Frictional Games' SOMA, last year's sci-fi horror follow-up to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, explored the idea of creating a copy of a human being and downloading it into a virtual "ark", thereby preserving mankind in case of global disaster. It proved to be an engaging central conceit, which touched on ideas of identity, morality, and the reliability of one's memories. Wales Interactive takes the idea of a digital heaven and makes it the main setting for Soul Axiom, though it lacks the polish of Frictional's submerged chiller.
Things get off to a promising start, with the player mid-freefall, flashes of what may or may not be memories flying by. You eventually land on a boat propelled through the air via digital sails, which is soon attacked by a giant winged creature. The ship subsequently plummets to Earth, leaving you adrift in a strange dreamscape. It's a great opener, followed by some genuinely atmospheric moments spent wandering a neon-tinged world that we later find out is Elysia, a sprawling metropolis housing the "souls" of other humans. It's such a shame that this atmospheric take on a cyberspace afterlife gives way to a clunky and tedious puzzler.
The puzzle mechanics themselves are the game's key failing. Given abilities that control the environment around him, our silent protagonist is never allowed to use them in inventive or even organic ways. The first power phases objects in and out of the world, an intriguing ability that amounts to no more than fancy switch pulls: phase in this rock formation and a bridge appears... For some reason.
Later there's a rewind/pause mechanic that adds more elaborate manipulation and some light platforming. A projectile ability adds more variation, but is only ever used for clearing obvious obstructions, revealing areas affected by your other powers, and occasionally shooting Thing A to open Thing B.
The solutions to the conundrums are so clearly signposted that it's always apparent what to do and which power to use, and this can make progress through the game a linear trudge. Compared to something like Portal, which gives you one tool and a series of environments to use it with (relative) freedom, Soul Axiom gifts you with potentially cool powers then stymies your ability to use them freely.
The environments themselves are uneven in tone and visual style, but they are the game's saving grace. Upon arrival in Elysia, you're ushered into a hub area containing portals to other resident's memories, in the form of themed puzzle areas. These rooms are at first jarringly mundane, with Aztec corridors and dark military bases a stark contrast to the colourful vistas of Elysia's sprawl. Later, stages open up as your abilities grow and the environmental design improves. A vast ice palace and space station are high points, as are frequent returns to Elysia, that vary the colour palette just enough to stave off the boredom of repetitive puzzles and vague plotting.
Story wise, events unfold via flashes of the incomplete memories from each stage – the demise of seemingly random individuals slowly revealing a larger mystery connected to Elysia itself. There's no interaction with other NPCs, only a holographic custodian keeping you company with its automated messages. An element of threat comes in the form of a mysterious figure following you around the memories and sabotaging your progress, and the looming shadow of the angelic beast from the opening, which recalls BioShock Infinite's Songbird.
Additional plot can be gleaned from collectible monkeys (the creepy ones with the cymbals) that reveal extra story material in the form of text files and cryptic correspondences. But overall, the story lacks coherence: the puzzle environments never connect to the main narrative in any meaningful way until the plot threads are hastily tied together towards the end of the game's eight to ten hour run.
Wales Interactive's Tron-like puzzle game has great atmosphere, a compelling setting, and an engaging concept – but it's ultimately not that interesting to play. The story lacks pace and substance, while the puzzles are lacking in difficulty and nuance – especially given that the powers used to solve them quickly become tiresome.