In the comparatively dark days of the Wii U, we often had to focus more on indie games to get us through the worst of the months-long droughts between major first-party releases. Fortunately, various smaller studios stepped up and one such gem was Axiom Verge, an absolutely incredible Metroidvania that was produced in its entirety by just one remarkably talented man. Axiom Verge would’ve been just fine as a standalone release, but evidently Thomas Happ had enough ideas leftover that he felt the need to produce a full-fledged follow up with Axiom Verge 2, a game which feels distinct from its predecessor in some key ways while the core gameplay feels just as polished as it’s ever been, making for an impressively high-quality experience from stem to stern.

Unlike the first game, which saw you playing as a scientist named Trace, the narrative of Axiom Verge 2 follows Indra Chaudhari, a billionaire CEO of a major international conglomerate. There are some real At the Mountains of Madness vibes as Indra finds herself taking a chopper to a remote Antarctic research station owned by her company after receiving a mysterious message that hints that her missing daughter might be there. Unfortunately, all the staff at the base seem to have vanished without a trace, and things are made even worse when Indra accidentally falls into a cave and… drowns. When she comes to, Indra finds that she’s been transported to a different dimension and given a ‘new body’ by a mysterious artificial being.

If there’s one thing that the narrative of Axiom Verge 2 absolutely excels at, it’s keeping the player continuously wondering what on earth is going on. You’re given just enough information that the narrative makes sense, and gaps are slowly filled in as you find optional text logs along the way, but there’s rarely a moment where you feel like you truly understand all the forces at play. You’re not sure whether Indra is dreaming, dead, or something else entirely, which gives all the proceedings a wonderfully vague, fever dream aesthetic. And without spoiling too much, this release does eventually reveal its fascinating connections to the original Axiom Verge.

This time around, gameplay has been mixed up a little bit from the original. Axiom Verge 2 is still a 2D Metroidvania, but combat is now oriented mostly around an ice pick that Indra finds almost immediately. This requires you to get up close and personal with all the enemies you face on this adventure, and while you have a ranged option in the form of a boomerang you get later on, combat has an unmistakably different flow. It’s not necessarily better or worse than what came before, and it’s later expanded upon as you find more secrets in the overworld, but it does feel like this may be the most divisive aspect of the new release.

Luckily, new gameplay ideas still keep both exploration and combat feeling fresh as the experience goes on. For example, you’re given an ability early on that lets you hack any machinery in your immediate vicinity. Not only does this give you the option to overcome a variety of obstacles that once stood in your way, but it also lets you take over most of the enemies you encounter. Via spending consumable points, you can do things like making your foes fight for you or causing them to explode or give out health drops. It’s the slow drip of mechanics like this which fundamentally change the way you look at Axiom Verge 2, making it the sort of game that becomes intensely more enjoyable the longer it goes on.

The creepy, alien hallways of the original release have been traded here for much more naturalistic, open-air environments, but the map feels like it’s overall more cohesively designed. Though you’re given a marker that shows where to go on the map to next advance the story, it feels almost like you can go in just about any direction and make meaningful progress. Important upgrades and tools are scattered everywhere in Axiom Verge 2, which lends it a beautifully non-linear feeling that doesn’t strictly pigeonhole you into sticking to a somewhat linear path.

A big part of this non-linearity is due to the new ‘breach’ mechanic introduced relatively early on. You’re given access to a little spider drone that can access portals dotted around the map, and stepping through one takes the drone to an alternate plane of existence that parallels the one Indra is in. Some of the more elaborate puzzles in Axiom Verge 2 require you to smartly utilize the pathways in one world to find new ones in the next, which makes the already massive world feel that much more labyrinthine and fascinating.

Alongside the more notable upgrades, most regions contain a number of smaller collectibles that feed into the new skill point system. This introduces an RPG-lite aspect to the gameplay loop, as you can choose how you want to build out the abilities of Indra and her robot companion. Things like health, attack speed, and hacking levels can be upgraded with skill points to be more useful, and while it seems like a bit of a strange inclusion at first, the new skill system makes sense in practice. Now, a collectible can theoretically be whatever you want it to be, rather than leaving you possibly disappointed with finding another health upgrade or attack boost you didn’t really need.

Those of you looking for replayability will be pleased to know that Axiom Verge 2 lands perfectly in that sweet spot where it feels neither too long nor too short. It should take you around fifteen hours to see the narrative through to its conclusion, and you can expect to add another ten to that if you want to go for completion. We feel it’s important to further indicate that this journey is exceptionally tight in its overall design, ensuring that those fifteen hours positively fly by once the ball really gets rolling. Plus, those of you who can’t get enough have a speedrun option to look into, which enables you to rush the game in one go without having to deal with any cutscenes, pauses, or randomized content. Axiom Verge 2 may not be infinitely replayable, but there’s something to be said about a game like this which delivers a focused and consistently excellent experience across a modest runtime. There’s no wasted time or unnecessary content here, Axiom Verge 2 is all gas and no brakes.

While the original release was borderline horror with its dark visuals and unsettling music, Axiom Verge 2 feels a little more disarmingly inviting. Though you spend much of your time exploring cold, wild environments and caves, there’s a much broader palette of bright colors employed here. Though it feels like a break from the disturbingly isolating atmosphere that came before (which we loved), we came to appreciate the more varied design of the environments here. Plus, there’s still plenty of weird stuff to behold, and all of it is backed up by a suitably sci-fi soundtrack that keeps you on your toes.

Conclusion

Axiom Verge is a remarkably tough act to follow, but Thomas Happ has done it again in producing a pitch perfect, excellently paced Metroidvania adventure. Axiom Verge 2 perfectly balances familiar elements that made the original great and trying out new ideas that give the sequel its own identity, and while lovers of the first game may take some time to adjust, everything comes together and makes for a potent experience that no fan of the genre will want to miss out on. The mysterious atmosphere, thrilling pace, and fantastic world design all come together to make for a worthy follow up that stands well on its own. Do yourself a favor and pick up Axiom Verge 2 as soon as you can, this is a game that’s absolutely worth your time.