Axiom Verge 2 heard you liked Metroid, so it put Metroid in your Metroid so you can blast baddies and hunt for hidden goodies across two sprawling 2D maps at the same time. Granted, opening a game review with an Xzibit reference in 2021 might be a bit outdated, but Axiom Verge 2 is anything but: it infuses its retro-inspired sequel with contemporary ideas like fast-travel to minimise backtracking and an optional approach to the bulk of its boss fights in order to make progression smoother for players of all skill levels. This focus on accessibility comes at a cost, though, resulting in a Metroidvania that’s consistently rewarding to explore but noticeably lacking in combat challenge and diversity.
Axiom Verge 2’s story is fleshed out by countless hidden notes and computer terminal messages, but I won’t even attempt to summarise it since it’s dense with the same sort of pseudo-scientific technobabble that pervades its 2015 predecessor. Lingo-heavy lore aside, I found the basic plight of its main character, Indra, more than enough to propel me forward through the roughly eight-hour adventure; after she arrives at an Antarctic research base looking for her missing daughter, one thing leads to another and she suddenly has the power to absorb the unique abilities of nanomachines known as Arms. That’s really all the setup and motivation I needed.
Into the Breach
Axiom Verge 2 may feature an entirely new lead character and setting, but what really sets it apart from the original game is the ability to phase in and out of the Breach; an alternate dimension running parallel with the main overworld sort of like Stranger Things’ Upside Down if it was being emulated on a Game Boy Color. Each side of the dimensional divide has its own unique map structure and feel; Indra’s world features arcane ruins and dimly lit caverns to explore, while the more abstract Breach consists of chunky, hypercolour platforms and pulses to the sound of a bouncing chiptunes soundtrack.
This contrast doesn’t just make for appealing shifts in aesthetics, it brings a literal extra dimension to navigating your way through Axiom Verge 2. Not only do you need to puzzle your way to unlock gates and uncover hidden power-ups within each separate world as per the tried-and-tested Metroid template, but you also use interdimensional tears to hop back and forth between realms to circumnavigate obstacles in one dimension by finding an alternate path in the other. Orienting yourself in two places at once inspires a degree of non-linear navigation that’s a consistently absorbing challenge as a result.
It’s also a mechanic that continues to evolve over the course of the journey. Initially, you can only shift from one world to the other at predetermined Breach gates on each map, but eventually Indra is given the ability to both reveal hidden tears and also manipulate the placement of a tear in order to crossover to more precise areas. Not being able to see exactly where you’re going does introduce some trial and error, but the ability to fast-travel to any previously discovered save point gave me the freedom to experiment with blind leaps between worlds, knowing that I could beam back for a do-over if I accidentally blinked into the wrong spot.
Orienting yourself in two places at once inspires a degree of non-linear navigation that’s a consistently absorbing challenge as a result.
Even with double the map to cover, I found Axiom Verge 2 to be far more intuitive to explore than the original game. Each area of both maps feels far more distinct in terms of terrain, and a compass found early on subtly steers you towards your next objective. Any backtracking I did was typically with a clear purpose, to return to that suspiciously fragile-looking wall after I’d unlocked Indra’s shockwave power, perhaps, as opposed to pacing back and forth across multiple rooms because I had trouble distinguishing one from the next. Meanwhile, Indra only grows more fun to control over the course of the journey, consuming a steady diet of power-ups that transform her over time from humble platforming heroine to shapeshifting Swiss Army Knife equipped to scale almost every structure in her path.
Hack ‘n’ Slash
However, compared to its clever dual-world exploration, Axiom Verge 2’s combat is fairly one-dimensional. There’s certainly a healthy variety of enemy types to contend with in both maps, with mechanical kill-bots of all shapes and sizes in Indra’s world and a gaggle of more amorphous organisms in the breach, but the arsenal you’re given to tackle them with is surprisingly conservative compared to the the two-dozen or so different projectile types that could be bolted onto the original game’s transforming Disruptor rifle.
