When you keep aquariums, you learn the startling power of nature left unattended. I used to have a few tanks—out of an apparent desire to pursue the least practical hobby for a New York apartment—and even though I was fastidious about their maintenance, the miniature ecosystems would find a way to surprise me. A bed of moss would take hold in an out-of-the-way corner, discovered after months of patient growth. Or a colony of shrimp would spill out when I opened the filter to clean it. Entering the ruined, metastatic world of Axiom Verge is like peeling the cap off that filter. Inside, you find an abandoned realm where technology and biology have merged in a mutual, millennia-long struggle to live. The thrill here is hacking—in every sense of the word—through the weeds to find what has survived.
A sci-fi platformer with Super NES style, Axiom Verge is a quest to save a fallen techno-utopia from extinction at the hands of a crazed physicist. You fight with your blaster through the subterranean landscapes of an alien planet, and as you proceed, you acquire weapons and abilities that open up new portions of the map for exploration. If that sounds a lot like Metroid, it is (with touches of Rygar and Contra), but there’s no need to belabor the comparison—Axiom Verge doesn’t. The game’s homage to the Metroid template is thoughtful, and developer Tom Happ applies his own meticulous design sense without resorting to mere mimicry of NES classics.
Happ’s genius emerges slowly, as seemingly superficial design elements show themselves to be brilliantly refined. For instance, as your hero’s armory grows crowded with plasma guns, “data bombs,” and other implements of destruction, it’s natural to assume that Happ is just tossing weapon ideas out there and letting the player figure it out. (He wouldn’t be the first.) But if you experiment with your options a bit—the frantic crucible of a boss fight often forces you to change up your methods—you’re liable to find that Happ’s handiwork has an underlying elegance. The developer deeply considered the interactions between your arsenal and the H.R. Giger-esque menagerie that infests this world. So, for instance, the lightning gun works wonders against a particular species of mutant gnats, and the space-distortion field is the perfect antidote to—well, I’ll let you experience that exhilarating epiphany for yourself.
Verge’s passion for player experimentation is embodied by the game’s most distinctive tool, the Address Disruptor. You aim this thing at an enemy, or a peculiar part of the terrain, say, and its code becomes garbled—as if someone just jiggled the Axiom Verge cartridge in its slot. (Note: No actual cartridges were harmed in the playing of this game.) The targets of your Address Disruption take on strange qualities. Alien sprites flicker and change behavior, becoming docile, aggressive, or endearingly confused. Bubbles floating off a big mushroom, once glitched, become platforms that elevate you to otherwise unreachable heights.
In conceptual terms, the Address Disruptor is a natural extension of the decomposition that characterizes this realm. When you use the tool, you’re essentially just speeding up the decay of DNA and computer code that has already taken hold. The practical implications are more complex. After acquiring the Disruptor (which happens early on), it is no longer enough for a Verge player to confront the world as it exists. You must also consider whether it should be corrupted. In that way, the game gets at an essential question of existence: Do we strive to change the world, or do we make our way in the world we already have? Axiom Verge suggests, wisely, that it ought to be both.
Yet because the full effects of glitching aren’t always obvious (as in life), knowing which way to lean at any given moment is a tricky calculus. For instance, I threw myself against a maddeningly impassable wall for longer than I’d like to admit. Then I realized that when I bugged out a nearby enemy, it acquired the ability to destroy walls, clearing a path for me. But then there are puzzles where you really do have to execute the solution yourself and no amount of code-mangling will help you. The Address Disruptor isn’t a catchall gimmick; it’s a layer of complexity.
It takes time to appreciate that layer and others like it—I haven’t even mentioned the out-of-body phenomena that ensue once you learn to use your own personal drone bot. Happ sent the game to critics nearly a month in advance of its release today, which was a shrewd choice, as Axiom Verge deserves to steep in your consciousness. The world is claustrophobic yet vast, comprising more than 700 “rooms,” so there’s a lot to explore. Even with a superb soundtrack and gorgeous visuals—rarely since the original Metroid has the pixel-art style been used to create a setting so haunting, with such a strong sense of otherworldly ancientness—Verge can become tedious to explore after a few hours of uninterrupted play.
When it starts to feel like work, that’s when it’s time to put the controller down. This game performs best when you’re willing to study it a little, to gaze deeply at it and ferret out the little details that show you the way ahead. Put another way, it’s a game that needs to be left unattended, so that you can return to it with fresh eyes and discover the surprises that seem to sprout while you’re away.