Kill me now…
On paper, Wales Interactive’s Soul Axiom sounds like a really cool idea. Take an interesting plot about a digital afterlife, throw in some puzzles, add a heck of a lot of exploration across a variety of landscapes, and the result easily could’ve been a great and memorable experience.
Sadly, it manages to fall woefully flat in almost every single way.
Soul Axiom (PC [reviewed], PS4, Wii U, Xbox One)
Developer: Wales Interactive
Publisher: Wales Interactive
Released: February 29, 2016 (PC), TBA (Console)
Soul Axiom takes place in the near future, where the ability to download the human soul into virtual reality has been discovered and perfected. Playing as a newly-deceased soul uploaded to the Elysia system, it’s up to the player to travel through various digitally recreated memories and try and fix what has gone horribly wrong with the afterlife.
It sounds like an interesting idea, but is entirely let down by flat storytelling. The cutscenes are incredibly blurry and low-quality, with bad animations, underdeveloped and unlikable characters, and weak voice-acting not doing anything to improve an already very thinly spread and needlessly obtuse story.
The key to doing non-linear storytelling well is to give the player enough interesting snippets to make them want to piece things together themselves, while also making each part of the story the player discovers still stand on its own as something worth paying attention to. Compare that to Soul Axiom, which literally chops cutscenes in half by interrupting them with a screen telling you the ‘memory is incomplete’ until you’ve finished more of the game. It makes the story disjointed and difficult to care about, assuming you’re able to actually tell what’s going on through the horrendous quality of the videos.
This incomprehensible, poorly performed story is spread out over twelve different environments which are all connected to the Tron-like hub world you’re placed in. One nice thing I can say about Soul Axiom is that it at the very least tries to be varied in these levels; in the space of a few hours, I’d explored an Aztec ruin, a space station, a hospital, and a Werewolf-infested gothic castle.
Unfortunately, trying to be varied isn’t the same thing as actually being varied. Each level has little detail put into them, with there all too often being repeating assets between levels, resulting in poor environments that are boring as hell to explore. It’s telling that one of the most impressive and detailed areas was a museum, which managed to re-purpose parts of previous bits of the game in a way that felt somehow less ‘gamey’ than the levels seen before it.
I could forgive these undetailed environments if the puzzles were up to snuff, but sadly, Soul Axiom falls apart here as well. Most of the gameplay relies on you swapping between various powers: the ability to fade objects in and out of the world, make them ‘play’ and move in pre-set directions, and being able to destroy items using a bolt of fire.
Almost every puzzle devolves into finding the right order of random objects that can be interacted with, and doing it. All the puzzles are either ridiculously, obviously apparent from the get-go, or they fall back on trial-and-error design until you somehow stumble through. It’s the first-person puzzler equivalent of pixel hunting in a point-and-click; I never felt smart when I solved a puzzle in the same way I did in Ether One, Portal, or Quantum Conundrum, I only felt relieved that I could move on.
What’s worse is that the puzzles substituted intelligent and challenging design with just making you do the same crap over and over again until the game can finally accept that you know how to do it.
One particularly egregious example is a level where you must use a time machine to cycle between four different years in a pre-set order, with the entire puzzle being reset at the end of the cycle. Once you’ve found the correct order of things to interact with in each year, you then have to go through the entire ordeal again in the exact same way to get a second McGuffin that’s needed to proceed. If you accidentally skip one thing in this loop, you’ll have to spend forever cycling all the way back to the first year and do the entire chain of events again. It isn’t clever, it isn’t interesting, it isn’t fun, it just needlessly wastes the player’s time.
Soul Axiom is at its best when it dares to be more abstract. One level that is somewhat enjoyable features a castle constructed entirely of ice, where you have to match up star signs with their constellations. When Soul Axiom takes the focus off of exploring undercooked stages and instead puts all of its efforts into making the puzzles interesting, like it did in that stage, there are a few glimmers of a game that could’ve been something good. Unfortunately, those moments are so few and far between that they’re not worth muddling through the rest of it to get to them.
This would all be bad enough as it is, but the game then makes you replay every single level for a second time, just to access a few areas you were previously unable to get to. I was sick of the levels after playing them the first time, so the prospect of having to do them all over again to find a few more equally boring puzzles was too much to handle.
Mechanical and design problems aside, Soul Axiom is a technical mess. Easily the most common problem was clipping into walls and being unable to move, requiring the entire level to be started all over again thanks to the lack of any decent checkpointing.
You may also have the pleasure of experiencing camera glitches which keep you stuck moving in one direction, random major drops in performance, and cut-off lines of dialogue. While what I played is considered a pre-launch build, those bugs shouldn’t have been there this late in development.
Overall, Soul Axiom is a painful experience.
I love the plot premise; the idea of a digital, man-made afterlife and how that affects society is a cool idea. I just wish Wales Interactive explored it in a bit more detail, instead of giving us the half-baked story, sparse and boring environments, and easy, repetitive puzzles that it did. It feels like an opportunity for something special that’s been completely wasted.
If we’re all going to be uploaded to Elysia after we die, please do me a favour and delete me.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]