At times like this, it’s hard not to fall back on the easiest of comparisons. Primarily because it’s a comparison no doubt everyone has already made (hence, one you can’t shy away from), but it also runs the risk of undermining every other positive that goes into the finished product. Thus despite my sincerest efforts, there’s no getting away from the unavoidable visual comparison to Tron in Wales Interactive’s latest outing, yet it’s equally unforgivable to not speak of the likes of Bioshock and even Metroid with as much the same breath, to hit home the odd juxtapose Soul Axiom sticks to in both its gameplay as much its World-building. A meshing of the surreal and the deceptive might not be the most fresh-faced of philosophies in any creative medium true, but regardless, it’s a deserved fit to Axiom‘s gameplay and Wales Interactive’s cunning in detailing the coaxingly titled World that is Elysia.
Set in a grand simulation where dreams and memories can now be archived to subsequently be experienced over and over, the player takes on the role of a newly-uploaded soul who, for whatever reason, has departed the World of the living and is now but one of countless millions of users now thriving in Elysia’s grand, utopian platform. If only the [virtual] afterlife were that straight-forward; it doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent something is not quite right and while Axiom keeps matters vague as to whether you are in fact the target, or simply another passenger along for the ride, it’s this deliberate vagueness that, bizarrely, better suits Axiom‘s focus on a reality trying its damnedest to appear real, if not act it.
Even from the very early stages, Soul Axiom‘s isolation and sheer emptiness, despite its perhaps infinitely-complexing scale, only leaves its scattered locales feeling less like perfectly-replicated environments and more like hollow snapshots; about as lively and relatable as stage props to some amateur dramatics performance. Bare and devoid of considerable thought it might initially appear, it’s far more inviting to investigate for this very reason — you’re expecting more and are inclined to figure out why that’s not the case. But Soul Axiom is not, as most adventure-based games now tend to accommodate, a purely linear experience that builds further and further to some possible grand reveal. Rather, to tie into this idea of archiving/storing siphoned memories, this is where perhaps the biggest surprise in Axiom‘s presentation comes into play. The fact the central hub of sorts has, strange as this may sound, all the hallmarks of a nostalgia-drenched Playstation platformer — a la Crash Bandicoot or Spyro The Dragon — only elevates the game’s deceptive allure that extra bit higher.
Like those classic PS1 titles, the player is required to jump between contrasting levels (each one more uncomfortably isolating than the last) before one can advance further. Regardless of the order the player chooses, after a certain number of levels are completed, a new floor (or tier) is unlocked. Soul Axiom‘s selection of locales and ecosystems mix up the formula with mixed results, be it in its level design as well as how puzzles are structured. While there are an abundance of ninety-degree corridors and unapologetically square-shaped rooms throughout, there’s often enough of a deterrence by way of interacting with the often simple structures, to warrant a need to press on. This takes us to the game’s main selling-point via the player-character’s manipulation abilities and the way said challenges are presented. Most, though not all, of Axiom‘s puzzle-solving revolves around the need to interact and even control elements in the environment. Whether it be deconstructing/reconstructing something to activate a switch, or rewinding the actions of a moving object, Soul Axiom — much like The Talos Principle or indeed, albeit to a lesser extent, The Witness — relies on player deduction while cleverly emphasising the need to look beyond the superficial and figure out what may be feasible in the context of a puzzle, without giving too much away.
While it may not be the most revolutionary of circumstances (Wales Interactive aren’t reinventing the puzzle-designing wheel in this respect), the developer’s trusting player intellect and deciding against sign-posting every necessary step, goes a long way to keeping most (though not all) of Axiom‘s scenarios feeling fresh enough to make the inevitable solution stand that all the more satisfying to conquer. One notable example late on, set in an apartment complex and requiring the use of a time machine, is so cleverly arranged the inevitable frustration over missing a step or inadvertently undoing a previous correct action reflects well on Wales Interactive’s conscientious skill in guiding the player without outright telling them the answer from the get-go.
Earlier levels are of course a lot more simplistically-arranged and sized, but that doesn’t take away from the need to study the environments closely and figure out how each aspect interplays. Again, the refusal to simply guide its player forward is a testament to the way recent indie developers understand seemingly-impossible puzzles only garner a player’s drive to further involve one’s self in the structure and overall layout of such surroundings. However, while these proceedings usually involve merely interacting with one element to influence another point on the map, some moments can unfortunately fall ill to unnecessary padding in order to make the challenge appear more complex than it actually is. This isn’t helped when some levels feel a little too large and open for their own good — further hindered by moments of questionable texture mapping and jagged polygons that are in fact environments at close-up.
This niggling concern to not just stretch out a momentary passage, but to forcibly rely on this supposed concept of simulation as an excuse for less-than-pleasant (and far-from-polished) visual work, does grate in the most extreme cases — none more so in latter proceedings requiring you to revisit each of the game’s levels for a second time. Fortunately, these occasionally off-putting deterrences don’t do enough to dilute what is a continuing intrigue into what, exactly, ties all these conflicting locales and memories together. And that’s genuinely saying something given the attempt at story-telling, via the game’s cutscenes, can be laughable at the best of times and painstakingly cringe-worthy at the worst. Be it the way characters are modelled or dialogue is expressed, it says a lot for how well Axiom‘s gameplay and immersive investigation stands as much coaxes its players away from the game’s obvious downfalls. An even more surprising statement given the jarring sound design does unfortunately make its way into the actual gameplay, be it opening a door or finding a sound effect fails to play from time to time.
Yet, bizarrely, this is perhaps the biggest consolation to take, especially for those who may not be invested in or indeed compelled by the story underpinning the player’s progression. Because while there is some degree of focus on the events leading up to the game, the benefit here is that the story runs almost in parallel, rather than in tandem, with the gameplay. Hard not to ignore quality-wise sure, but the added and welcome presence is that Wales Interactive recognise that story isn’t for everyone and while it’s clear graphics may not have been the most desired of components in some areas (though it’s hard not to praise the more neon-tainted locales as anything but lush), the essence of the gameplay — coupled with the conflict of a futuristic simulation and false realism that is its aesthetic and artstyle — makes for a game that is confusing but, more importantly, far from jarring in its sense of loneliness and alienation.
Simplistic and often jarring its intended design may seem, Soul Axiom is a game that requires, as much cunningly desires, the player’s warranted need to look beyond the surface that’s initially presented. Whether that be in its puzzle design or the ample conflict of environments, Wales Interactive do just enough with the overarching themes of simulation and replication to make its superficial locales feel that extra bit suspicious. So while there’s no getting away from how tainted the experience gets with its less-than-pleasant story-telling and/or questionable delivery, said moments seldom get in the way of what is a generally intriguing adventure. What’s more, the way it continually weaves the player-character’s manipulation abilities together without feeling otherwise forced or bloated, keeps Soul Axiom sufficiently fresh throughout while incurring a reasonable familiarity at the same time.