Review: Soul Axiom (Wii U eShop)

It's got soul, man

Soul Axiom is a spiritual successor to Master Reboot, a rather decent and interesting Wii U eShop title from Wales Interactive. They're not directly tied together, but thematic and stylistic crossovers deliberately nudge and wink at those with experience of the previous release, while Soul Axiom also goes its own way. Ultimately, this is a game of mixed fortunes; in some areas it deserves hearty praise and is worth playing, but there are notable drawbacks.

The key mechanic in this game revolves around the protagonist's ability to utilise special abilities with their hands. A structured opening takes you through basic movement, and early on you gain the ability to phase certain objects in and out of existence. Not long later you can 'play' and pause objects, apparently manipulating their space in time, and there are a couple of extra abilities later on that you can discover for yourself. Each ability is colour coded, and puzzles related to them often make matters simple as objects glow to point you in the right direction.

Like its spiritual predecessor, Soul Axiom settles into a pattern of sending you to contained areas that vary wildly from each other. There are narrative reasons for this, as you're in a facility designed as a sort-of visiting place and touring facility for souls; Wales Interactive tackles some philosophical aspects of this - what is a soul, is a person's identity something that can easily be saved and preserved in digital form? That hook is utilised quite well in terms of distorting reality, with some mysteries that cut across the varied stages to form a broader plot.

The narrative isn't quite as cohesive as in Master Reboot, we feel, and the diverse stage designs also struggle to maintain the momentum of that previous release. There's no argument with the volume of content or the variety on offer - stages include mysterious hospitals, tropical forests and a space ship among others - but the execution is rather hit and miss. In a few cases we were looking for hints and tips online to get past levels that weren't exactly grabbing our attention.

Part of the problem is the puzzle design, which is only occasionally smart but can be ponderous. The aforementioned colour-coding of items makes things simple, while on the flipside a solution could be to flick a switch that's very easily missed. Part of that particular problem falls on the visuals, which show plenty of creative spirit despite shortcomings.

Though it's the same visual engine as used in other Wales Interactive titles, in this case the rough edges and limited detail can be an issue; we scrambled around one area for quite some time before stumbling upon a lever, for example. There are also performance hitches; we've come across a few scenarios where the framerate briefly drops to single digits, normally when stood in a particular spot. On one occasion our character also glitched into the air, forcing a restart of a particularly lengthy and tricky puzzle stage. These moments are relatively rare, but they're merely the worst examples of generally choppy performance. Rather like in Master Reboot it's clear the Wii U is struggling a little with this particular aspect of the Unity engine, and performance is always tolerable but little more.

Choppy performance and rather variable puzzle designs do make the experience a modest one, but it's nevertheless not a title without appeal. In skipping between diverse areas and settings Wales Interactive does flex its creative muscles, in terms of visual design at least. Soul Axiom is truly atmospheric at times, with some excellent music and sound effects helping it along; some of the voice acting can be a little off-key, but in general we were intrigued for large spells of our playtime.

Ultimately, those good intentions and whole-hearted commitment to the concept aren't always enough on their own. Sluggish performance makes the controls equally sticky, and not all areas and puzzles are on point; there's that lingering sense, too, that optimisation for the Wii U struggled to get past the initial 'functional' stage.

Conclusion

Soul Axiom has some strong points to make it potentially enticing for eShop enthusiasts; it works hard to deliver an interesting narrative, there are plenty of hours of play, and it's atmospheric and intriguing at times. There are downsides though, with performance and puzzle design often middling and sometimes poor, which both drag the experience back somewhat. Perhaps worth a punt - at a budget price - for fans of first-person puzzles, but Soul Axiom sadly doesn't deliver to its full potential.