If you like Metroid, you’re in luck. Over the years, countless games have taken inspiration from Nintendo’s classic series, giving gamers an abundance of ways to explore connected maps, earn upgrades, and unearth secret items. But of all the projects that contain traces of Metroid DNA, 2015’s Axiom Verge came the closest to reconstructing it. The original Axiom Verge had a retro aesthetic, a lonely atmosphere, and an array of clever abilities that made the mysterious world a joy to traverse.
However Axiom Verge wasn’t a mere imitator; it built on a solid foundation with its own signature elements. A heady sci-fi story and mind-bending meta elements put a contemporary twist on the familiar formula – and with Axiom Verge 2, players are about to learn even more about this series’ unique identity. After five years of work by solo developer Tom Happ, this prequel/sequel hybrid is almost done, and I played the first few hours of an alpha version to see how the Axiom Verge universe is evolving.
A COLD OPEN
“Come to Antarctica if you wish to see your daughter again.” That’s the message Indra Chaudhari sees when she turns on a prototype ansible – a device capable of faster-than-light communication. Indra is the founder and CEO of a conglomerate called Globe, and her organization recently inherited a defunct research station on the icy continent. So Indra heads south to explore the meaning of the mysterious message.
This backstory is explained during a brief scroll before I even choose “start game.” Though the story and characters are important to Axiom Verge 2, it isn’t a game that relies on cutscenes and lengthy exposition. Instead, I am put in control of Indra as soon as her helicopter lands, then set loose to start exploring Antarctica. The snow-covered ground, blue sky, and blowing flurries are a shift from the dark and alien corridors of the original Axiom Verge ... but the journey doesn’t stay tethered to our world for long.
After navigating the abandoned research station, Indra finds a secret room with what appears to be a normal freight elevator. But somewhere during that elevator ride, Indra crosses over into a different reality. Like protagonist Trace from the previous entry, she becomes a stranger in a strange land. But Indra’s land is strange in many new ways; the inhabitants are more intelligent, and the world is more seamlessly connected. Even Indra herself isn’t the same; after dying in this unfamiliar place, she is resurrected by a deific digital entity who was apparently confined to a nearby urn. This allows Indra to survive and continue her quest – and all this happens before you fight a single enemy.
“One thing that’s different is where in Axiom Verge 1 you only ever see Trace’s life on Earth in cutscenes, in Axiom Verge 2 it takes you on the character’s journey from Earth into this other world, and then her subsequent transformation that leads into her gaining all these powers,” says developer Tom Happ. “So there isn’t any combat until then. It’s a bit like the intro to Link to the Past before you get the sword, or Super Metroid before you encounter Ridley. At the start I made it too long – there was a big robot blowing stuff up and you had no way to fight it – this only served to slow it down and also reduced the feeling of mystery.”
While this introductory sequence may still change between now and release, its current state successfully builds tension while introducing the basic premise and mechanics. Once Indra is rebuilt after her first death, though, the real adventure begins.
If you’re familiar with games in the Metroidvania subgenre, you have a basic idea how the action progresses: You see an area you want to reach, but you can’t get there because of some obstacle, like a barrier you can’t break or a ledge you can’t reach. Then you get a new item or ability, and that allows you to explore previously inaccessible areas, where the cycle eventually begins again.
One of my favorite parts of the original Axiom Verge was how the barriers to progression didn’t just feel like “find the keycard for a locked door” scenarios. The items and abilities you acquired often affected your overall mobility and contributed to a sense of growing power. For example, when Trace gained the ability to phase through walls, it wasn’t just used once to reach one area; it opened up an array of new places across the map.
Axiom Verge 2 adheres to this satisfying model and adds its own surprises. Indra learns to grab ledges, climb walls, hack enemies, remotely control a drone, and more. I’m not going to run through every blockade and how I pushed through it during the three hours I played – especially since the sense of discovery is a big part of the fun. However, I am going to talk about the first weapon you find, because it represents an interesting new direction for Axiom Verge 2.
A short distance from the helipad – before she even crosses into the new world – Indra grabs an ice axe. She can swing this weapon to attack enemies and destroy objects such as wooden crates. It may seem like a basic tool, but the fact that the ice axe is a melee weapon has a major impact on combat, especially compared to the previous game.
DO YOU NEED TO PLAY THE ORIGINAL?
