The masterpiece is finally home.
It’s hard to believe that Thomas Happ’s brilliant Axiom Verge has only been with us since March of 2015. I played it a little later once I had my PS4 and then replayed it on the Vita in April of this year. Still, a game that pulls so much inspiration directly from Super Metroid, Bionic Commando, and Contra seemed to be on the wrong systems. Where was the Wii U version? As it turns out, the Wii U did not support Axiom Verge’s original engine (Monogame), so a developer called BlitWorks essentially rebuilt the thing in C++. The point, though, is that Axiom Verge has finally come home. I love every part of this game, and the benefits of this Wii U version are easy to appreciate.
If you somehow haven’t played Axiom Verge yet, it’s the story of a man named Trace who wakes up on an alien world called Sundra. He makes contact with powerful mechanical creatures called Rusalka who urge him to help defeat a villain who has holed up in area they cannot reach. The plot deals with questions of identity, free will, and the nature of reality. It is told through brief narrative cutscenes but also notes that Trace finds throughout Sundra. The story is never intrusive and, ultimately, you have to make sense of things yourself.
Overall, Axiom Verge is structured like a Metroid game. Trace finds a variety of moveset upgrades, some of which are standard (high jump), but most of which are unique and creative (reconnaissance drone, phasing through walls). Each new trick allows Trace to explore new areas of Sundra. Trace will also come across health upgrades, weapon damage upgrades, and even weapon shot size upgrades. There are a great many guns to find in Axiom Verge, but you will very quickly find two or three that really work for you and stick with them for the rest of the game.
While the exploration is definitely derived from Metroid, boss battles are decidedly more Contra in flavor. You’ll fight big, screen-filling monstrosities while dodging bullets. My favorite boss is an enormous slug-like creature with a multitude of weapons, and the trick is to figure out where you can safely stand to destroy each gun before he finally exposes his actual weak point. The story actually reveals what these boss monsters are, and the answer is kind of gross. You almost feel sorry for them.
I also have to spend some time talking about the soundtrack, which is virtually peerless. Two tracks in particular—Vital Tide and Cellular Skies—are particularly brilliant. I would compare them both to the title track of Metroid Prime. They establish a truly alien world, tinged with loneliness and unease. The game’s graphics drive this point home: Axiom Verge looks like nothing you’ve ever seen. I was constantly impressed by the tile sets used to differentiate Sundra’s different areas, and some of the backgrounds are breathtaking—particularly as you travel to Sundra’s highest outdoor point and its alien nature becomes more apparent. Taken together with the game’s story and found notes, certain locations speak to the tragedy that befell the planet once the Rusalka’s enemy made his move.
I was worried that this Wii U port would suffer from the same maladies that the Vita version does (long load times between areas, framerate drops), but that is not the case. It runs as smoothly as the PS4 version. The GamePad provides a critical benefit, however—you won’t be pressing start every few minutes to see where you’ve going, as it displays the map and your available weapons at all times. You can still access the weapon wheel with the right stick, and you’ll need to press Select to bring up your inventory, password screen, and overall map of Sundra, but having the map of your immediate surroundings on at all times is a godsend in any Metroid-type platformer. The game also supports Off-TV play (just tap the icon). Finally, for those of you who like to speedrun games like this, Axiom Verge on Wii U displays global leaderboards for the game’s dedicated Speedrun mode.
There are a couple things I wish that Axiom Verge did better, though, and these really only apply to people who like to get 100% item completion in games like this. First, I would like a way to get around the map easier. Something like a late-game ability to warp between save points would make item cleanup much more tolerable. Second, I wish the map put a dot where you found an item, like Super Metroid does. That would cut way back on accidental re-investigating. I do a clean sweep of every room when I go for 100%, but it’d be nice to know where I’ve already found things. Now, the game does tell you when you’ve found 100% of items and 100% of map completion in a given area. That’s nice, but it’s only part of what I want. Do the Zero Mission thing and tell me what I still need to find when I haven’t hit those benchmarks!
Axiom Verge is otherwise essentially flawless and it’s one of my favorite indie games. This Wii U version is arguably the best one, too, so even if you’ve played it before it may very well be worth the double dip. And man, what’s up with that post-credits scene?!