Metroidvania Mega-Review pt. 5 – 9 Years of Shadows, Ghost Song, Axiom Verge 2

The world ended since the last video and now we’re all just AI simulations floating in the field of space debris that used to be the Earth, sure. It’s a fair point to bring up. So there’s not much to do but play Metroid games, and I’ve got another batch of bad takes ready to upload to your neural net. 9 Years of Shadows is a recent release that falls pretty evenly between Metroid and Castlevania, with the major staples of both: you’ve got melee combat and backstepping, secret walls, connecting elevators, a gravity suit, morph ball and bombs, and

the stuff you smash to get the things. (Unprovoked aggravation) It does add a lot of twists of its own to make things interesting, like a health system powered by teddy bear hugs. That’s real. I’m just gonna go ahead and say it- I think he’s cute! Your health bar is also your ammo bar and it’s designed to run out frequently, whether from taking damage or shooting. You’ll get a split-second chance to refill the bar the moment it hits empty, and if you miss you’ll have to heal by stopping in place to hug the bear. It’s hard-

if not impossible- to get enough time to do this in boss battles, so it’s vital to train your reflexes to catch the prompts. If

the bar is left empty, the system changes to work like a standard heart counter. Any damage will break one diamond, and when both are gone you die. This can make the difficulty wildly uneven depending on the enemy; for most of the game your meter can tank through many attacks, but some enemies completely drain the bar on mere contact and then kill in two hits. The game is very easy for the first

few hours but there are difficulty spikes with several bosses, and judging by the four hour discrepancy between Steam and my save file I think that I died on some of them a lot. But then there are bosses that are total pushovers that can barely land a hit, which is a bumpy uneven progression. It also seemed backwards to me that the optional sidequest bosses tended to be the easy ones while the required fights were the grindy roadblocks. For those of you who always keep a “git gud” comment at the ready- and I know you sons of

bitches are watching- this complaint isn’t that the game is too hard. Most of the challenges are fair and satisfying to clear, but the back and forth between “this is too easy” and “holy shit I’m already dead” makes for a jarring pace. Armor upgrades function like the suits in Metroid, letting you explore hazardous areas, and each is strong against enemies of a certain color. They also provide rewarding mobility upgrades, but only one can be equipped at a time. You can cycle them at will but the game automatically forces them when needed, so you don’t have to

worry about taking heat or poison damage. It’s a convenient feature, but the developers use it against you by placing color coded switches or enemies in areas where you can’t swap suits, challenging you to find some way to remove the hazards first. It’s a unique combination of mechanics that makes for satisfying gameplay, especially late in the game where you can flit between every obstacle type with ease… But a number of shortcomings cause the gameplay to drag by then. Enemies don’t have much variety and the game leans heavily on the color coding swaps to paper over it.

The boss fights are mostly just bullet hell attacks, which are fun but also feel played out by the end. The only fast travel system is a central elevator that does little good for getting around the map, and with all of the armor swapping gauntlets to navigate it can be pretty tedious to backtrack. There’s a lot of waiting around for slow platforms, some taking so long to appear that they’re easy to miss the first time through an area. Every time an elevator is used a Metroid Fusion style monologue begins and they rarely contain much of any

substance. Eventually the monologues run out but the scenes still play with blank text regardless, unnecessarily slowing the pace. The map is also below average compared to other modern Metroidvanias, with no markings for found items or important travel points. My map was complete but I was still missing a single powerup, and I couldn’t be bothered to recheck every single room to find where it was. It was also pretty buggy in the state I played it in and I experienced a few crashes; the developers had already patched several memory leaks and there were apparently still more to

fix. Most interfaces had weird bugs, with controls failing to respond or the wrong dialog playing in some interactions. When pressing A during cutscenes I could hear my character apparently jumping offscreen. Coin pickups can glitch beneath floors or block morph ball tunnels, which was a big problem for the final boss- the boss is introduced at the very start of the game, so it’s not much of a spoiler, and I’m going to try to show as little as possible, but if you want to avoid seeing it you can skip to the timestamp onscreen now. Tunnels needed for

dodging some attacks will jam and prevent movement, and at one point I was taking damage for no apparent reason. By the sound cues, I recognized that the screen was supposed to be filled with fireballs… …which were failing to display, making them impossible to dodge. This is one of those fights where it’s imperative to save as much health as possible for the finale, so the bugs were maddening to get through. This is the first game by a new studio, so all things considered it still turned out well, and they’re still actively patching the issues. Bugs and

all, I’d recommend this as a solid, slightly better than average Metroidvania. The pixel art is overflowing with color and charm and the worlds are distinct and fun to explore. The soundtrack is excellent and I’ve had it stuck in my head since finishing it; I was surprised to learn after the fact that Michiru Yamane of Castlevania was a composer, along with a longtime Metal Gear contributor. It may have some gameplay bugs, but the audio and visuals are first rate. If the style of the game interests you, I’m mostly positive on 9 Years of Shadows but maybe

