About a quarter of the way through Soul Axiom’s twelve distinct levels and expansive hub world, I fully believed I had found a worthy, much more ambitious follow-up to 2013’s Master Reboot. By the halfway point, that ambition had begun feeling counter-productive, as recycled gameplay elements, awkwardly-implemented new mechanics, and a needlessly fragmented narrative backdrop began to erode the benefits of a wealth of puzzles and diverse set of environments to explore. Three-quarters in, I really just wanted to be done with it, having given up trying to make any sense of the miniscule, disparate story scraps and feeling like I was riding out a string of “more of the same but different” to reach an ending I no longer cared about.
Had I stopped there, my reaction to Soul Axiom would have been decidedly mixed, but still generally favourable. Like its predecessor, it’s a bold blend of genre-defying gaming, mixing free-roaming 3D exploration with puzzle-solving and a bit of light action throughout a series of surreal worlds. Where this one started going wrong was in believing the lie that bigger is always better. I appreciated the effort to inject spatial manipulation abilities, but they proved frequently clunky to wield in the precise fashion required. I was impressed by how different each new area felt from the last, but this created a sense of random pointlessness. And by parceling out a nigh-incomprehensible story in piecemeal collectibles, there was rarely any narrative momentum to drive the experience forward.
So, ten-odd hours in, Soul Axiom had become an exercise in diminishing returns, but with enough left in total to recommend to those who enjoy games like Portal and its ilk. But of course, I couldn’t stop there in a title I was reviewing, so I hoped for a big finish to redeem its otherwise forgivable faults. Master Reboot made the horrible mistake of turning the finale into a brutally timed, multi-part action sequence, and surely the developers wouldn’t make the same mistake twice, right? Right. They made a much worse one, by pulling the carpet out from under the player’s feet and sending them all the way back to the beginning.
Ever play the board game Snakes and Ladders? It’s a simple dice game in which you try to ascend to the top, with ladders helping you climb and snakes sending you plunging back down. Lurking somewhere right near the end is an extra looooong snake that plummets you almost back to where you started. That snake is in Soul Axiom (figuratively speaking). And what’s worse, here you can’t avoid it. It’s one of the most obnoxious stunts any game could pull, and it’s utterly inexcusable. Having completed the twelfth and final level, I was braced and ready for a big endgame, only to find myself back in the hub world twiddling my power-infused thumbs. A little aimless wandering and one “where did that come from?” gameplay level later, an ever-helpful hologram informed me that the purple “corrupt memory” cubes I’d seen in passing but could not collect or repair the first time through each world now had to be retrieved.
At this point I longed for the days of boxed games again, so I could physically drop-kick this one across the room in rage. Instead, I dutifully went all the way back and started over, gritting my teeth and cursing profusely. Now, to be fair, you don’t have to complete each level again a second time, only reach their respective cubes. But if the “bigger is better” mantra has taught us anything, it’s that most of them were never going to be easily or quickly accessible. Some of them are even hidden, making it possible to miss them entirely. So you will indeed need to solve many of the same puzzles, sneak past many of the same enemies, leap many of the same hurdles, and fumble with all the same finicky controls before you reach your prize. I don’t think you need to get all twelve in order to proceed, but I did anyway, so I can’t promise that for sure. It’s most of them, regardless.
The good news in this wretched scenario is that once each memory cube has been accessed, it opens up another whole new level. And admittedly, that’s a pretty big plus, essentially doubling the scope of the game, albeit one that’s already bordering on overkill by that point. But it’s just not worth the imposed repetition to get there. Master Reboot also frequently followed up an original level with a distinctly different one, but it did so immediately afterwards with no extra requirements. That was an inelegant solution, as it was never clear why one abruptly transitioned to another, but at least it respected the player’s time, unlike its sequel.
For better or worse, this new set of twelve levels is also far more action-oriented than the first. Apart from the twitchy controls, there’s nothing a decent action gamer can’t handle, but adventure gamers lulled by the more leisurely pace of Soul Axiom in the first go-round may not be so enthused to find themselves running, jumping, and fidgeting in power gloves with sweaty hands under extreme duress. Only after completing enough of these levels can you finally access the final boss fight. (Oh yeah, remember when I said this game wouldn’t possibly finish with a frustrating pulse-pounder sequence again? I lied. It was just moved way, way farther back.) Actually, there are three different endings possible, and only two of them involve boss fights, but one is a freaking doozy (further complicated by a bug that forced me to restart just when I’d almost won – déjà vu or what?).
But now that you know how it ends, let’s back up a little ourselves. [Land on snake, go back to tile 22.] Called a “spiritual successor” to Master Reboot – an ironic description for a series in which human souls are converted to digitized memories for posterity – Soul Axiom is for all intents and purposes a proper sequel. You don’t need to play the first game to understand the second (such that you’re ever actually able), but it will certainly help you grasp the intricacies of the virtual reality afterlife in which it’s set. The names may have changed, but the premise is the same: you are an unnamed, unseen soul who has recently been uploaded to Elysia, an extension and refinement of the Soul Cloud, the cyber-system that went so disastrously wrong the first time around. If your bewildering introduction to this world is any indication (pirate ships, dark angels, desert bars and hover bikes… whaaaa??), something has obviously buggered up again. It’s your job, apparently, to enter the twelve saved memories of those who have come before you, but the who/where/why questions remain persistently murky throughout.
And really that’s about it for story. Unlike the first game, here you are following in the virtual footsteps of multiple people instead of unlocking your own lost memories, and the result is inferior. It’s bigger, but it ain’t better. Master Reboot was just as chintzy with its story snippets, but because the collective levels represented a single life in chronological order, it was much more intuitive to follow. The switch to several lives, only loosely intertwined in the formation (and abuse) of Elysia, eliminates any such narrative cohesion. Whereas the first game seemed designed to make you feel like you were unravelling a compelling mystery one piece at a time, Soul Axiom seems intent on leaving you largely in the dark, sometimes to the point of being deliberately misleading. Even at the end [land on ladder, move to tile 88], when all blurry cinematic memories have been accessed, your hub refuses to assemble their holographic artifacts in sequential order for a more enlightening cutscene replay.Continued on the next page...