Being fond of puzzle games, Soul Axiom by Wales Interactive didn’t need to do much to entice me to jump straight into it.
The fact that it boasted about being story driven, with first-person adventuring being thrown into the mix too, also helped matters; being two ideal qualities that I look for in a game. Imagine my disappointment then, when I discovered that none of these elements were particularly pulled off with any panache. That Soul Axiom was actually quite a dull and dreary adventure which oozed potential, but was ultimately just tedious to play.
Finding yourself falling through an electrical storm, Soul Axiom doesn’t waste any time creating intrigue, convincing you that the descent will end in your certain death. Strangely however, it doesn’t. Awakening on a rickety old boat, surprised that you’re seemingly still alive, you find your feet and are instantly drawn in by Soul Axiom’s mystery. What isn’t a mystery straight from the outset though is how poor the visuals are. Environments are very basic in terms of geometry, textures are mostly flat, special effects don’t look very special, and the worst of all, the framerate is highly erratic. Granted, there’s nothing bad enough to make you want to turn the game off in disgust, but a little more spit and polish would have gone a long way to heighten your immersion in the experience.
Not long after you’ve started Soul Axiom, you obtain the first of the three powers that are pivotal in solving most of the game’s puzzles: the ability to phase objects in and out of existence. A short while after that you gain the next, which allows you to rewind and pause certain elements in the environment, before finally gaining the last, enabling you to shoot destructive fireballs. Able to switch between the three at will, these tools that you are inexplicably gifted grant you a great deal of control over the world around you, but you never really feel like you’re in full command of them as their usage is quite limited. In fact, the only objects you can use them on are puzzle elements, which pulsate and glow the same colour as the power that can be used to manipulate them.
It’s this colour coded hand-holding that both helps and hinders Soul Axiom’s gameplay. Whilst it’s a necessary evil, making you aware of what can and can’t be used to enable you to progress through the mostly dark and lifeless environments, it often makes the game feel like you’re just going through the motions rather than figuring things out for yourself. With most of the puzzles being condescendingly simple, the only time you’ll be really thankful for the colourful hand-holding is when you encounter one of the few illogical and obtuse puzzles that just makes no sense. In these situations, trial and error can always prevail thanks to you knowing what powers need to be used.
With the main brunt of Soul Axiom’s puzzles accessed via teleporters spread across four tiers of a structure in the futuristic Elysium, it would help if the load times weren’t quite horrendous. There’s around 20-30 hours’ worth of content on offer, but the lengthy load times and boring puzzles make it feel like such a slog that after 10 or so your interest wanes. The story doesn’t really do anything to keep your interest either, despite having an interesting premise, presenting us with the idea that the human soul could be copied or extracted to enable loved ones to revisit the happy memories of the dearly departed. There are notes to find throughout your journey putting flesh on the narrative bones, but there’s nothing to keep you gripped to the edge of your seat, much like the terribly animated videos that you frequently get to witness as a reward for finishing puzzles too.
As a fan of titles like Valve’s Portal and Croteam’s The Talos Principle, I really wanted to like Soul Axiom, but I struggled. There are flourishes of enjoyment to be had when the game throws the odd interesting environment your way, or even a puzzle that is surprisingly ingenious, but they’re too few and far between. Poor visuals and performance, combined with lengthy load times and formulaic gameplay that relies on simple puzzles made even more lackadaisical by heavy hand-holding and trial and error, leaves you with an experience that bores and disappoints more than it thrills and engages. The story grabs your attention, but then falls away as you trudge through one environment after another, not really sure what the point of it all is. In the end then, Soul Axiom on Xbox One is a missed opportunity, devoid of a soul itself.