it is absolutely one of the best games available on the PlayStation 4.
The game opens with an utterly stunning 16-bit, motion comic book cut scene telling the story of Trace, a scientist caught in a fatal explosion after which he awakes in a mysterious, alien, ancient-yet-high-tech world. Axiom Verge tells its story very beautifully but it’s also very complex and, being totally honest, it left me feeling a bit stupid. It was almost totally over my head. It deals with life and reality and other things that I just couldn’t quite grasp. But where other games need story to drive the gamer forward, it is phenomenal game design that keeps you pushing on in Axiom Verge.
The ‘metroidvania’ sub-genre of video games, when done correctly, is one that breeds curiosity; Axiom Verge is absolutely done correctly. From the very opening area, Trace is teased with pathways that he can’t access until unlocking new weapons, tools or attributes. The key to success is exploration but, in a cruel world where almost everything wants Trace dead, this can be easier said than done.
Throughout Axiom Verge‘s non-linear labyrinth of 9 interlocking areas are hoards of varying enemy types, all of whom will endeavour to hurt you in their own unique way. Like everything in Axiom Verge, these enemies are uniquely designed – weird, beautiful creatures in a weird, beautiful world. And there is certainly an obvious difficulty curve as you discover and unlock new areas and enemy types. Little, scuttling enemies that you have been disposing of with ease suddenly have frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads, totally changing the way you have to approach the game. Axiom Verge can feel sadistic, it wants you dead and doesn’t hide that fact. Thankfully, the game controls – from jumping and shooting to ducking and hiding – are tight and refined, defeat will be your own fault.
But I can’t quite bring myself to call Axiom Verge a hard game. Though challenging, requiring one to employ almost every skill in their gaming repertoire, it is bad habits formed from years of video game hand-holding that caused the most problems in Axiom Verge. The game doesn’t teach you how to defeat each enemy type. There isn’t a checkpoint every 15 seconds. It doesn’t offer help when you seem to be struggling. And Axiom Verge absolutely does not let you just run and hope for the best. To be successful in the verge, you must have patience; it requires a methodical approach to make each area safe to explore.
Luckily, the more you explore, the more weapons you’ll find, abilities you’ll gain and upgrades you’ll unlock. Whether it’s a node that increases your health capacity or one which adds some oomf to your weapons, every collectible feels of value and is worth looking for.
As for the weapons, you’ll begin the game with a simple blaster that fires what look like red bullets of energy at your foes and can be shot just about as quickly as you can mash the square button, allowing you to pepper enemies with a barrage of fire. Then there’s one that fires a blast of lighting which is great for taking out enemies through a wall or flipping a switch that is out of your reach. Each weapon or upgrade feels unique when compared to the last and every one has their use. Finding the perfect way to combine these, in order to safely pass through an area or to unlock a completely new one, is one of Axiom Verge’s greatest charms.
In-keeping with the sci-fi aesthetic of the game, glitches play a big part in unlocking or entering new areas. Whether you override a glitch blocking Trace’s path with the disruptor or use your lab coat to glitch through a wall (yeah, that doesn’t make sense to me either), it feels like you’re discovering secrets that you aren’t supposed to, even though you are. It adds a sense of smug satisfaction to proceedings.
The biggest challenges to your impressive inventory, though, are the game’s spectacular boss fights. The non-linear nature of the game means that these set piece battles feel as though they’re coming out of nowhere and you never know quite what to expect, or how to prepare. In fact, it usually takes dying a few times just to work out how to damage an enemy boss never mind defeat it. Luckily, there is always a save point nearby which allows you jump straight back into the action after death. Defeating these bosses requires patience, innovation and keen reflexes. Other than the very first, bosses can’t just be peppered with attacks. Some will demand that you aim for a specific area. Others mandate the use of a particular weapon. And all the while, you’ll be dodging whatever they happen to be throwing at you, memorising attack patterns and reacting accordingly; it’s actually quite rhythmic. And then, just when you think you’ve got it in the bag, the bugger will whip out a flamethrower or giant laser beam just to throw a spanner in the works. However, persevering and defeating one of these huge, innovatively-designed creatures can be one of the most rewarding experiences in video games, as they shatter in an explosion of pixels upon death. Boss fights are absolutely the best part of Axiom Verge.
For the ‘Let’s Play-ers’ amongst us, Axiom Verge includes a Speed Run mode which rips out any dialogue or cut scenes and slaps a timer on the screen. This inclusion sums up Axiom Verge to a tee; a modern take on a classic genre.
Finally, the soundtrack. Oh god, the soundtrack. Dripping with ambience and a retro-come-modern techno vibe, Axiom Verge’s score is one of the best in recent memory. It packs dread and fear alongside a constant sense that something epic is on the horizon. It’s mesmeric.
More impressive than anything, though, is that all of this was created by just one man – Tom Happ. The tight gameplay, the unique identity, mesmerising gameplay and incredible boss fights were all the product of one man’s 5-year journey. As gamers, what an exciting time we live in.