Soul Axiom makes a strong first impression. It doesn’t have the graphical fidelity of a big-budget game, but it seemed dedicated to throwing new ideas at me every few minutes.
Its opening scene takes place aboard a pirate ship weathering an intense storm. After an introduction to the basic controls, I jumped off its mast and barreled through the game’s opening credit sequence. I landed in what looked a Nevada backwater town. Not a bad start.
Soul Axiom is a fairly simple puzzle game, but it dreams of being something bigger. After navigating through the town, I quickly found myself in a Tron-like virtual world, then an ancient pyramid that reminded me of the fake video games you’d see on an episode of CSI.
No level is too intricate and the textures look a little rough, but the effect is mostly there. When I later reached the game’s main hub area (which looked like a cross between Deus Ex and the TV show Reboot), I saw a nighttime skyline in the distance. It was made mostly out of black rectangles and shining white dots, but it’s all I really needed to have a sense of place.
That sense of place is Soul Axiom’s strongest virtue. Throughout my twelve hours with the game, I solved puzzles in a jungle, a hospital, a university, a museum, a military base, and a lighthouse, just to name a few. Playing through Soul Axiom often felt like traveling the world, and what kept me going throughout was seeing where I’d wind up next.
It also finds a great premise to justify its myriad landscapes. The game initially gives you little context as to what you’re doing as you navigate through these spaces, but as you progress, you realize you’ve entered the world of Elysia, a virtual reality program. As the scraps of newspapers, emails, and other bits of information you find throughout the levels tell you, people can store their memories in Elysia to leave behind for their loved ones after they die, creating monuments to the self that theoretically last forever.
It’s a strong idea to build a game around, which makes Soul Axiom’s lack of confidence in itself and its players all the more disappointing.
Within each of these memories, you solve puzzles using one of three powers: deleting or summoning objects in the world in certain areas, “playing” objects to move them along a set path, or breaking down barriers with fireballs.
The game’s early puzzles are simple enough and indicate they’ll build towards something. But they never do. Everything you can interact with is color-coded to your powers, and I almost never used my powers in tandem with each other. Because the game never builds on these concepts in interesting ways, I ended up feeling like all I had were three keys that opened up different doors.
But the biggest issue is that Soul Axiom uses some of the worst tendencies of late-90s adventure games. Ever encounter a locked door with a keypad requiring you to enter a four-digit code, then find a piece of paper with said code written on it somewhere in that room? That’s what most of Soul Axiom’s puzzles amount to.
Every level follows this setup: you come across a few keys and symbols you don’t understand, find the map that explains what they all mean, then consult that map until you’ve solved all the puzzles in the level. The most disappointing part of this setup is when you realize the new symbols map back to the same kinds of puzzles you’d already been solving.
The most frustrating area I played had me traveling to the same apartment in different time periods to complete an experiment the person whose memories you were trying to access couldn’t complete (again, sounds like a cool idea, right?). It felt frustrating to be stuck, but I thought, “hey, at least it’s not as simple as the map made it out to be.” Turns out the thing I couldn’t work through was a glitch, and restarting the puzzle over let me implement the solution I’d come up with ages ago by looking at the map.
The more of Soul Axiom’s worlds I worked through, the more I realized it was done throwing new ideas at me a long time ago. And the way its puzzles work hampers the beautiful a-ha moments I could have had. When I’d figured out the solution to that time-traveling apartment, I didn’t feel smart for intuiting a solution where others might not have. Instead, I felt like I’d finally understood the poor wording of an obtuse walkthrough. So rather than be entranced by the grand visual variety at play in Soul Axiom, I left every level thinking “well, at least I don’t have to do that again.”
Then I realized I would. Throughout the game, I’d come across a number of purple cubes I couldn’t interact with, hidden like collectibles. After beating what I thought was the last level, I was dropped back into the hub area and told all the memories I’d salvaged were incomplete. Then I found a fourth power and realized that to see the end of the game, I’d have to go back through every area, find the hidden purple cubes, and activate them.
Rather than ruin the sense of place I had during my early hours with Soul Axiom, I decided to stop playing. I’d rather not tarnish my memories by reliving them.