In Axiom Verge, players take on the role of Trace as he explores the ruins of Sudra. Hidden across the planet are weapons, power-ups, upgrades, and fragments that tell more of the tale of how life came to be as it is in this world.
What snagged everyone’s attention when Axiom Verge came out was how it was reminiscent of the classic Metroid games of the 80s and 90s. It’s true, Axiom Verge pulls much out of the series it’s inspired by, from the above mentioned weapons, large boss battles, and 2D exploration, and more. What it pulls out it does pretty well and for many, it’s quite an enjoyable game. For me though, it also feels that it didn’t draw from all the things it should have. While I can appreciate what others see in the game, it didn’t do enough to capture the magic of the classic series.
Right there may be the crux of the problem for me. I went into the game expecting to be playing essentially a skinned version of Super Metroid. As I said above, Axiom Verge does well with what it does take, creating alien environments, large enemies, variety of tools and weapons, and backtracking through areas the player has already been in, but yet I wasn’t interested in it.
Mechanically, what annoyed me is that I felt I had to have players guide to find even the most basic of items to get through the game. For nearly the entire playthrough, I had a website that included vague hints and maps on where to go next. This felt awkward this day and age as Axiom Verge is missing even the most rudimentary suggestion system such as, “Go to the zone over there.” Perhaps it works well if playing the game in one sitting, but when tackling the adventure over a few weekends, I would often forget where I was supposed to be going. Maybe I’m wrong here, and this was perfectly emulated from the old days because I did the same thing when playing Super Metroid as a kid, but is that necessary more than 20 years later when game design has grown?
Along similar lines, much about the classic series was about exploration and trying to find secret items. One does that here as well, but it was frustrating to because the game’s map gives few hints that secret items even exist, let alone hint as to where they are. In Super Metroid, areas with items would have a dot on it. Players wouldn’t know what was there or how to get to it, but they’d know something was there. Nothing of the sort exists in Axiom Verge and if something is missed, you’ll have no idea until you beat the game and it reports the percentage of items collected.
It’s easy to get lost in Axiom Verge, even with the benefit of a map, when attempting to traverse to another zone. There isn’t enough difference between the themes of each zone to identify which you’re in compared to another. Muted blues, purples, and pinks, to muted purples, blues, greys and pinks. While each zone does have its own look, they tend to not be all that different from each other, with the exception of one snow zone. “I’m clearly in Ukkin-Na,” or, “That’s right, E-Kur-Mah looked like that.” On Zebes, it’s clear where one is that from Norfair to Brinstar as one would be more of a grassy area and another an obvious lava area. Each zone had its own easily identifiable color.
Game mechanics aside, my biggest problem is that I had no player agency. I didn’t care about the story one bit. Learning about how Chase, the main character, got here and what he’s going to do about it didn’t do anything for me. Nothing about this world got me interested and I found myself mashing through cutscenes and dialogue pop-ups as quickly as I could.
Super Metroid on the other hand, had very little text but you’d still get the story. The game opens with Samus writing a log entry, describing the events of the previous two games, and then connecting those events with the adventure players are about to partake in. Aside from that, everything in the story is played out without text. For Chase, he has a lot of back and forth with the creatures he’s trying to help over the course of the game, but I felt no connection.
It may be that Samus has the luxury of being in a game series that is 30 years old and I feel more connected to her. Maybe it’s that she’s a woman, or that the theme of motherhood is interwoven throughout Metroid. I can’t say for certain, but I did not connect with Chase at all and became annoyed that I was interrupted by attempts to flesh out the story.
All of that said, there is a good game underneath all of it. I could feel it and I know others absolutely loved it. When I wasn’t frustrated, I know that even I was enjoying it. It’s unfortunate that, having now played through the whole game, that I feel I may have had a better experience if I had played Speedrunner mode which cuts out all dialogue and allows the player to get right into the game. That would have felt more like the Metroid experience I was expecting.