Axiom Verge

A game by Thomas Happ Games for PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, Switch, Wii U, PS4, and Vita, originally released in 2015.
Axiom Verge is a metroidvania starring a scientist named Trace who is working in New Mexico in 2005. Following an explosion in his lab, Trace finds himself awakening in a strange alien world, with the disembodied voice of a mysterious stranger whispering in his ear. Trace is standing on a large egg-like machine that appears to have restored his life. The voice tells Trace that there is a gun in the next room and that he needs to pick it up.

There are two doors in the room, but the path to the right is blocked by a wall of red bubbles. Heading to the left reveals an open room with no enemies, allowing the player to experiment with the controls. Per the standards of the Metroid series, Trace quickly reaches a point in the room from which he cannot escape without picking up the weapon lying in front of him.

Trace has a snappy 2x variable jump, which is in contrast to the floaty jumps usually present in the metroidvania genre. Trace can also duck and walk while ducking, although this ability is largely unnecessary as Trace cannot enter small openings. The world is tile-based, giving the player a good indication of which platforms are accessible with his starting abilities.

Grabbing the gun gives Trace a long range weapon that fires red projectiles at a moderate rate with each button press. Trace can fire to the left or right, straight up, and in upward diagonals, and he can fire in 8 directions while jumping (otherwise, pressing diagonally downward causes him to crawl and shoot to the left or right). The player can also lock his position Contra III-style to freely aim in all 8 directions without moving, which is useful for dealing with bosses and enemies at different elevations.

The gun allows Trace to destroy bubble walls – which regenerate after a few seconds – letting him return to the save room and proceed to the right. Players will deal with some wall-crawling enemies that operate similarly to Zoomers in the Metroid series, as well as some giant stationary creatures that look like bloody red hearts which are able to spawn swarms of purple flies to protect themselves.

It is here that players will recognize a difference in the fidelity of this game compared to something like the 2D Metroid titles. While the tiles and background elements hold very true to 8- and 16-bit stylings, with simple designs and limited color palettes, Axiom Verge features more advanced particle effects, as well as a warping effect around projectiles.

Shooting the heart-looking enemy causes it to turn to static for a brief moment, which supports the game’s glitch-based design (more on this in a bit), and destroying it causes it to burst into a shower of red particles. The game's opening areas show off a lot of “gooey” effects with these hearts and wobbly bubbles that burst when shot, although most of the game’s tiles are static rather than organic.

The pace is quite fast in the early going. In the first few hours, the player can find several different weapon types and visit a number of unique geographical areas. In most metroidvania titles, this would signal that the player is nearing the end of his adventure, but in Axiom Verge, things are only beginning…

Spread throughout the expansive environments are dozens of new weapons and secondary items, and loads of health and weapon upgrades on top of that, allowing players to increase their overall firepower and extend their health meters. Aside from a few key items, most weapons and other upgrades are entirely optional and may be missed by players who do not take the time to thoroughly explore the environment.

There are hidden areas spread throughout the game world, often tucked behind destructible blocks, or otherwise inaccessible until the player acquires certain upgrades. New abilities include a drill that can destroy certain blocks (some of which are visually indistinguishable from their neighbors), a glitch gun that can alter the environment and cause platforms to appear, and eventually a robotic companion that can explore narrow passageways.

In any given area, the player may have the option to use any of these items in order to push forward. The layered level designs mean that most areas have paths that are not immediately visible to the player, opening up many opportunities for players to wonder if they have explored all available avenues, potentially leading them to feel “stuck”.

One key example of this occurs when the player moves out of the first couple of sections of the map and begins earning new movement upgrades. In most metroidvania titles, the player is free to explore any of the previously visited areas at will, with the player only occasionally being locked in a small area with a dedicated puzzle sequence that must be solved with his new abilities.

However, Axiom Verge presents the player with a dropoff that cannot be surmounted, sticking him in a couple of large sections of the map with no obvious way to press forward, and no way to move backward. Even performing advanced techniques – such as throwing your robot onto a ledge and moving it into the next room – results in dead ends in every direction.

As it turns out, there is a hard-to-detect bit of liquid that can be turned solid with use of the glitch gun, allowing the player to reach a platform that would otherwise be inaccessible. The inability to return to a previous area simultaneously prevents the player from retreading ground fruitlessly, but it also makes it appear that the player has missed an important upgrade somewhere that is preventing him from making progress.

In general, the game offers no prompts to the player to move in a given direction, taking its cues from Super Metroid and requiring that the player pay close attention to the environment and return to previous areas once the proper ability has been gained. Players can also refer to the metroidvania map to see save points and boss rooms, as well as check for areas that have yet to be explored. In a nice touch, players can drop markers on the map to remind themselves to revisit a specific room later on. However, the game offers no fast travel system, and the world is quite large, so it can take a great deal of time to move from one section of the map to another, often with no indication as to which route leads to narrative progress.

As the game goes on, the player learns more about the glitched sections of the environment and what it means for the world around him… and he gets more insight into Trace and the mysterious save points that seem to rebuild his body once he is killed. The player will often encounter large glitched walls that generate loud grinding static and cause damage when touched. While these walls remain impenetrable for much of the game, there are other glitched objects that the player can interact with once he acquires the glitch gun.