wait for another patch to arrive. Ghost Song is a game I’ve been watching for about a decade. Its development goes back far enough that a Wii U port is listed in the stretch goals, which is… I’m dying fast. The game plays kind of like a version of Hollow Knight that’s gone full Metroid. It has a lot of similar mechanics, like the perk swapping and money systems as well as the ghost retrieval after death. The gloomy look and tone are even roughly comparable. Given that its development predates Hollow Knight, I assume a lot of that was

a parallel evolution. I also have the same complaints with it as Hollow Knight- the world is too monotonous, points of interest are too far apart, the pace can drag, and the game’s appeal is sabotaged by its own mechanics. Endless backtracking from distant save points ruins bosses that would otherwise be fun to retry, and collecting your ghost from under them during the fight is always cheap bullshit. Where Ghost Song stands apart from Hollow Knight is that it functions as a traditional Metroid game- it has enough rewarding powerups to fuel the exploration and keep the player motivated.

The main premise is that five parts have to be recovered to repair a spaceship, and the game provides a suggestion of which to head for first. I tried to deviate and found that most courses were blocked, so the game does seem to force some kind of structure for at least the early phases. After a few critical upgrades the world starts to open up more and the player is given more options about where to go. It’s never too open for its own good, and the map is almost too small to get lost in. I was surprised

to see the final layout because the game feels a lot bigger than it looks; sidequests and optional bosses pack in extra hours of content. If you engage with the NPCs enough you’ll get clues about new missions and even get powerups or access to new areas. Every character has extensive voice acting, some of which can be cringe-inducing at first… and a lot of empty conversations drag on for too long, to the point of blocking you from using shops or teleporters. No, don’t follow me! But after getting used to it I still found the story mostly interesting.

There’s a creepy weirdness to everything that makes the lore of the world hard to ignore. One problem with tying so much gameplay to character interactions is that events can end up with arbitrary triggers that are hard to figure out; you have to happen to be in just the right place at the right time in order to acquire an item or make progress with an objective. You may only get one shot at something and then it’s gone forever. I saved my game in the middle of one sidequest and came back to find that it was over,

apparently having resolved itself while I was gone, leaving no way to acquire the reward. Being punished for the necessity of saving and stepping away once in a while is absolute fuckin’ bullshit. There were scenarios where I was certain I had figured out what to do- and was right- but received no response. You may have to hover in an area for an unusual amount of time before anything happens, and that awkwardness saps away a lot of the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. Some side missions almost seem designed to waste a large amount of time; in one,

a boss constantly retreats and eventually stops showing up entirely. The key to beating it is a powerup that reveals enemy health, which got bugged and stopped displaying anything for a few runs; re-equipping it fixed the issue but also apparently refilled the boss’ health completely. Sorting out the weirdness of mechanics like this is frustrating but it says something that I never dropped the missions and moved on; this was, after all, optional content. The game hooked me enough that I was willing to grind through it all and try to see everything. Like 9 Years of Shadows, the

combat system here is pretty unique. Aiming is analog with a 360 degree range, modern Metroid style. The main attack is a simple blaster, which overheats quickly and loses its speed and power. Conversely, the heat actually powers up melee attacks, which encourages cycling back and forth between weapons depending on the temperature of your gun. Secondary weapons can be equipped for more powerful shots and these also react to temperature in different ways, some growing more useful when overheating. These shots are limited by an energy meter that slowly recharges over time. There’s also a stamina meter that limits

running, dodging, and melee attacks. Weapons and perks can only be equipped after shutting down, preventing you from making changes during a battle, and each item consumes a few of your limited slots. It’s a little easier to expand the capacity than it was in Hollow Knight, with the gel currency gained from enemies used to level up character stats. An upgrade to any stat will increase your item slots by one, but it still feels too limiting unless you grind for gel. It’s a complicated system that offers a variety of different strategies and gear combinations, and I think

it works well once you get over the learning curve- for standard enemies, at least. Against bosses, not as much. Your short range beam overheats and becomes useless within seconds, and your missiles will deplete just as quickly. This leaves melee as the only viable attack, which doesn’t work when the enemy keeps any kind of distance. A lot of battles are spent waiting for the energy bar to fill enough to fire off another missile, which takes an agonizingly long time when the fight depends on them. I used all of my equipment slots on gear to mitigate this-

two heat reducers for the blaster, a shot range extender, a missile ammo booster, and a perk that recharges energy when running- and it still felt like I became a powerless husk ten seconds into every boss. Petty enemies are usually present in these fights, and often just taking one of them down would drain every resource I had. The controls allow for great mobility and precision in brief bursts, then the game makes you beg for each and every laser shot. It was hard to settle on whether I liked the mechanics or not… they oscillated between rewarding and

frustrating with every fight. But with some rebalancing to cooldown times I think it could be a great system. Ghost Song is a neat game with a world that can really pull you in and make you lose track of time. I’m damning my comment section by saying this, but I see it as a version of Hollow Knight that I can actually enjoy. I wish the game didn’t feel like it was fighting to stop me from enjoying it so often, and think it has too many problems to rate it any higher, but somehow I still kind of

