The Metroidvania genre, appropriately named after Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night popularized its focus on exploration and gear gating, has steadily grown in popularity over the years. Axiom Verge is not only a Metroidvania, focusing on the aforementioned gameplay elements, it also feels, oddly enough, like a spiritual successor to Metroid, even though both games live on competing consoles.
The game begins with an interesting setup, where your character, Trace, gets blasted into another dimension of sorts, after an experiment in a lab goes extremely wrong. Left to your own devices, you quickly manage to find a weapon and you're left trying to survive the harsh environment and deadly enemies. So unlike Samus, who is a seasoned bounty hunter when she makes her first step on Zebes, Trace is very much the opposite. While you don't really get that sense as you're hopping around and blasting enemies to bits with his newfound weapon, you do get more insight into his character through various NPC encounters.
It's very easy to almost get lost in a Metroid-like trance due to Axiom's 8-bit graphics and minimalistic yet haunting soundtrack. And while Tom Happ, the sole developer for the game, won't mind the Metroid comparisons, as I'm sure they're quite deliberate, it would be a disservice to Axiom Verge to call it a clone.
For one, there are some truly clever mechanics that not only echo games on the NES but they're actually used for plot purposes. For instance, there are portions of the game's map that show up as sprite flickers and glitches. You'll eventually gain access to a tool, the disruptor, that allows you to deconstruct these flickers so you're able to pass through them. But this tool can also be used on various enemies to your advantage. For example, one of the enemies is an ant like creature that continually shoots a spread of three shots. However, if you stay out of its way and shoot your disruptor at it, you'll effectively glitch the enemy out, not only sending it out in a graphical flicker but also alter its shot patterns. Instead of a fast spread of three bullets, it will then shoot a really slow singular bullet, making it an easier target to take down.
Axiom Verge also isn't as obtuse with various secrets. The original Metroid had some incredibly well hidden secrets, damn near to a fault, where finding it could have resulted from pure accident. While Axiom does have its fair share of secrets, the tools to find them make it much more manageable. A laser drill, which Trace gets very early on, allows him to bust through various walls in the environment, which might house an extra upgrade component, or at the very least a shortcut past a bunch of enemies. This tool also gets its own dedicated button meaning you never have to switch to it manually, making it extremely easy to always scour the environment for secrets.
Axiom Verge comes with its own suite of gun upgrades which completely alter the shots, allowing you switch up your strategies on the fly. Aside from the standard shot which you start with, you also get a shot which you can trigger to explode into smaller bits to damage multiple enemies, or a shorter range ice gun. However, despite each gun's viability, I found the Kilver, which is an extremely short range electricity blast, to be the most effective weapon of the game. While you sacrifice long range shots for it, the damage completely makes up for it. Even if you forget the name of the weapon by the time you get it, you'll know exactly what weapon I'm talking about more or less stick with it for most of the game.
However, since the game harks back to the days of Metroid, not Super Metroid, there is a large focus on not really holding the player's hand. This isn't really a negative, as exploration is a large part of the game, but there have been a few instances where I honestly didn't know where to go, and spent a large chunk of my time wandering around areas I swore I combed through carefully. The positive that came out of that was that I was able to find a large number of secrets I otherwise missed.
The game also comes with Speedrun option, for those hardcore enough, which removes any notion of dialogue or cutscenes. Speedrunners are sure to appreciate this feature, as it breaks the game down to pure gameplay and just a timer letting you know how fast you're going through it. While the Vita version isn't available yet, those who buy the PS4 version will get the Vita version for free through the Cross-buy feature. And this is a game that will surely feel right at home on the Vita, as it does on the PS4.
Axiom Verge, aside from Helldivers, might be the only other must-buy so far from the Spring Fever collection on PS4. It's a love letter to Metroid fans, while also having its own set of gameplay mechanics that allow it to stand out in an otherwise crowded genre. It's a package that's so well put together, with its gorgeous pixel art and fitting soundtrack, all wrapped up in an experience you'll most likely want to play again as soon as you finish. The fact that it was created by a single dev makes the whole thing that much more impressive.