What is the soul? Is it real, or is consciousness just an illusion? If your soul is real, then what happens to it when you die? This eternal question has made an appearance in quite a few games lately, from philosophical puzzlers like The Talos Principle and The Swapper to epic RPGs like Pillars of Eternity. It has appeared once again in Soul Axiom, a first person puzzle/adventure game by Wales Interactive. Trans humanism and immortality can be fascinating subjects, and they are tackled nicely in this unique and unpredictable puzzler. The atmosphere, artwork, and story are the main attractions in this game. Regrettably though, Soul Axiom stumbles with its gameplay and its level design.
In Soul Axiom, you play as a silent protagonist travelling through a gigantic server called Elysia, a huge database where human souls are preserved for future generations to relive. You travel through a variety of dream-like levels while solving puzzles, finding hints about the game’s back story, and occasionally watching cut scenes (usually of somebody’s memory). This setting provides you with some great opportunities to visit a wide variety of locales, without a lot of logic required to connect them together. As you progress, the game hints that during your journeys you are going to uncover something sinister, and that expectation drives the story forward. The story eventually converges on the involvement of four people involved in the creation of this wonder: a political figure, a corporate CEO, an actress, and a mad scientist type character.
Soul Axiom tries very hard to be thought provoking, and it mostly succeeds. The game is loaded with background information that tells the story of how Elysia was created. It also shows how the invention was received publicly, the sacrifices that were required for it, and the controversies that would surround this type of transformative technology. The tale of the four characters that anchor the story is an intriguing one. The writing for these characters is solid, and the voice acting is adequate. When a game like Soul Axiom explores topics like the soul and trans humanism, it could easily fall on its face, but the game handles these topics artfully and intelligently. If the subject matter of the game intrigues you, then you should find the journey to be a mostly pleasant one -- that is, until the end of the story. There are three possible endings; the ending that I chose felt rushed and was somewhat of a cliff hanger that left some major questions unanswered, as if a sequel is on the way someday.
Soul Axiom offers a handful of simple game mechanics for solving puzzles and navigating its environments. The first that you learn is the “materialize/de-materialize mechanic”. Using this mechanic, you can dissolve obstacles in the environment or build bridges for crossing gaps. The second mechanic that you learn is a “play/pause” ability that allows you to move objects back and forth in the environment or open and close doors. Over the course of your journey, you learn two more powers, but the majority of your time is spent utilizing these first two. These simple mechanics work well for what the game is trying to do, but using them to solve puzzles is rarely as satisfying as it should be. While Soul Axoim is artistically strong, it isn’t a very well designed puzzle game. Too many of the puzzles involve finding just one item in the environment to manipulate and then activating it once. If there is a door, you open it. If there is a statue, you rotate it. If there is a bridge in pieces, you build it. Most of the challenge in the game comes just from finding what you can pick up or manipulate, and not actually figuring out what you are supposed to do once you have found them. Occasionally, when you can’t find that one object or door that you need, the level becomes a frustrating exercise in wandering around back and forth until you stumble across it. Some puzzles, like codes for doors and safes, are written almost in plain sight for you. Soul Axiom’s game mechanics had a lot of potential, but the level design rarely takes full advantage of them. There are a few great puzzles toward the end that break this trend and require some deductive reasoning. In particular, there is a time travel puzzle that requires you to actually figure out how everything in the level works and then solve things in a specific order. Unfortunately, those types of two puzzles are too few and far between, and the level design in the game frequently comes up short.
Soul Axiom is a long game with a lot of content, very little of which feels copied and pasted. It is perhaps too long for its own good. One design decision, in particular, stands out as a bad one. To complete the story, you have to find a specific object on each level that only unlocks after you have completed every level once. To get that object, you have to partially replay the level, often almost to the end. This part of the game gets downright tedious, as there are many levels that you won’t be interested in replaying. Soul Axiom is already long enough without this extra requirement, which feels like unnecessary padding.
Like all other low budget indie games, Soul Axiom has the challenge of trying to look attractive without having advanced technology or a large team to generate assets. As a first person game, this challenge is especially daunting, since the game can’t resort to using 2D graphics. As expected, the game’s technology and low polygon assets are unimpressive, as is the occasional animation. Soul Axiom is still a very attractive game though, thanks to its quality art direction, colorful style, and visual variety. It looks a lot like a souped-up Quake III engine game. Wales Interactive takes full advantage of the game’s dreamlike, afterlife setting, throwing just about every possible level setting and appearance at you. There are dazzling, Tron-like, neon lit areas. There is a tranquil, beautiful island level that may remind you of the game Myst. There is a level on a burning space station, a level in an ice world, a level in a creepy empty hospital, and many others. Each one of these levels sports its own look with its own assets, a definite plus in an era when so many games suffer from repetitive scenery. The game also makes full use of the color palette, another plus in an era where so many games are drenched in drab shades of gray and brown. The game’s music is fairly simple, but it also sports a decent amount of variety and is always appropriate for the level. The hub area music, in particular, is a synthesized track reminiscent of the Mass Effect games that helps set the atmosphere for the game perfectly.
For better or for worse, Soul Axiom is a game that excels at its art, rather than its gameplay. It presents a good story (albeit with an unsatisfying conclusion), and it tells that story with a huge variety of inspired levels and a handful of quality characters. Unfortunately, its gameplay does not reach those same levels. It doesn’t necessarily get in the way and there is very little in the game that is just plain bad, but this game might not be for you if you are looking for a deep puzzle experience. If you enjoy a good atmosphere, lovely scenery, and a little bit of philosophy, then Soul Axiom is a game that you will want to check out. If, on the other hand, you demand more out of a game than the fairly simple puzzles that this game has to offer, then there are quite a few better games for you to choose from. In the end, Soul Axiom left me satisfied and wanting to see a sequel and more out of this developer. If a little more effort and refinement had gone into the game’s level design, those feelings would have been stronger.