Soul Axiom is one of those games that’s a real mixture of too smart, too slow, too engaging and too simple for its own good. It has everything you want in this kind of experience, but it makes you work for it. The engaging storyline and tough puzzles don’t kick in until halfway through the experience that ends on a much stronger note. Like a Suda51 game, after a while you start to see why bizarre design decisions were made; so set aside your expectations. Those who brave Wales Interactive’s unorthodox approach will be rewarded with an engaging narrative and with puzzles and themes that’ll challenge your perceptions.
WHAT WE LIKED
º Simplistic and yet engaging puzzles evolve into some real head scratchers.
º A fresh story that takes itself seriously while planting a tongue on its cheek.
º The simple designs and exceptional level layout get really immersive.
WHAT WE DISLIKED
º The game’s pace, loading and story structure will likely turn a lot of gamers off.
º Cel-shaded art style and choppy cutscenes can come across as cheap.
º Lackadaisical voice acting and placeholder music should be muted at the start.
Before we even start, I should tell you that Soul Axiom is a slow burn. The game starts with a lot of confusion, and you don’t even really understand what the story is about until you’re close to halfway through the experience. It reminded me of Eternal Darkness; a game that rewards you for sticking with it and discovering how deep the rabbit hole ends up going. You’ll be juggling several different points of view, and collecting a lot of information- all of which feels like a convoluted mess until the pieces start to slide into place.
I must admit, while I do appreciate the build up of anticipation, the game doesn’t do a good job of hooking the audience. You fall from the heavens, a mechanical angel swooping by as flashes of different characters fill the lightning-filled sky. When you land, you wake up on the hull of some generic pirate ship in the middle of the ocean. After doing a few simple tutorial-based actions, you teleport to an isolated hotel and Egyptian pyramid in which feels like just another room in a hallway; this segment sadly put a bad taste in my mouth from the word go. Overly generic, linear and simplistic- it made me sigh with how boring my next few days were going to be.
Thankfully, the game opens up just enough to shake off the linear feel of the introduction. You arrive at a tower of a company called Elysia, that says it digitally backs up human souls. As you explore the area, you find four different realities to enter. It reminded me of great puzzle games like Myst, where you enter these visually distinct locations and time periods, each with their themed puzzles for you to solve. Where it does things differently, and in my opinion the worse, is that you can’t leave these locations mid-progress, and their overworld entries are grouped together in one cramped area. I would’ve loved for their to be a massive overworld, one where you spread out and search for undiscovered areas instead of slowly progressing up an uninteresting tower. There’s also some outrageous load times between each portal, so moving in and out of locations can break the strongest of immersion.
Once you do get into these sites, which range from a space station to a werewolf infested mansion, you’ll find that each one has it’s own visual style and approach to puzzles. In the beginning, the game only has a few powers, and most of the puzzles are easy enough to solve. It isn’t until that halfway point until you’ll find yourself genuinely perplexed by any of the challenges put in front of you. Thankfully each of these puzzles is intelligent enough to keep you engaged until they do ramp up, but for the first half, they are very (and I mean embarrassingly) childish.
The story is pretty convoluted. Elysia has introduced the ability to download your consciousness into a supercomputer that archives everyone’s past lives. People are then able to access the memories and history of the archived people. While this isn’t the first time this story has been done, it puts a new religious twist on it, as believers don’t like the idea of digital immortality. Evidently, neither does someone who goes by the name of ‘G.O.D.,’ who looks to stop this system by throwing random messages all around the system. While the religious aspect is always there, it doesn’t do a great job of exploring these existential ideas, keeping it strictly as an antagonising force as opposed to an explained stance.
The game also has story-expanding notes in the form of collectable cymbal-clashing monkies. Yeah- I’m not one hundred percent sure why the developers went with that, but according to the game your suspended consciousness uses a unique Inception-esque Totum to represent all of your key bits of information. Or something- again, it’s pretty convoluted. Collecting these pieces of information can help you understand the in-game world more, which is needed to absorb the rich backstory they’ve created. Sadly, despite their attempts to cover a broad range of characters and storylines, there are several gaping holes in the narrative. Then again, it is a story about a company that holds consciousnesses on hard discs, and Myst was about temporal books- so do with that what you will.
One annoying thing I found while playing the game was an unobtainable item (a corrupted memory) in each stage. At first, I thought I was missing something; possibly a ‘good ending’ that requires the obtaining of each one of these cubes. After passing by several of them, I realised that the game was going to either recycle these levels for a later point in the story or that I would have to replay the whole game again to get the ‘full experience’. Thankfully, it was the former- but that’s still backtracking for what feels like the sake of recycling to make the game longer.
The art design lacks the complexity to capture your initial attention, but when you see how many locations and maps there are in this game, you realise its brevity is the soul of its wit. The level design is very thoughtful, with puzzles requiring you to look at the stage in a broader and much larger way. Many of the puzzles range from moving giant structures to construct a symbol, down to looking for small switches that control the math behind power regulation. It’s cel shaded approach opens the door up to some enormous and memorable locations that are brilliantly laid out, hiding the solution to many of the challenges. There were many times when I just sat back in awe at how large and stunning these locations could be as small details like a glitching moon in the distance helps remind you that you’re in a virtual world that can be bent. If I had one complaint, it would be the cutscenes, which are designed with a 10fps look- something that comes across as unbelievably cheap.
All of the negatives I’ve stated would be so much more forgettable if it weren’t for the complete lack of audio design. It’s probably the worst I’ve heard in a while. The soundtrack consists of songs that sound more like 10-second loops than fully composed pieces. Sound effects are generic, and don’t match the actions that happen on the screen; waterfalls that sound like dripping faucets, obnoxious buzzers, etc. Probably worst of all, the game’s voice actors’ are all nonchalant and uninflected to a near-comical extent. Sadly, there’s almost nothing redeemable in the audio department, and this department could’ve made the game infinitely better.
That’s not to say Soul Axiom is a bad product, but I can’t help but feel that the aspects I enjoyed won’t win over every gamer out there. These edges are pretty rough, but I don’t mind them if I’m holding onto a gem. Some may find the pacing to be too long winded and the disjointed story unbearable, but I enjoyed the game’s slower pace and fragmented approach to not only the puzzles but the narrative as well. It will require you investing some time to get you through the sluggish opening act, but once you find the charm of this game, it’ll be hard to put it down until the satisfying end.