In 2013 Wales Interactive released Master Reboot, a decent first person puzzle games that had some ambitious ideas but difficulty delivering them. It seems Wales is taking a second shot with their follow-up Soul Axiom. Does this game stumble in the same way, or will it be worth remembering?
While Soul Axiom is penned as a "spiritual successor" to Master Reboot, the game is a sequel. After Mysteri Cooperation goes under thanks to the Soul Cloud's issues, they're bought up by a new company called Winter that uses the tech to launch Elysia, which is a Soul Cloud 2.0 where people can store their memories to relive them over and over. You play as a mysterious character who follows the memories of four different people: Solomon, an ex-soldier and presidential candidate, Dr. Davis, who seems to oppose Elysia, Professor Strazh, who runs Elysia, and an award-winning actress named Dana Scott, who serves as the "face of Elysia."
While the setting, politics, and ethical quandaries behind Elysia is interesting, the game is let down by awful story telling. The story is given in small bites, with the game alternating between whose memories you're going through between chapters. It's hard to care about any of the drama. Dana doesn't seem to serve any purpose other than to throw left-field wacky levels at you (seriously, her entire storyline is "Do you want this job?" "Yes."), while Dr. Davis is all over the place and confusing to follow. It doesn't help that the game has some terrible voice actors that only seem interested in awkwardly muttering their lines as quickly as possible, or that they cut cutscenes in half and withhold the second half based on completing special versions of each level.
Each level in Soul Axiom is unique and is nothing like the levels before or after it. You'll be traveling to Mayan ruins, a hospital, a university, a snow palace, a castle owned by a man obsessed with werewolves, and more. It's a cool varied spread that is one of the game's few advantages. Yet, as nice as these environments can get, they're also strange in their reuse of assets. A demon-looking fireplace may make sense in a graveyard, but I'm not sure what it's also doing in a hospital or a university. Even stranger is the use of assets from the developer's other games: the aforementioned werewolf castle mostly seems to exist to reuse the werewolf assets from Infinity Runner, as does a later spaceship level's reuse of that game's spaceships.
While the reuse of assets isn't that good, the levels still look nice. The environmental design is often creative and genuinely beautiful to look at. I entered levels and had a tendency to just stop and stare off into the distance and soak in the game. Sadly, it was only the levels that had this kind of beauty. Cutscenes looked awful for a variety of reasons. The most noticeable is that they're all strangely heavily compressed. I can't tell if this is an artistic choice, because "reliving memories in a glitchy computer", or if it's because they're just compressed to save room, but it looks terrible. Equally awful are the game's character models, all of which are stiff, emotionless, and oddly proportioned. One of my complaints about Master Reboot was that the cutscenes all looked liked they were done in MS Paint by a little kid. I'm not sure this is any better. The soundtrack is mostly decent at least, usually fitting the tone of the game. This is discounting one level where the soundtrack just keeps looping the same seven notes over and over, occasionally punctuating it with a little girl's laughter. Fittingly considering the reused assets from before, this laughter is reused from Master Reboot.
Each of these levels also has unique puzzles, a good chunk of which is based on of three main abilities you get. Phase allows you to make specific objects in the environment disappear or reappear. Play lets you move certain objects forward and backward along set paths. Destroy allows you to destroy certain objects. Later on, you do get a fourth power called Corrupt, but it's mostly just for situational moments.
Some of these puzzles are fascinating and creative too. The start of the ice palace level has you needing to find the correct combination to various astrological signs. To find the right combo you need to locate the token associated with each sign, and to get to the tokens you'll have to do different tasks. Some are just shooting them out of the air with the Destroy ability; others require you to raise an ice pillar out of the ground and use Play to hold it still, while others still require a combination of Play and Destroy to aim and fire a cannon to take down their shields. In a war zone level, I had to figure out the code to a bunker by cross referencing some simple math, flags on a map, and different time zones. When the game sticks to these kinds of puzzles is when it's at its best, and every time one showed up I was genuinely delighted.
Sadly, there's a lot of puzzles that are just annoying, puzzles that have obvious solutions that take too much time to carry out. A problem that required me to build an arrow took forever just getting the various pieces to come slowly out of the ground. There's also puzzles that need to be completed several times. A time-travel puzzle that takes place in an apartment needs to be completed several times, the same way each time, to finish the level and there's no real reason why.
Worse than either of those are puzzles that are just a pain to figure out. One level opens up with you trapped inside of a flooding airplane. To escape you need to open up the door, and it seems easy since it has four hinges you can shoot off with your destruction power. It turns out you also need to find a handle for the door, and it's hidden in some unmarked and difficult to see compartments. The game gives no indications on where these compartments are or that you even need the handle, leading to awkward pixel hunting between deaths.
For some awful reason, upon finishing all twelve levels, the game decides you need to replay each level to find a second "corrupted" half of it. Some levels' second run starts with their puzzles solved, others don't, and there's no real rhyme or reason as to why. For the life of me, I can't figure out why this sort of padding was needed for the game, other than to extend how long it takes to finish.
While the padding and too many of the puzzles are bad, far worse is just how much of a technical disaster Soul Axiom is. The first time I didn't actually have to finish that airplane puzzle because I clipped through one of its walls and fell outside of it. Another time I was stuck in a morgue and couldn't figure out how to advance for the life of me. It turns out an icicle that I was supposed to destroy became invincible for no reason. Puzzles were not solving when done correctly, items not appearing when they should, and more. I'm still debating which was worse: one level would hard crash the game every single time I failed a chase sequence (which was the entire level), or that I was locked out of the good ending because of one of the "corrupted" levels being completely inaccessible.
Master Reboot had heart, but it was overly ambitious and couldn't back up its ideas. I do believe Soul Axiom also has that spirit and ambition, but Wales Interactive has learned nothing from Master Reboot's failures. Soul Axiom should be better than Master Reboot, but it's not. It's glitchy, bad or broken puzzles outnumber the few fantastic ones, it has a strange chunk of padding, the story is forgettable, and the cutscenes are terrible. This is not a game I'd suggest dumping into your memories.
Soul Axiom has a few fantastic puzzles and some lovely environments. Sadly its also full of boring puzzles, an uninteresting story, horrid cutscenes, and some of the worst glitches I've seen in a video game.