Life after death—it’s one of the big questions. It doesn’t matter if you believe in a God or not, nor if your chosen God is a pot-bellied hippie, a bearded bastard or Dean Cain, the question remains. Wales Interactive’s first-person puzzler Soul Axiom asks a heavy question. That if the afterlife does not already exist, could technology make it so? It’s certainly an intriguing hook to hang your game on, and it’s one that gives this quirky title a very strong opening, one that almost makes you believe we could have something special on our hands, but when you get to the equally important question of ‘what else does it offer?’ The answer is far from desirable.
You play as a character who has just been uploaded into the digital afterlife, all set to begin your virtual eternal bliss surrounded by all your nostalgia and happy memories, like a 34-year-old man still listening to Sum 41 and playing Sonic the Hedgehog (shh, don’t judge). Unfortunately for you, what ends up happening is that you have to piece together the fragments of those memories after a rogue entity disrupts everything. So off you go, completing puzzles in various themed worlds, hoping to reclaim your lost legacy, and finally find the peace you were hoping to achieve in the digital paradise. A cracking set up for any game, a very strong start to the game, and it’s not just because of that tantalizing moral quandary of a hook.
There’s art direction on Soul Axiom that is striking, especially during the early stages and in the game’s central hub world. It’s an example of how to get the very best out of a limited budget. The digital afterlife hub is filled with towering angular neon buildings and monuments that evoke a very Tron-esque feel. While that all looks good, most of the various worlds within that hub are ugly and undernourished imitations of popular locations. This is obviously deliberate to a degree, but that doesn’t hide the glaring differences in design and creates an unfortunate disparity between them. Then there are the technical issues. Simply put, there are too many of them; glitches, tearing, textures not loading, sound cutting out, and more. It’s never game-destroying by any stretch, but it is astoundingly irritating to be assaulted by fixable problems so often. It’s sloppy and frankly embarrassing.
Still, visual fidelity isn’t really supposed to be the selling point for Soul Axiom (though, y’know…it helps if it is at least consistent). No, you are supposed to be here for challenging puzzle-solving, and intriguing, philosophical storytelling. You get little of either sadly, despite the early promise of both.
The puzzles are initially simple enough, which is perfectly acceptable because you naturally believe that there will be some deal of progression in challenge and complexity as your time spent in the game grows longer. Instead, things hit a plateau pretty swiftly, and everything becomes horribly routine at best, and confoundingly lazy or obtuse at worst. You pick up different ‘powers’ on your travels, and these help you to solve any puzzles that require them. One early one ‘deletes’ or ‘fills’ parts of the scenery to make certain objects move, and soon after that you get a time-based power that rewinds objects to make them form differently, and further powers expand on similar themes. You are able to shift between these powers on the fly and some later puzzles require a combination of these in order to progress. There’s little in the way of novel thought put into their use however, with everything being a bit too straightforward in the way it’s highlighted. Then the puzzles themselves just feel like an afterthought; hastily scribbled in long after the concept became a reality. It’s once again, not horrible, just badly-made nonsense blended with cookie-cutter puzzle design best left on the children’s activity pack it was gleaned from. I’m not angry, just disappointed.
The story fares no better. The initial setup promises an enriching morality tale with a really interesting talking point originating from its digital afterlife theme. On the one hand you could say that all the right ideas are here, but on the other you can say that there’s only snippets of those right ideas to be discovered, and that what is there looks to have been sliced up further and shoved into a wood chipper before being randomly pieced together to create a mosaic of confusing, nonsensical gubbins that does little but achieve the unwanted distinction of being incredibly hard to follow and painfully dull to boot. You could forgive the relatively underwhelming puzzles and haphazard visuals and audio if the story had just managed to be worth caring about, but it’s neither complex enough to draw in the thinking crowd, nor fantastical enough to wow anyone else. It’s almost as if the early moments were created in a vacuum, as they offer the promise of a game that simply does not exist after you first divert from the hub.
The parts are all there for something far better than what Wales Interactive serves up. It’s hard to be mean-spirited about Soul Axiom, because its complete lack of innovation after the setup is more frustrating and heartbreaking than insulting, but mean-spirited is still exactly how I feel. The aspects of the game that do click deserve better than being mashed into this blender full of asbestos and broken glass that makes up the filling of this far-from-tasty game pie. Soul Axiom may not be a genuinely terrible game, but it is a terribly put together one.