There are multiple power levels of the glitch gun which let the player interact with stronger glitches and more powerful enemies. At its base level, the gun lets the player turn certain glitchy background elements into temporarily solid platforms in order to cross them and reach new areas, while a stronger version of the gun lets the player cut through solid glitched walls.

Watchful players can look for glitchy background elements (which flicker, per old-school computing limitations) to open up new paths and even find secret areas outside of the main game world. Players may also turn the weapon on the various inhabitants of the world, often leading to strange new effects…

Some glitched creatures continue to move along their existing paths but with their sprites glitched out. Often, however, glitching out a creature will cause it to slow down or fire projectiles more slowly, making it easier to avoid or to kill outright. Sometimes, glitched creatures do unpredictable things, like one bouncing enemy that actually penetrates solid walls once it absorbs enough energy from your glitch gun. So, instead of bouncing around from wall to wall, it starts to burst through certain wall sections, opening up a new path of travel.

Of course, the player is free to deal with most enemies in the traditional way… by blasting them into oblivion. The player’s starting weapon is soon accompanied by a wide array of offensive armaments, including bullets that may be fired in a straight line and then detonated manually for a small area effect attack, another that has a short range but is able to penetrate solid walls, one that has a wide spray, etc. The game pauses automatically while the player cycles through weapons, and he can also add weapons to quick-select buttons to have his go-to ordinance ready at all times.

Players can also do harm to creatures by using their drill. In fact, some creatures are immune to all other attacks. As mentioned, the player eventually gains access to a tiny robot that he can control independently, which he primarily uses to explore narrow passageways that would have otherwise been tackled with a Morph Ball in the Metroid series. The robot has a drill weapon of its own that can cut through blocks and harm enemies, and the player can even transition from room to room with the little bot, although it is weak and does not have access to any of Trace’s other skills, like the high jump or the ability to teleport through solid blocks.

The robot has its own health bar which is slowly restored whenever it is not being used, although it can also pick up health from killed enemies to restore some of its meter. When destroyed by an enemy or recalled by the player, the bot is restored to Trace where he may deploy it again as needed. The bot can also be used to do a bit of health farming ala Blaster Master by sending the bot forward to kill an enemy and then switching back over to Trace to collect the dropped health.

This can be useful when players are far from the safety of a save point – and the game has one of the most annoying low health alarms ever designed – although players may also save their game at any point, recording all of their progress and returning to the most recent save point on reload. This design actually allows for a bit of sequence breaking, as players can move into new areas to collect powerups and then return to a much earlier save point. The game also features a dedicated speed run mode.

When the player isn’t checking every corner of the environment or chucking bullets into enemies (the weakest of which have a very Galaga-sounding effect when taking damage), the player must face off against a number of huge and detailed biomechanoid bosses. Each boss room is indicated by a red door and offers a save point close by, which is handy since many of the later bosses can be quite tough, even with a large arsenal of weapons.

Bosses are pattern-based affairs, with boss creatures turning red and moving more quickly as they take more damage. Each boss encounter is preceded by a dialogue sequence between Trace and the creature, with each exchange – and supplemental NPC dialogue – revealing a bit more about the nature of the enemies that Trace is facing.

The player encounters a number of odd sci-fi upgrades, including a teleporting trench coat and a syringe that causes a strange mutation. The player eventually locates an organic grappling hook, although it’s somewhat difficult to use as its design runs counter to many other games that offer a similar instrument. Here, players are not able to gain any kind of significant height when releasing the grapple at the apex of their jumps. Therefore, the item is more often used to grapple points above you, pull yourself up, and then swing left or right to fall down onto a platform below.

The grappling hook fires straight up or at a 45 degree angle, and the player is able to extend or retract the cord at will. Holding left or right will cause the player to automatically disconnect after a full swing, and the player may also press the JUMP button do disconnect at will, but he will fall straight down rather than continuing his forward momentum, again preventing the device from being used to reach higher platforms.

The game’s graphical design and level layouts are clear callbacks to the Metroid series, particularly with its long vertical ascents/descents, transitional doorways, and wall-crawling enemies. The game is presented in a tile-based structure with mostly inorganic backgrounds, interspersed with occasional bits of life, and accompanied by an atmospheric synth soundtrack, sometimes punctuated by non-English vocals.

From a narrative standpoint, the game generally relies on overt storytelling through dialogue sequences rather than having any story inherent in the design, which constrains much of the game's mystery. When the player doesn't understand where he is or what is happening, it is usually because the disembodied voice has gone silent or opted not to share the information.

Axiom Verge was developed solely by Tom Happ, who programmed the game, created the art, and composed the soundtrack. Tom previously worked for EA’s Tiburon Studio, Petrogylph, and other studios, and his credits include Grey Goo, Crash Nitro Kart, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2009.

Tom worked with business partner Dan Adelman on the release of the game. Dan worked at Nintendo of America for more than nine years where he helped to get indie games published on Nintendo platforms, including Cave Story, Shovel Knight, Retro City Rampage, the Bit.Trip series, and World of Goo. Concurrent with his support of Axiom Verge, Dan also partnered with Discord Games on the release of Chasm.

The game was developed over the course of several years, with Tom starting part-time development on the title in 2010 before moving into full-time development a few years later. The game also received support from Sony’s Pub Fund program.