Here at Push Square Towers, we're reviewing more indie games than ever before. Sony's new focus on helping small developers has brought in a slew of titles – some good, some bad. But in this vast sea of software, it's exceptionally rare that an indie is as well-designed as Axiom Verge. Like Shovel Knight, it's a retro-inspired melting pot, borrowing some of the best bits and pieces from a variety of 8-bit and 16-bit gems.
A labour of love, the game was designed and developed by one man: Tom Happ. Playing it is like getting a special tour of his childhood. If you look at some of the more haphazard weapons, memories of Contra will quickly surface; likewise, one of the game's main areas bears a striking resemblance to Rygar's opening level. Hell, the title's aesthetic and very foundation is all but ripped straight from Metroid. Happ's love of NES and SNES classics has played a huge part in shaping his own game, and that's a good thing.
You are Trace, an average Joe who finds himself on a strange, alien planet. You don't know how or why you got here, but you're determined to figure it out. Unfortunately, though, it seems that most of the natives want you dead, which makes uncovering the planet's secrets and sorting out your own problems a bit of a struggle.
You're thrown into this new world with no defenses. A friendly but distant voice chimes in with some advice: if you go left, you'll find a gun. After acquiring that first weapon, you're able to make it through to the next room and into the main hallway, where there's yet another tool waiting to be snagged. It's Metroidvania gameplay in its purest form: find item, use said item to get past obstacle, find new item, repeat.
Instead of innovating, Axiom Verge refines. Modern sensibilities save it from falling into the same pitfalls as its predecessors; save points are abundant in number and evenly spread throughout the map, puzzles are occasionally mind-bending but never vague, and most importantly, there's always a sense of where to go without the need for any hand-holding.
Since exploration is such a big part of the gameplay, we're happy to report that there are loads of secret items to find – none of which are placeholder junk. There are literally dozens of hidden weapons, each with their own use. Going the extra mile and doing a bit of treasure hunting pays off, as toting the right piece will often make your next boss encounter a smidge easier, or provide another way to get past an obstacle. Of course, scouring for these extra goodies is entirely optional, but those wanting to get the most out of the experience will be sure to search every nook and cranny.
As far as combat is concerned, using the proper gun while being quick and dodgy is the name of the game. Some enemies' attack patterns are a simple walk to and fro, while others will lunge and claw at you. Trace is equally acrobatic, however, and has no problem unloading a barrage of alien gunpowder on his foes. If Samus Aran moves like a slow, heavily-armoured tank, then Trace is an overly energetic acrobat who is armed to the teeth.
Boss fights are a bit more challenging. Most, if not all of them, play host to an enormous and equally grotesque mutant, like a giant slug with cannons hooked to its back, or a flying worm that tosses bombs as it whizzes around. It's common to lose more than a few lives to these guys, but once again, modern sensibilities prevent that from ever being an issue, as a save point is never far away.
So far, so Metroid. But even if Axiom Verge is somewhat formulaic in design, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve – most notably, the 'glitch gun'. Almost like a Game Genie cartridge, the glitch gun gives you control over your surroundings. Sometimes its uses are scripted, like breaking down a wall of pixelated debris, but on other occasions, it's more of a toy than anything.
Each enemy reacts differently to the glitch gun: some freak out, others are immobilized, and so forth. Similarly, it has varying effects on the environment, which means that playing around with it can lead to finding a hidden room, getting a power-up sooner than you were supposed to, or just getting yourself stuck inside of a wall. Whatever the outcome may be, it's always fun to goof around with.
Ah, experimentation. Just like exploration, it's an element that every great Metroidvania shares. Not only does the game encourage you to try new things with the set of tools that it hands out, but one of those tools is specifically and exclusively designed for screwing with the game's boundaries. It's such a simple idea, but it works well enough to add a whole new layer to this already brilliant title.
As suggested by other outlets prior to release, Axiom Verge is PlayStation's very own Metroid. That may sound a teensy bit degrading, but there's no denying that this and Nintendo's own space-faring adventure have more than a few things in common. Still, if being compared to one of the most beloved game series of all time isn't a compliment, then we don't know what is. If you've never seen the appeal of these types of games, then chances are this won't change your mind. Devoted fans of the genre, however, will no doubt adore Tom Happ's opus.