Since developer Tom Happ describes Axiom Verge 2 as both a prequel and a sequel, players unfamiliar with the series might be confused about whether or not this entry is the right place to jump in. “It leans more to prequel than sequel, but timeline-wise, it happens after some of the events shown in AV1,” Happ says. However, he also acknowledges that “various sci-fi features” introduced in Axiom Verge 2 complicate the matter. Here’s the bottom line: You can play Axiom Verge 2 before or after the first game and still appreciate each entry on its own terms.
In the original Axiom Verge, Trace’s initial weapon was a gun (the first of 25 players could acquire), which established his primary method of dealing with problems: He shot them. Similarly, Indra’s ice axe sets the tone for her approach. She does most of her damage at close range, which felt strange to me at first. Jumping into melee range to fight against lethal robots is more intense than firing safely at them from afar; I kept expecting to find a traditional gun that let me chip away at enemies from a distance, but the closest thing I got in the opening hours was a boomerang. That ranged weapon is useful, but a bit too slow and weak to fully substitute for something like Trace’s Axiom Disruptor.
Though the ice axe isn’t Indra’s only offensive option, it certainly is her primary one early on. Even though you find other items, don’t expect to manage a sprawling arsenal, because Happ is implementing a smaller and more focused toolset for Axiom Verge 2. When asked about what drove that decision, he says: “One of the biggest criticisms of AV1 was that there were too many guns, so that definitely played a part. The other is that going with melee attacks, and the fidelity I wanted (you can attack in eight directions while standing, jumping, and crouching), there are a ton of animations that I had to pixel by hand.”
The other component that makes the melee combat more layered is the heightened intelligence of the foes you face. The hostile drones of Axiom Verge 2 aren’t confined to static and easily predictable routes, and many of them are able to detect and pursue Indra with surprising efficiency. They react to your presence in different ways; some charge you, some create distance, and some blast you with lasers. Learning these behaviors and adapting to them – especially when facing an encounter with a diverse assortment of enemies – makes combat feel dynamic and dangerous. But for Indra to succeed in her mission, you need more than an axe and a boomerang.
TOYS WITH A TWIST
Even with battles punctuating almost every step of the journey, the ways Indra moves through the world feel more important than the ways she fights its denizens. Axiom Verge 2 gives players a variety of ways to influence and explore their surroundings, leading to secret items, hidden shortcuts, and an overall sense of progression. Some of these may seem familiar if you played the original Axiom Verge, but a closer look reveals significant tweaks with major effects.
Take the hacking ability, for example. On the surface, it’s a twist on “glitching” from the first game; it allows Indra to alter the environment or change an enemy behavior, much like the results of Trace’s glitch gun. But the important difference here is the player’s level of control. Unlike the predetermined effects of the glitch gun, when Indra hacks an enemy, she is able to choose from a list of available outcomes that vary depending on the target. I flipped the allegiance of one steam-spewing foe so it attacked other enemies in the area instead of me. I slowed down a bipedal assault robot so I could more easily dodge its blasts. I made a component of an airborne sentry emit health. Each of these actions draws from a total pool of points (like mana) that prevents you from firing these powers off constantly, but hacking is an invaluable tool for creating openings in tricky situations.
Another familiar-looking ability is Indra’s drone, a small and remote-controlled proxy that you can deploy to check out areas Indra can’t reach herself. You can activate the drone at any time – even toss it out mid-air – for combat and recon. The drone can squeeze through narrow passages, and I also found a grappling hook upgrade that lets it slingshot up to ledges that are too high for Indra. It also has access to hacking, which makes it perfect for opening up certain blocked paths. In one area, I found a closed gate with a command console on the other side, but the console was beyond the range of Indra’s hacking nano-swarm. So I deployed the drone and took a detour through a few screens (fighting enemies with the drone’s buzzsaw and jumping from one ledge to the next) until I reached the other side of the gate. Once there, the drone deployed the nano-swarm and opened the gate, permanently opening the path for Indra. The drone also plays into another new and unique facet of exploration, but that was the one thing about my time with Axiom Verge 2 I’m not allowed to talk about yet.
Actions like hacking and using the drone evolve as you play; you don’t see everything they can do when you first acquire them. In some cases, that means finding dedicated upgrades, like the drone’s grappling hook. But players can also guide their progression manually thanks to a skill system. You find special blue urns in hard-to-reach places, and each one acts as a skill point that you can distribute at will among Indra’s various capabilities. Some of the upgrades are straightforward, like increasing health or melee damage. Others are more utility-focused, like increasing your hacking level so you can affect more complex devices and open higher-level gates. I didn’t get to sense the full effect of this system in my limited time playing, but my initial impression is that it adds a fun and fluid layer of player-guided progression that complements the more linear process of obtaining new items to reach the next zone.
