When Axiom Verge released for PlayStation 4 and PC last year, it was another indie success story where a game with clear retro influences was able to break through the fog of AAA and actually gain attention and praise. Its sole creator clearly had the early Metroid games on his mind during the development process, with many even calling it the first true Metroid game since 2004’s Zero Mission. That same game is now jumping from computer monitors and TV screens to the handheld screen of the PlayStation Vita, making the transition nicely, but not without a slight bump or two in the road.
Creator Thomas Happ’s creepy, sci-fi world remains unsettling despite the smaller screen real estate, with the game’s old-school visuals looking great on the Vita. You’re tasked with exploring a multi-leveled labyrinth that is jam-packed with a variety of different areas that can only be passed through if you have the right tool. This means that the game is heavily exploration based, as you’ll find yourself wandering the game’s monster-littered hallways looking for the next room that can be passed through with the latest item you just acquired. It’s all very familiar, but despite the game’s lack of originality, it does what it does very well. The level design is meticulous, with lots of branching pathways and secrets just waiting for you to discover them.
Of course, due to the very different layout of the Vita compared to the previous platforms the game was available on, there had to be some changes in order to be able to map all of the game’s different abilities to the handheld. Controlling the game with the left joystick or d-pad works great, and jumping and firing standard weapons is responsive, but there are a couple items that are mapped to “buttons” on the Vita’s touch screen. This is where the control scheme can get a little shaky, as trying to aim your character’s shots while also tapping the right spot on the touch screen doesn’t always work out well. The game does allow you to reformat the controls, but there’s no getting around that some commands are going to have to be placed in the touch screen button locations.
This was bound to be a problem with a game that contains this many items, though. Axiom Verge is incredibly generous with what it has to offer in the gameplay department, as you acquire new weapons, traversal abilities and health/damage upgrades very frequently. The game also wisely gives each of the many different weapons a purpose, meaning that the original blaster that you start off with won’t become completely obsolete within a few hours like many games of this kind. There is always a right item/weapon for each situation, and the game invites you to experiment with what it has to offer, in order to come up with your own methods. Things like the Address Disruptor and the Remote Drone serve as nice twists to the otherwise conventional arsenal, allowing you to manipulate glitched walls/enemies and get through small tunnels and scope out areas for danger, respectively.
The many items that the game contains are strewn throughout around 10 areas, as well as secret areas that can be sniffed out with a little patience. While some of these levels feature some truly impressive level design, others tend to blend together a little too much. This becomes a problem as you begin to fill out the map more and more, as it becomes easier and easier to get lost for longer than is welcomed. Sometimes there will be that one area that is stopping you from progressing with the game, but you don’t have the right item to get through and have no idea where it is. The result is you having to blindly wander around areas you’ve already been to until you do finally find the right item. This could have been ironed out by a fast-travel system, but the game nixes that modern privilege in order to stay true to the era it’s emulating, I guess. There’s also occasional slowdown issues in the Vita version that happen as you explore, freezing movement for a second or two before returning to normal.
Despite the touch screen controls, combat works very well on the Vita and is a lot of fun to take part in. Taking direct or indirect shots at enemies is a snap, and quickly maneuvering around them when things get hairy can be done without too much of a fuss. Boss fights also don’t lose any of their luster, which is surprising due to the sheer size of some of them and the range that the game has to sometimes zoom out just so you can witness the entire boss/room. 2D platformers always work very well on the Vita thanks to its fantastic genre-fitting design and sharp screen, and Axiom Verge definitely isn’t the game to buck that trend even with the aforementioned control issues. The soundtrack also hasn’t lost any of its impact in the transition, with the many different worlds accompanied by delightfully-strange tunes that only enhance the experience.
If you’ve been waiting for the PlayStation Vita version of Axiom Verge to check out Thomas Happ’s homage to Metroidvanias, then you’ll be glad to know that the wait was worth it. Regardless of the occasional technical issues, it’s great to be able to have this engrossing adventure in your pocket. The game’s original shortcomings still stand, but they don’t take away from the things that the game gets right, and there are many things that Axiom Verge gets right.