Genre: Puzzle Adventure
Release date: May 22, 2015
Though third-person licensed adventure/stories have been the trend of late, Wales Interactive's first-person puzzler Soul Axiom proves there's still room for challenging adventures of the old school, Myst variety.
While the majority of modern adventures begin by establishing characters and context, Soul Axiom's approach is to immediately confound you. You're literally dropped onto a sailing ship without knowing anything and are expected to discover your identity and your objective by exploring your surroundings. This kind of obtuse design is risky these days, since the possibility of alienating players with it is relatively high. I, myself, was on the fence about the game for the first hour or so, but then I was presented with the sort of mysterious, question-raising events adventure fans like me can't resist.
It's tricky to write about Soul Axiom without giving it away. The lion's share of the game's fun comes from discovery, so we'll have to discuss it in less-than-specific terms. What I can reveal is that it's packed with clever puzzles, many of which I've never seen before. Most of these puzzles involve manipulating the environment using three special powers. These powers enable you to do things like build and destroy objects, move objects and fix them in place, or hit targets with projectiles. All three are well-conceived and are highly effective when used both on their own and in combination.
In addition to giving you interesting powers, Soul Axiom provides you with a wide range of compelling locations in which to use them. One hour you could be traversing a Tron-like landscape or a South American jungle; the next you could be creeping around a desert truckstop or medieval castle. Though the graphics in all locations are a touch on the basic side and such extreme changes in scene are improbable -- even bizarre -- Soul Axiom's story makes them work.
The game's story is told in a subtle, sophisticated way, through flashbacks and clues that are uncovered through diligent exploration. Photos, documents, letters, official IDs: these hidden tidbits slowly reveal both who you are and the part you've played in a series of disturbing events. Now and again you'll also get a cutscene that gives you further insight into past events. However you get them, the missing pieces are found one by one and, once found, raise serious ethical questions.
Though these things make Soul Axiom memorable, just as memorable are its lighting bugs, its troublesome lack of sensory feedback and its unforgiving save-game setup. Many of the game's locations are twilit or downright dark, which means if you want to see what you're doing, you'll have to crank up your monitor's gamma and brightness settings to uncomfortable levels. Also, objects have a tendency, on occasion, to disappear as you move around them.
Worse than this by far is the game's general lack of audio-visual confirmation. In situations where progression depends strictly on trial-and-error, being able to tell when you're affecting the environment is key. Here, sound cues and visual direction are often completely missing, which means when you push a button or move a lever, you're stuck running around and around large, complex environments checking to see if anything's changed.
Related to this, Soul Axiom's biggest problem is its infrequent save points. Progression isn't saved within discrete locations which means once you're in, you're committed for at least ninety minutes. (Much longer if the lack of feedback leaves you wondering what to do.) If you get frustrated and leave in the middle of a location, when you return you're stuck doing the entire location again from the very beginning.
Troublesome as that is, the Steam forums seem to indicate Wales Interactive is actively listening to its players and continually working to make improvements. Soul Axiom (like so many products on Steam these days) is an unfinished, episodic game that as of this writing, has no formal ending. Chapter Four is currently in the works and with any luck, once it and the rest of the game come out, they will provide the kind of complete, mind-blowing experience hardcore adventure fans live for.
Soul Axiom will be released on PC, Max and Linux sometime in the third quarter of 2015, and PS4, Xbox One and Wii U in the fourth quarter of 2015.