Puzzles and Strife in the Afterlife

SoulAxiom01

HIGH The background music is atmospheric

LOW The pseudo-stealth section in the Warzone level

WTF Why isn’t there a manual save feature?


 

Soul Axiom is the spiritual successor to Wales Interactive’s 2013 release Master Reboot, and follows a similar premise— sometime in the near future, a corporation perfects a form of virtual immortality known as Elysia; a massive computer system capable of perfectly copying a person’s consciousness and memories and storing them in a server. These “souls” can enjoy the pleasant memories of their past and even communicate with loved ones in the physical world, ensuring that no one ever again has to fear death. Unsurprisingly, Elysia undergoes a catastrophic failure, resulting in corrupted memories and the appearance of a destructive dark angel. It’s up to the player to set things right in this artificial heaven before it becomes an eternal hellish nightmare.

Mechanically both games adhere to the same format—they’re first-person adventures that rely on solving various logic and environmental puzzles to progress. Thematically, they differ significantly.

While Master Reboot was more akin to a journey of self-discovery with elements of psychological horror, Soul Axiom presents itself like a thriller. The player’s identity or reason for being in Elysia is initially unknown, but that takes a backseat to finding out what’s causing the system to fail and who was responsible. Regretfully, the game isn’t able to provide the gripping experience players would expect from its premise.

There’s a sense of intrigue at first, with sporadic appearances of the monstrous angel and occasional glimpses of a person who appears to be following the player. But while these aspects are never so overused as to become tedious, they appear too rarely to maintain a continuous sense of danger or paranoia. Similarly, an early moment shows the angel wiping out an assembly of virtual souls, yet players are generally restricted to a singular hub and never witness any real damage to the world of Elysia. Without the presence (or even semblance) of an ever-persistent threat, the sense of urgency diminishes.

Very little about the plot is answered through in-game activity, as there are barely any NPC interactions and very few expository cut-scenes. Instead, almost all of the backstory is provided through collectibles called Personal Message Objects (PEMOs). Several PEMOs provide bits of history about the development and operations of Elysia, while the majority offer information about four characters who have a close connection to the program.

I was hoping that even if the general plot wasn’t the best, at least the character moments would be worth the time put into each level. And to the game’s credit, some effort was made into making their motivations and personalities distinctive, though they weren’t particularly original or nuanced. Each of them is one-note with hardly any gray areas in their ideologies, and they don’t convey significant development. It also doesn’t help that the voice performances tend to fluctuate between rigid, emotionless stoicism or borderline melodrama.

Just as the story failed to resonate, I didn’t think the puzzles were that impressive either. They usually revolved around moving objects into place to complete a greater structure, key hunting, sequence matching, activating switches within a time limit, or simply altering the environment to bypass an obstacle.

Players will acquire three special powers to help them overcome these challenges: Phase, which can dematerialize or rematerialize objects, Play, which can move objects from a distance or “pause” them in place, and Destroy, which can obliterate obstacles. A fourth power, Corrupt, is obtained near the end of the game. Sadly, the potential of these powers was squandered as they’re almost always used for mundane tasks like lowering platforms or removing barricades.

Depending on how many levels are completed, one of three different endings will be unlocked. After beating the game it’s possible to obtain all three endings without needing to replay from the beginning, but it’s not worth the effort; none are satisfactory or successful in providing closure, and returning to a level to try for another ending reveals one of the game’s missteps—after leaving a level, all the puzzles and traps reset, so any annoying or frustrating segments may need to be redone.

Interestingly, it’s possible to get killed in Soul Axiom, usually by failing to complete a puzzle in time or by wandering into dangerous terrain. It’s not hard to avoid death once the rules are understood, but it can become tedious. The worst offender occurs in a military zone where players need to move through two bunkers while dodging fast-moving cameras and drones or be shot and instantly killed. It was a pain getting through this section, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it put some players off the game entirely because of how frustrating it can get.

The deathtraps highlights another of Soul Axiom’s failings—there is only one save slot, and it’s automatic. Players have no way to manually save their progress. So, if they encounter a level with two or three deathtraps in a row and get killed in the process, they may have to go back and do them all again if the game didn’t save after completing one.

I wanted to like Soul Axiom, but it gave me nothing to praise. Its puzzles and story aren’t really bad, they’re just bland. There are occasional mentions of philosophical and moral debates regarding the game’s artificial afterlife, and a deeper, more thought-provoking analysis would have made for a more engaging experience. Instead, these headier subjects were kept on the back burner in favor of a less-thrilling, more pedestrian adventure, and the game suffered for it. Rating: 4 out of 10

Disclaimer: This game was developed and published by Wales Interactive. Review code was obtained from the publisher and played on PC. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the campaign, and it was completed with all three endings obtained. There is no multiplayer mode.

Parents: PEGI has rated this game as being appropriate for players 12 and older. There is very infrequent swearing and no nudity or sexual situations. Violent actions are occasionally mentioned, and two attempted murders are depicted in some of the memories, but there is no blood or gore.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: All dialogue is subtitled, though being unable to hear background music or ambient sound can diminish immersion. No puzzles require audio cues to solve (one that requires replicating a musical score can also be completed with simple color matching), but a specific sound plays after a puzzle has been correctly solved, so players who are hard of hearing may not know they were successful unless they look to see if there have been any changes in the landscape.

Controls: The game can be played using either a controller or a keyboard and mouse configuration.

Colorblind modes: There is no mode for colorblind players. This can make it difficult to solve some puzzles as interactive items are highlighted with a specific color to indicate what power to use on them. There are also infrequent bright flashes that could be an issue for players with photosensitive epilepsy.

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