Playing Axiom Verge is like taking a time machine back to the mid-’90s. The sci-fi action-adventure game recalls the 1994 classic Super Metroid, from its intricate sprite visuals and synthy soundtrack down to the labyrinthine levels full of secrets. Playing it pre-release doubly reinforces that nostalgia, as there are no online walkthroughs to guide you when you get stumped. I had planned on posting this review when the embargo was up a week ago, but then I got hopelessly, embarrassingly stuck. For days.
I had been moving along at a reasonable clip, making my way through the game’s screen-filling bosses, until about 10 hours in—when I realized I had no idea where to go next. When you play games for review, you usually only have a few days before launch and tend to rush through as quickly as possible, often at the expense of side quests and exploration. Axiom Verge actually went out to reviewers a good month before release, but I procrastinated starting it until the weekend before launch.
However, once I started exploring its strange alien world, I could hardly stop—until I couldn’t figure out how to proceed. After wandering around aimlessly for a few hours, I grabbed my tablet and typed in “axiom verge walkthrough.” But oh right, there aren’t any guides for a game that’s not even out yet.
So I started exploring the map, filling in areas that I had previously skipped, searching every nook and cranny. Axiom Verge features 16-bit style graphics, right down to the graphical glitches that occasionally popped up. But the brilliant twist of the game is that these glitches are all intentional, and you can use the Address Disruptor weapon to affect not only enemy behavior but also parts of the environment.
Suddenly, nothing is what it seems, as every enemy, wall and glitch could contain a hidden secret. The first time I “broke” the boundaries of the world and entered a secret area, it felt truly magical. I immediately wanted to go on the school playground (or Twitter) and talk about it with my friends. Only the game wasn’t out, and none of them had played it yet.
I explored for hours, finding hidden powerups I had missed and uncovering documents that detail the game’s lore, each time feeling the thrill of discovery. I played so late that I eventually heard birds chirping, signaling that perhaps it was time to put down the controller and get some sleep. When I closed my eyes, I could see the pixel graphics and hear the haunting music as I puzzled over what I was missing. I didn’t figure it out until a couple days later, and it wasn’t some shocking revelation. It was simply a slightly hidden passageway in an area I had been to a dozen times, hidden in plain sight.
Although there were definitely times when I was frustrated about retreading the map over and over and not progressing the story, I’m ultimately glad I got stuck. Otherwise, I would have barreled through the bosses and missed out on a huge part of what makes this game so special. Axiom Verge took me back to a time when you couldn’t consult an online walkthrough, and each discovery was a revelation that you couldn’t wait to discuss with your friends. Go play it, get lost, and tell me what you find.