There are two ways in which you can market Soul Axiom. You could go down the route the developers Wales Interactive have gone with and hype it up as a wonderful, but rather haunting journey through a cyber world.
Or you could promote it as a Crystal Maze-cum-Knightmare 1st person puzzler.
Much like the experience found in both my childhood TV shows, Soul Axiom basically takes you through a series of rooms or huge areas in which you ask one simple question… ‘Where am I?’. That is however swiftly followed by cries of ‘What do I do?’ and eventually screams of ‘How do I do it?’. You see, there is little in the way of hand holding in Soul Axiom but like any puzzler worth its salt, that is quite possibly where the main draw lies.
Set in the world of Elysia, a state of the art server which plays host to memories, dreams and nightmares, as you make your way through the 100 or so puzzles and 40 well appointed locations, you’ll find those same memories, dreams and nightmares become something of a reality. It will be up to you to find your way around, completing the puzzled thoughts as you do so and manipulating the world in many ways so that you get to unlock a voyage of discovery and discover who you are, why you are there and the mystery that surrounds everything. With a story being played out through some standard cut scenes, if you want to get down and dirty with the lore and the tale that is being told, then you can do just that. Personally though, I’d rather just get in on the action and make the mind work in overdrive as it tries to solve the puzzles ahead.
You do this is many ways but the vast majority of the time you’ll be left to utilise four unique powers. Slowly drip fed into the action so you can get to grips with each of them in turn, the Phase power gives the chance to assemble and disassemble objects, the green Play glove sees you magically lift things from one place to another or make them come to life, whilst the red Destructive power shot and purple Corruption add-on bring a bit of destruction and overall chaos to the equation – although neither will worry any of your standard first person shooters. The unique aspect that the magical power gloves bring is a great little twist to the usual puzzle affair and after a little while, quite seamlessly, integrate into the action without you thinking about it. At least when they work anyway – more on that later though. With the power of all the hands available via the D-Pad, and the corresponding objectives glowing bright to signal the intention, it isn’t too difficult to easily realise which power you need to use for a specific section.
The puzzles themselves have been cleverly created and whilst there is occasionally a huge amount of trial and error involved, I’d love you to give me one example of a mind bender that doesn’t rely on that. For the most part though, your time spent with Soul Axiom will consist of running from point to point, checking out each and every nook and cranny as you go, and attempting to piece together the puzzle that lay within. Sometimes it’ll be more than self explanatory, with a blue key obviously opening a blue door, with a green needed to sort the green ones, but then jump into a different memory and you’ll be needing to draw on all your geographic knowledge or experience of staring up at the night skies on a drunken night out in order to succeed. But things definitely get trickier the further we play and once you start to reach the halfway point, no matter what powers you have, you’ll need to kick the old brain into gear, stick your eyes on overdrive and go cap in hand to a friend to see if they can figure out what is required once you’ve failed.
With a huge number of collectibles also available, the chance to go and scour the landscapes for some all seeing eyes or delightful little monkey statues, means that even once you’ve played through Soul Axiom the once, and aren’t bothered in checking out the multiple story endings, it is still worth diving back into a single stage in order to find the hidden secrets. The inclusion of an extra Xbox One exclusive chapter bringing numerous extra stages and a rather delightful digital art book to check out ensures that the price tag definitely seems to fit the content.
So far then, and Soul Axiom is coming across as something pretty damn good and quite obviously a puzzler that is worth more than a glancing look. There are however some rather big issues which need addressing.
Firstly, while the world itself has rightly been portrayed in the most minimal of light, I’d have loved to have seen some better visuals. Granted, Wales Interactive are a small indie developer just heading off on a journey of their own but time and time again, I’ve been left worried by the graphical inaccuracies that we’ve been met with. Whilst the neon TRON-like glows not only look stunning, and play a huge part in the way the game plays out, to say that a fair bit of the rest of it is visually on a par with something from 10 years ago wouldn’t be an understatement. The memories that you’ll find yourself travelling through are most definitely unique, taking us through ice palaces, down into the jungle and across barren beach sides, but once in these places, it’s pretty damn tricky to pick out the wheat from the chaff. Landscapes blend together to create strange illusions and you’re never sure where is safe to set foot and what is firm ground. Even with a play around with brightness settings, there are still multiple occasions which see your character get stuck in and amongst scenery, struggling to utilise his pathetic jump in order to get to safety. Some rather major screen stutters kick home when you decide to get some pace on as well, and unfortunately the visuals in no way match up to some of the frankly superb puzzles that you’ll need to solve.
Secondly – and this is the most important issue in my eyes – the controls are a little spongy, especially when we are trying to action quick fire powers one after another. Much of the gameplay included in Soul Axiom is of a rather sedate pace, but on the odd occasion, things definitely ramp up a bit and require a bit of dexterity. Proficiency and these special powers however don’t go hand in hand and all too often I’ve been left frustrated by the unresponsive triggers which power up (and down) each hand movement. In the heat of the action, I’ve never been sure whether a quick press of the trigger will suffice, or whether I need to hold the button down for maximum effort – all too often it’s all turned into a bit of a mish mash with neither option coming out on top and the lag from trigger press to on-screen action being way too high. You may think that some of the harder puzzles are frustrating, but they are a world away from the irritation caused by the numb controls.
So, dodgy visuals and spongy controls ultimately see the downfall of Wales Interactive’s adventure. You will however also need to sacrifice a huge part of your life in order to appreciate everything that Soul Axiom brings. Whilst the game is saved – quite obviously – at the start of each stage, you’re unlikely to find any checkpoints or auto saves once you are inside a memory. This wouldn’t be too bad if you knew exactly what you were doing, but due to the very nature of a complex puzzler, you will never know whether what you’re getting yourself into is going to take you five minutes, five hours, or, as has often been felt, five days. In a world in which our daily lives are packed to the brim with distraction, Soul Axiom is certainly not a game for those looking to waste a quick couple of minutes whilst the dinner is cooking. You also won’t be able to fire it up and hope to complete a stage prior to an early night as you may just be there until the wee hours. Some may thrive on this, but for someone who has ‘responsibilities’, then you need to be made aware. Mid-stage saves are surely not too much to ask?
Soul Axiom is therefore nothing less than a wonderful puzzler that ultimately lets itself down with some slack moments. Whilst the story very quickly pales into insignificance and the poor visuals and stutters initially take hold, the cleverly created puzzles that have been sent our way and the promise of multiple endings being in place ensure that it’s still worth a little look. You may wonder at times the rhyme or reason behind why you are actioning certain things, but as long as you can look past the issues, it all seems to come together nicely.
If you’re looking to spend a ton of hours traipsing around a haunting cyber world, then Wales Interactive have just about delivered something worth playing.