Soul Axiom is a first person perspective puzzle game, first released for the PC back in February this year by Wales Interactive. Now released on to the console market, can this story driven puzzler cut the mustard, or does it earn itself a raspberry?
The game begins as it means to go on, as your character tumbles through a lightning storm while an angry looking angel watches on. As opening sequences go, tumbling through the eye of a storm is not the strangest we've seen, but the mystery starts to build from this point as there is no clear explanation of why you are falling, or even who you are. As suddenly as the fall began, it ends with you hitting the deck of a ship at sea and you're thrown into the adventure, ready or not. The ship acts as a kind of tutorial level, explaining what all the buttons do, how to jump, crouch, the usual. It transpires that you need to get the ship powered up again, so after some exploration you manage to do this, but it appears that makes the angel even more cross, and she rips the ship to pieces. From then on, its onto the game proper, as you awaken on a beach and start to explore the world.
Normally in a game of this type, as your character explores they can gain different powers or abilities, and Soul Axiom is no different in this regard. The first power you come across makes your hands glow blue, and gives the right hand a cool skeleton kind of look which is quite effective. What the blue power does is allow you to create platforms where an outline of framework exists, and also to remove certain walls, platforms, balls of energy and so on. The remove power is mapped to the right trigger and the create power is mapped to the left trigger. With this power at your fingertips, literally, you can then make progress through the levels towards the centre of the game, the HUB, which is capitalised like that in the game, we're not just trying to make it sound ominous. The HUB, not surprisingly, is the bit of the game that you keep coming back to, with different worlds and environments spreading out from here like the spokes of a wheel. As you progress, other powers will come to you, which are handily colour-coded also. The green power is dubbed "Play/Pause", and allows you to move objects in the environment and then freeze them when they hit the right spot. whether it be moving steps into the right location to allow you to climb a light house or a bell tower, or animating gargoyles to act out the saying "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil", this power rapidly becomes indispensable. The yellow power allows you to destroy certain objects, either by firing a single fireball with the right trigger, or a charged up double hand fireball with the left trigger. This power comes in handiest when used to destroy locks or hinges, allowing you to create shortcuts through the levels, or when used to destroy power nodes in order to make things happen in different parts of the levels.
The worlds and environments spreading out from the HUB are a very mixed bunch, ranging from a desert temple to a space station, with almost everything in between. Each level has a number of puzzles to solve to reach the end, and then a part of a memory to unlock, acting as an end of level cutscene. As you'd expect, each level also gets you closer to the crux of the story, and the tension building is very well done, with multiple story strands weaving together as you play through. The story deserves your time, we feel, as the scope of it is quite breathtaking. A company called Elysia finds a way to digitise the human soul, and then upload it to a mainframe, thereby allowing them to defeat death. Obviously not everything is on the up and up. There are tensions behind the scenes, and it's these tensions and the interplay between four main characters that lets you see what is happening. The cutscenes at the end of the levels are played out depicting events that have happened to one of these four main characters, and after a few levels we did find ourselves starting to care about what happens to them. As the levels are completed, the HUB itself changes, allowing access to the next level of the HUB and then more levels, and so on.
The puzzles on the levels are easy when you first begin, and indeed we flew through the first few levels without any difficulty. As the levels progress however, the difficulty and deviousness of the puzzles ramps up until they are genuinely difficult. A good example is the level known as "The Apartment", which is set entirely in a flat and its surrounding hallways. However, as a little twist, this apartment has a time machine in it. With this prop in play, the whole level revolves around going to different times, making a change, and then coming back to the present or even going to the future to see what effect they've had. Removing walls, breaking power junction boxes, planting seeds, sending an email...these are all needed in this level in order to get, finally, the things you need to progress in the correct time frame. Talk about your time paradoxes, this level was enough to give us a headache, but the feeling of euphoria when we finally conquered it was worth the time spent gently weeping in the corner. Other levels include an armoury, a church and a mansion, creepily decked out with a werewolf motif. The puzzles for each level or time are in keeping as well, whether it be rebuilding a flying saucer in the space level or finding the parts for a moon phase machine in the mansion level. On the beach level, really pay attention to the sign telling you there are sharks in the water, that's all we're going to say...
Obviously, some levels are stronger than than others, but there's no sense that any of the levels were filler, there's a definite sense of the story thread creeping through and tying everything together. Also helping with the immersion are the collectibles that are scattered around the levels, in the form of wind-up monkeys. Really creepy wind up monkeys with evil smiles, in fact. Still, when you find them, they help to flesh out the backstory, showing newspaper articles or pamphlets from various interested parties.
Graphically, the game is crisp, with a minimalist style that works really well. There's a kind of TRON-like feel to the worlds, with lots of neon in certain places used to edge objects, and it does a good job of evoking the kind of futuristic feel the developers were going for. The animation of the character you play is kind of weird, if you run around looking at your feet (which obviously you won't) they appear to slide everywhere rather than walk. Either your character is the moonwalk champion of the future, or something is amiss, but to make up for this the animation of your hands as you manipulate the environment is pretty good. Helpfully, the items that can be interacted with have a kind of glow when you have a power equipped, which usually helps you with whatever the problem is you're trying to solve. Doubly helpfully, if the item does glow, it glows in the colour of the power that will cause the item to react, so the clues are there. Controls are similarly good, with a real feeling of heft to them when you are moving large objects around, although sometimes it's a little too easy to lose sight or control of an item as you turn, but it isn't a major issue.
The downsides to Soul Axiom are relatively few and only fairly minor. The loading screen that you see every time you start a level seems to hang around too long. More importantly though, the rules for dying sometimes seem a little arbitrary, as there doesn't seem to be any fall damage suffered by your character (falling off the bell tower in the church level doesn't harm you) but then in the Space Station level, falling off objects kills you. It isn't something you can't work around, but this chopping and changing of the rules will cause its fair share of surprises.
In conclusion then, Soul Axiom is a slow burning game, but one that satisfies if you engage with the world and its lore. The pacing won't be to everyone's liking, as it isn't a fast paced, reaction based experience, but it is compelling more because of this than in spite of it. Add to this the numerous monkeys to be found, as well as three possible endings and the game has more longevity than the average puzzler. If you fancy having your grey matter teased, you could do a lot worse than this.