Axiom Verge 2 – On The Verge Of Excellence
PS4, Switch, PC
Such was the impression that the original Axiom Verge made upon launching that to this day is still considered one of the great MetroidVania titles of all time. The pressure to follow up, and build upon, the success of the original Axiom Verge, an enormous labour of love, would undoubtedly be enormous, but when life throws horrific curveballs at you, like lead developer Thomas Happ has had to endure, the experience becomes exponentially more difficult. Thomas has had had to overcome medical malpractice that left his newborn son with a permanent neurological disability, meanwhile, his family home nearly went up in flames as a result of the fires in L.A. a couple of years ago, and it’s made his work on Axiom Verge 2 more than just work. Now, six years following the launch of Axiom Verge, and a sequel has finally arrived. Has the road to this point made for an even better product?
Cashed-up billionaire protagonist Indra Chaudhari has long been searching for her missing daughter, and that search has taken her to Antarctica, and an abandoned research centre that lays waste there. In a story that questions humanity, and our own concepts of identity, the narrative of Axiom Verge 2 can sometimes get a bit carried away with itself. What was enjoyable was how the narrative of the sequel connected to the original title, some of these are subtle at times, while others can be a little heavy-handed. The smaller scale narrative of a mother trying to find her child is far more enthralling than the pseudo-science that pervades the heady big picture plot, and as Indra develops the power to absorb nanomachines called arms that imbue Indra with a range of abilities.
As MetroidVania titles, both Axiom Verge entries draw heavily upon the titles that inspired the subgenre. Where Axiom Verge was the Metroid, Axiom Verge 2 is the Castlevania, both share a lot of qualities, but one of the key points of difference is the way players engage in the combat. The combat of Axiom Verge was primarily ranged, the closest thing to Metroid that a non-Metroid franchise has accomplished, Axiom Verge 2 however mostly focuses on the up close and personal approach, and despite the fact that mechanically everything works well, it doesn’t quite strike a chord in the same way. One of the best introductions has been the ability to jump into the Breach, a GBC-looking alternate world that bridges regions in the core map. Your accompanying spider-drone can be thrust into the Breach which serves as a fantastic change of pace with each region on that side of the interdimensional wall feeling as distinct as those on the other side. As Indra’s skillset grows, even more opportunities emerge for exploring the Breach.
Like any good MetroidVania, whether you’re in the real world or the Breach, the way with which both sides gradually unlock is a testament to the incredible world design in Axiom Verge 2. The game thrusts upon you the right upgrades at the right times to open up more opportunities for exploration, without overdoing it. You’re drip-fed new regions to explore at just the right pace, resulting in the constant temptation to explore your environment, without ever feeling like you’re wasting your time, not making progress. It’s in this respect that the sequel feels leaps and bounds better than its predecessor.
The enemies, as well as the combinations of them that are thrust at you, will test your mettle at every turn, because, like the original title, Axiom Verge 2 is a challenging game. The combination of flying foes, fast-moving runners, deadeye ranged threats, and sometimes, combinations of all three, challenge your skills in ways that few games do, so it’s fortunate that the game includes a host of accessibility features that make the game’s difficulty less of an obstacle for those needing some help. Sliders allow players to adjust damage multipliers, both incoming and outgoing, giving players of all abilities the opportunity to progress through a game that would otherwise throw up a wall that many couldn’t progress beyond.
Despite there being some notable flaws, Axiom Verge 2 is greater than the sum of its parts. Gameplay that feels great, but it’s not as satisfying as its predecessor, visually, Axiom Verge 2 leans hard into the pixelated design of the original, at the expense of the map which is a bit muddled and messy, while the synth soundtrack pulses and vibes in just the right ways. The narrative, strong at its core, is weighed down by excessive exposition and gets in its own way on more than a few occasions, but when you can zero in on the smaller scale narrative, it gives you something to engage with. There are many steps forward, and some small half-steps back, and while Axiom Verge 2 is certainly worth your time, it was on the verge of being something even greater, and just couldn’t quite get there.