loved it and think it’s worth playing. When Axiom Verge arrived, the genre was in a very different place; Nintendo was- to put it politely- shitting garbage out of their game asshole, and the idea of an indie developer stepping up with an authentic Metroid experience was really appealing. But five years later, Nintendo had found their footing and was making good Metroids again, and the indie genre had exploded with Metroidvanias in every shade imaginable… A standard Metroid clone would be a pretty boring thing these days. Thomas Happ seemed fully aware of that and tried to push into

new territory with the sequel, leaving the alien Metroid aesthetics behind in favor of a brighter and more organic world. Most of the game takes place in wide open outdoor spaces, with Happ citing Breath of the Wild as a major influence. Creepy, subterranean labyrinths are still around, but mostly just to keep some connection to the first game. It’s surprising how goofy and “video-gamey” the tone gets at times, but it still holds onto the dark, surreal vibe and takes you to a lot of weird places. The style is a subjective thing, but I think it tops the

first game when it comes to variety. It also makes a lot of cultural references and connections to real-world history, which was the most interesting part of the story to me. Assyrian architecture and winged lamassu statues feature heavily in the level design; I wasted my life on an art degree and you bet your ass I’m taking this chance to say that I know what a lamassu is. The combat has also been rebooted but with less successful results; melee attacks with simple daggers and axes replace the lasers of the original. This may have seemed like a way

to stand out when development started, but the genre shifted towards melee over the last few years, so ironically there’s more competition than there would have been just sticking with lasers. Combat is clumsier and less satisfying in Axiom Verge 2 than in its peers, most of which have block or dodge mechanics that considerably deepen the fighting- even the secondary melee in Ghost Song gives you more to work with. Here, you’re just kind of hitting things until they die and relying on normal walking and jumping to dodge out of the way. There are only a few weapons

to obtain in the early game and then things mostly stop advancing; there are one or two new moves to uncover but nothing that alters the gameplay much. A boomerang is provided to keep at least one ranged attack in but I forgot it was even in the game until finding an upgrade near the very end. The first game had an absurd number of guns to cycle through, and while some were junk it was still fun to have so many options tuned to so many specific scenarios. The sequel is mostly limited to slashing everything the same way.

The combat is serviceable enough but it feels underdeveloped and a little behind the curve. That’s partly made up for by the bigger emphasis on hacking, which can now be done on nearly every enemy in game. You can disable some parts of a drone or cause them to self-destruct, which is vital to fighting the larger boss type enemies. I say boss “type” enemies and not just “bosses” because the game doesn’t have as many traditional area bosses; instead there are optional bosses out in the field that will reward you with skill points if you take them down.

Regardless of what you’re fighting, hacking is a valuable addition and is much better realized than in the first game. The remote drone has also taken a larger role in the sequel and is no longer just a tool to open doors. Drone form is forced for a portion of the game, and when given the chance to change back to a human I usually still opted for the drone; its slingshot and hovering make it more nimble for platforming and exploring. Human form mainly has the advantage when fighting, but there’s also a new climbing ability for scaling mountains

and towers. There’s more verticality to the world than the first game, and the combination of climbing, drone fluttering, and open spaces makes getting around more enjoyable than the first game. The game provides a compass to vaguely steer players in the right direction, which is a good compromise between hand holding and letting the player get completely lost. Objective markers are sometimes used but mainly just for a loose idea of where the compass is guiding you. The map also displays a simplified image of each room, which is a helpful touch, and at least one type of custom

marker can be placed. Unfortunately, this map doesn’t track found items either, which always makes 100% completion a pain. One of the major additions the sequel makes is dimension hopping, with portals leading into a breach version of the world. It’s similar to Prime 2, where you use the dark dimension to bypass an obstacle and emerge on the other side. My thoughts on it are similar to that game- it slows and complicates exploration in a way that I don’t enjoy much. Backtracking has to be planned in and out of portals, and when hitting a dead end two

maps have to be trawled through for a way forward. This game does execute the idea better than Echoes, though. The alternate dimension can be viewed at any time as an overlay, helping you understand the path you need to take to reach a destination. Eventually you can exit the breach freely without needing a portal, and even move the portals to new locations, which leads to some creative environmental puzzles. Axiom Verge 2 delivers more of what made the first game great without repeating its formula or recycling its mechanics. I don’t think the end result is quite as

good this time, but it’s a sturdy game and I appreciate the push to surprise players with something different; I’d rather have it this way than a safe, tried-and-true sequel that nails everything. None of the games this time are masterpieces but they are all interesting and experiment with new ideas, which is the only way this genre can survive without fatiguing itself into a black hole. That’s all for now. I’ll be back once the AI network synthesizes more Metroid games by plagiarizing all of the old ones simultaneously, which is a thing we do now. I guess no

one needed humans for anything, anymore, so… good job on blowing up. Bunch of chumps.

%d bloggers like this: