Axiom Verge 2 review – a link to the past of two worlds

The best Metroid game never made gets a sequel which tries to make itself as accessible as possible for newcomers to the genre.

Sitting through the credits of a modern video game can be a miserably long experience. The biggest budget games often involve thousands of people and dozens of individual companies (many of which don’t properly credit their staff anyway). It’s no wonder so few video game developers are recognised by name, given how many scroll past you at the end of the average game. That’s not a problem for Axiom Verge 2 though, as it’s almost entirely the work of just one person.

Thomas Happ did get more help with this game than the first one, but he’s still essentially a one-man development studio. Although you might say that Nintendo are a silent partner, as Axiom Verge owes an enormous, and readily acknowledged, debt to the original Metroid. The grandaddy of all Metroidvanias is an obvious inspiration but while the first Axiom Verge could almost have been a long-lost sequel, Axiom Verge 2 makes more effort to find its own voice.

The plot of the original game was… complicated but never quite interesting enough to justify the endless reams of exposition that would periodically be thrown at you. Axiom Verge 2 features an entirely new protagonist but unfortunately the same sort of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo underpinning its plot. All you really need to know though is that you’re looking for your missing daughter, initially at an Antarctic research base, and that nanomachines are involved.

Having such an impenetrable story is a shame but, like most Metroidvanias, the plot isn’t nearly as important as the atmosphere. Thankfully Axiom Verge 2 nails that, with a similar sense of solitude and mystery as Metroid itself. That isn’t the only Nintendo game used for inspiration though, as the big new gimmick for this sequel is a variant of the time-honoured light/dark world mechanic from Zelda: A Link To The Past.

It’s a concept that has been used in all kinds of games over the years, with the one in Axiom Verge 2 split between a world filled with decaying ruins and gloomy rock formations and a much more abstract computerised dimension called the Breach. Although they do crossover at may points, both worlds have their own unique maps and even soundtracks, with the Breach sounding like the inside of a Commodore 64.

In essence, the game is two Metrodivanias in one, where exploration in one world often comes to a literal dead end that can only be circumvented by jumping through a portal into the other. This is all on top of the standard Metrodvania concepts of having your progress dependent on acquiring a particular item or weapon, which you then realise open up multiple pathways that previously seemed impassable.

Axiom Verge 2 does all this very well, with excellent level design and subtle signposting that overcomes a somewhat unhelpful map. Where the game disappoints, though, is in terms of the combat, which is considerably less interesting than the first entry. It rarely seems to make much difference which ranged or melee weapons you use, in large part because the game’s admirable attempts to make itself more accessible mean that the combat is disappointingly easy.

That’s especially unfortunate when it comes to the boss battles, which were a highlight of the first game but this time round all but a few can be completely ignored if you don’t want to engage with them. Even if you do, they’re disappointingly easy anyway, so either way the pacing of the game is undermined as it’s robbed of notable milestones and what set pieces there are begin to blur into each other in your memory.

The argument of whether certain games are too difficult or not is one that’s been raging with particular fervour in recent months but Axiom Verge 2, a loving tribute to a genre so niche it’s almost entirely ignored by mainstream AAA games, seem an odd place to make a stand – especially as the original was never known for being especially difficult.

There are some interesting wrinkles to Axiom Verge 2, such as the ability to hack not only doors and switches but also enemies, although given the lack of challenge there’s rarely any need to do so in combat. Complaining that a game is too easy often brings with it accusations of elitism but the challenge in Axiom Verge 2 is so insubstantial it undermines the gameplay.

Not only are the boss battles mostly optional but few of them feature any particularly notable tricks or tactics, so it’s not even as if the game is lowering the difficulty to ensure everyone can experience its cleverness. It’s just a purposefully simpler game for no readily apparent reason.

The worst thing is there are no difficulty modes, so you can’t start on hard and leave easy mode for less experienced players. You can manually increase the damage enemies do in the options but that feels very artificial and peculiarly simplistic given the wealth of thought that’s gone into the rest of the game.

There are certainly some fun ideas here but, like the light/dark world, they’re mostly variations on options from other games. It might not have involved nanomachines but turning into a cloud to pass through grates was already a thing in Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night and while controlling a drone with a grappling hook is fun it’s really just an amalgam of ideas from other, much older games.

Axiom Verge 2 is a well-designed Metroidvania but it’s not a very original one and the lack of difficulty severally limits the amount of entertainment you can get out of the combat – which is a significant part of the game. As the work of just one person it’s still an incredible achievement but whereas the first seemed on the verge of classic status the sequel offers a considerably less memorable experience.

Axiom Verge 2 review summary

In Short: A curious sequel whose simplified combat and lack of challenge undermines some of the best level design and puzzles in any recent Metroidvania.

Pros: Some very clever game and map design that makes great use of all the different abilities and items. Attractive retro graphics and soundtrack.

Cons: Very few new ideas, including the light/dark world concept. Simplified combat quickly gets boring and the boss battles are oddly uninspired. Map isn’t very helpful. No hard mode.

Score: 6/10

Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC*
Price: £16.19
Publisher: Thomas Happ Games
Developer: Thomas Happ Games
Release Date: 11th August 2021
Age Rating: 12

*Epic Games Store timed exclusive

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