THE NEW WORLD
One of the fundamental joys of Metroid-inspired games is finally being able to reach a part of the map that was previously closed off to you. Satisfying your inner cartographer and surveying every corner of the world is a strange thrill, and that thrill is enhanced in Axiom Verge 2 thanks to the way the environment is constructed and presented.
The first things you’ll notice are the visuals and music. Just because the graphics have a retro aesthetic doesn’t mean they can’t look great; smooth animations, varied surroundings, and cool enemy design mean that you almost always have something neat to look at. And behind all of that is the striking soundtrack (which Happ composed himself), hitting strange and foreboding sci-fi notes that feel appropriate for the otherworldly setting.
One big upgrade over the original Axiom Verge is how the areas of the map flow into each other. For one thing, the environment is no longer tile-based, so the world simply looks more natural and believable. But even more importantly, the zones aren’t all separated by doors that funnel you from one room to another. While you still experience screen-to-screen transitions, the areas are less confined and more continuous. It may seem like a minor detail to many players, but in fact, this change presented one of the biggest development challenges for Axiom Verge 2.
“Since the world is largely not connected by pipe doors anymore, it means that if you were to transition vertically between rooms, it’d be jarring, because it’s scrolling the screen over to the new room mid-jump.” Happ says. “I didn’t realize this until I’d already designed the whole map layout and I had to change everything to make sure it doesn’t happen. It was a big puzzle for me to solve.”
This approach gives Indra’s surroundings an open and connected feeling in the zones I explored. Though she still finds herself in tight corridors, the general sense of Axiom Verge 2’s world is one of a single, large space that contains several biomes – snowy peaks, watery ruins, grassy plains – rather than being separated into discrete, self-contained areas. But that doesn’t mean that everything is just obvious and out in the open; I still encountered plenty of breakable walls, hidden passages, and other secrets to encourage thorough exploration.
Though “Metroidvania” is often used as a catch-all term, the original Axiom Verge was definitely rooted more in the “Metroid” side of the formula. That is less true of Axiom Verge 2; developer Tom Happ says that players will recognize elements of Castlevania in the follow-up, as well as some inspiration from other sources. “You’ll see some more Zelda and Castlevania influences in Axiom Verge 2,” Happ says. “I was also very taken with 2017’s Prey and Horizon Zero Dawn, though maybe not in the ways you’d expect.”
A BIGGER UNIVERSE
As a fan of the original Axiom Verge (and Metroidvania games in general), my introduction to Axiom Verge 2 left me excited and intrigued. It seems to be taking the right steps for a follow-up; it builds on success without repeating itself too much, and it takes surprising turns that add depth to the series’ lore. How is Indra’s journey connected to Trace’s? What’s up with all these alternate worlds? What are the goals of the god-like entities in each reality? While Axiom Verge 2 definitely invites players to ponder these questions, it doesn’t spend the opening hours belaboring its points or bombarding players with overwrought explanations.
“In a lot of ways, the more mysteries you reveal, the less interesting it becomes,” Happ says. “But then on the other hand, if you don’t plan ahead for what the answers are, you can have a story that meanders and contradicts itself and makes no sense in the end. So I think there is a balance of making sure there is always something you don’t fully reveal, but give players enough info that they could guess the answer without being fully certain.”
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It’s also likely that players won’t have the answers to every question by the end of Axiom Verge 2. The story was initially conceived as spanning multiple installments, and though we aren’t guaranteed future entries, it still leaves players with a compelling mystery and the sense that the universe is much bigger than the slivers we have seen.
“When developing AV1’s story I made this big outline of the salient plot points that included overviews for six to eight other games, with the events of AV1 being towards the end and the events of AV2 being towards the beginning,” Happ says. “I did it this way because I liked the idea of how your perception of a story changes as the context changes.”
While the destiny of Axiom Verge as a whole remains fuzzy, its immediate future gives fans plenty to look forward to. Axiom Verge 2 will be released on Switch and Epic Games Store sometime before the end of June (with the exact release date still TBA), with a likely move to other platforms in the future. In my time playing, I was impressed by its attempts to merge its old-school sensibilities with modern innovation – and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what Axiom Verge 2 has to offer.
This article originally appeared in issue 334 of Game Informer.