Atmosphere is one of the hardest things for a game to get right, and yet one of the most rewarding things to be included if done correctly. Too many games fall into the trap of “growling monsters just off camera” or “icky rusted environments” for either approach to really be effective anymore, so it’s pretty refreshing when a game manages to create atmosphere and mystery while providing a fresh world to experience and explore. If the early preview build of Soul Axiom is any indication, it’s up to the task – and admirably.
Soul Axiom places you inside a state-of-the-art computer/life simulator (referred to as a “Digital Soul Provider”, which is a concept that probably already has two terrible anime series based around it) known as Elysia. Elysia seems to be a cyberpunk writer’s fever dream and/or worst nightmare, combining aspects of the Grid from Tron and the Metaverse from Snow Crash into an unpredictable fusion of life-simulator and wish-fulfillment. Beginning the game on some kind of sky-bound pirate boat which quickly comes under attack from some kind of Lovecraftian revision of Bioshock Infinite‘s Songbird, you’re soon teleported through a variety of locales and settings, solving simple puzzles, deciphering esoteric clues, and attempting to unravel the mystery of what happened to you and why you’re trapped here in the Internet.
The puzzles and exploration are the crux of the game, and it bears some superficial resemblance to Portal without the attempts at creating new memes. Your primary abilities are linked to your left and right hands (and respective mouse buttons); one arm can create objects from nearby floating particles, and the other arm (the weird, translucent one) can dissipate objects in the environment to create said particles. This leads to a lot of fun environmental manipulation in the puzzles, often requiring you to craft platforms to scale cliffs or create (or eliminate) items in the correct pattern and sequence to open doors and gain access to areas. None of the puzzles are particularly taxing, and none of the “levels” take much time to complete, but you’re always given a strong sense of accomplishment for solving them, and you’re going to be too awestruck by the art design and graphics to be in a big rush to leave anyway.
I really can’t stress enough how beautiful this game is for an indie title. The world gives a perfect sense of disrepair and isolation without falling into the “Silent Hill-ripoff gross rusted pipes” feel too many other games employ (indie or otherwise), and it strikes a perfect balance of digital sheen and organic disrepair, creating a lived-in feeling in worlds that still manage to evoke the glowing bustle of the depressingly-underrated Tron 2.0. But even more than the totally obvious Tron references, the flat shading, lack of dialogue, and reliance on puzzles and environmental clues to convey a story reminds me of classic Amiga/Genesis adventure games like Out of this World and Flashback. If either of those names struck a chord with you, you need to try Soul Axiom.
Really, you should probably try Soul Axiom one way or another. Its unique world and fun approach to puzzle-solving deserve to be seen by a wide audience, if for no other reason than to make sure people don’t confuse it with the also-good Axiom Verge. If you’ve got a head for first-person puzzle-solving and/or you just want to wander around a well-realized but still mysterious digital realm for a while, Soul Axiom is here to scratch that weirdly specific itch you have – and do it damn well.