Indra begins with a pickaxe for close-up attacks and a boomerang for ranged assaults, while her drone – which she must pilot remotely through the Breach zones – can swing a tethered spinning blade and use a grappling hook to launch itself at enemies like a pinball. But despite the handful of additional melee weapons to find and the inclusion of a skill tree to upgrade basic attributes like attack speed and power, my simple slash-’em-up method for fighting didn’t ever change – because it didn’t need to. I never stopped to ponder if I should be using the bronze axe or if I should switch to the sickle sword because the right tool for the job always seemed to just be whatever I happened to have equipped at that moment. There were certainly visceral thrills to be had smashing my way through each roomful of robotic hordes, and the fighting is certainly fluid, but I wish I’d felt as inspired to cave in heads as I was figuring out ways to head into caves.
I wish I’d felt as inspired to cave in heads as I was figuring out ways to head into caves.
Axiom Verge 2 attempts to inject some strategy into fights by giving Indra the ability to hack enemies and other objects, but I found this feature much more useful for passive jobs like triggering switches to open doors or to hijack moving platforms than I did for any meaningful combat gains. If you’re close enough to latch onto an enemy within Indra’s small hacking radius, you’re likely close enough to slash them to bits rather than take that extra step to hack their movement speed in order to slow them down first. And if you happen to take a few blows in the process, you can be guaranteed that seemingly every other enemy you dispatch will leave enough health orbs behind to keep you continuously topped up anyway.
Boss Fight or Flight
Boss fights are similarly straightforward, should you choose to take them on. While the standard approach to boss fights in Metroidvania games is to trap you in a fenced-off area and force you into a claustrophobic confrontation with a monolithic monster, Axiom Verge 2 allows you to take a pacifist’s approach if you’d prefer. With rare exception, you can just evade each boss entirely and continue on your way to your next story objective, which will likely be a welcome feature for people who tend to bounce off these kinds of games when the going gets tough. (The couple of boss encounters that are mandatory grant you with unlimited respawns to help get you through.)
The problem is that if, like me, you relish the tension and eventual dopamine hit of toppling a towering behemoth often by the skinniest sliver of your health bar, then you’ll likely be disappointed in Axiom Verge 2’s boss battles. While they certainly look imposing, from a marauding mechanized bull to a downsized Death Star, few require much in the way of strategy beyond maybe a quick hack to short-circuit their defence systems followed up with some frenzied slashes until they explode. There are no distinct waves of attack to analyse and adapt to, nor is there any requirement to experiment with Indra’s expanding set of abilities in order to overcome them. I went into Axiom Verge 2 hoping for the next Hollow Knight, but what I got instead was a series of hollow victories.
While there aren’t individual difficulty modes to select, you can hop into the pause menu and increase the enemy damage multiplier to up the challenge a bit. But this just makes the combat more attritional as opposed to making it any more dynamic.
I found the boss fights to be so underwhelmingly innocuous and repetitive, in fact, that I didn’t actually realise I was fighting Axiom Verge 2’s final boss until after I’d beaten it and was suddenly watching the credits roll. It brought the experience to what felt like a very abrupt ending, and left many of the power-ups I acquired deep in the latter half feel significantly underused. I admittedly went back to my pre-end boss save game and spent another few hours hunting for secrets by using these late-game abilities, like breaking up into a cloud of nanites to pass through steel grates into walled-off areas or piloting a remote-controlled boomerang to hit otherwise unreachable switches. These power-ups were certainly fun to use, but scouring the two maps for more skill upgrades after I’d already comfortably beaten the biggest enemy threats only felt worthwhile mainly from a completionist’s standpoint.
Axiom Verge 2 is a dual-dimensional Metroidvania that’s genuinely engaging to explore. Phasing in and out of the Breach to unlock new paths through the overworld – and vice versa – presented me with consistently stimulating environmental puzzles to solve, a process that evolved in surprising ways over the course of the campaign as hidden dimensional tears were uncovered and the manipulation of their placement was introduced. The same sense of accomplishment can’t be derived from the simplistic combat and mostly toothless boss fights, the last of which is responsible for the story stumbling to an anticlimax. Ultimately, Axiom Verge 2 is a sequel that largely delights thanks to its dual-world design, but I wish the developer could have polished it without having to file the difficulty spikes all the way down.