There were times early on in Axiom Verge 2 when I wanted to stop playing. I’m glad I didn’t. For all my problems with the game, by the end it had me completely enthralled. Lovely art, haunting music, and a packed constellation of obstacles and shortcuts elevate an often frustrating side-scrolling gauntlet into a worthwhile and occasionally sublime experience. There are plenty of Metroidvanias out there that evoke bygone gaming eras, but indie creator Tom Happ’s personal spin on the nostalgia-fueled genre continues to stand above most of the rest of the field.
After single-handedly creating its 2015 predecessor, Happ spent the past six years working on Axiom Verge 2 and then, following much anticipation, mystery, and a few delays, surprise-launched it on PS4, PC, and Switch last week. In some ways it feels fitting. Where the first game received a big marketing push as part of PlayStation’s then-annual Spring Fever indie showcase, the somewhat more sophisticated and experimental followup dropped out of nowhere, relatively speaking, beckoning players to go in fresh and discover its secrets for themselves.
This is how I approached Axiom Verge 2. I was essentially expecting a more polished, optimized, and ambitious version of what the first game had already accomplished. I was relieved, though also occasionally pained, to find something that built out from rather than just on top of what had come before. New abilities, a more organic map, and constant dimension shifting made me fall in love with Axiom Verge 2, but only after I learned to avoid its pitfalls in a way I never had to with the first game. Where Axiom Verge was an impressively crafted homage to Metroid that was largely free of that game’s frustrations, Axiom Verge 2 feels like an original 2D exploration game that just happens to be littered with irritating artifacts from Nintendo’s genre-creating NES classic.