Reviewed: July 26, 2004
Released: June 24, 2004
“Adventure games” really started to take a foothold when Sierra Online merged graphics with the familiar text parser of games like Zork back in the mid-80’s. In fact, Leisure Suit Larry was the first graphical adventure I ever played and I was hooked, so much in fact that I actually went to work for Sierra back in 1990.
That was the Golden Era of adventure games, and when FPS, RTS, RPG and other new genres invaded the gaming world in the mid-90’s the traditional adventure game faded away, only to recently reappear thanks mostly in part to overseas developers and a few key publishers willing to release their games in the States.
Today’s adventure games come in two distinct styles; the exploration and story-based games (Syberia) that pay tribute to the classic games from the previous decade, and a new type of puzzle-based adventure born from titles like Myst. Each style of adventure game is quite unique but only the first is truly worthy of the classification of “adventure game”.
Aura: Fate of the Ages definitely falls into the second category, following a troublesome trend in the adventure genre where games are nothing more than a series of puzzles set against stunning graphics. Whereas early adventure games were created by storytellers; today’s games seem to be created by artists and engineers. Frankly, we need the “adventure” put back in adventure games.
Aura looks and plays much like Myst, albeit a much prettier version even exceeding the wonderful visuals of Myst III: Exile. The game is essentially a series of puzzles set against four very unique and beautiful parallel worlds. You wander around these worlds using the standard first-person mouse-click interface, rotating your view at each “node” and interacting with any object that will cause your mouse cursor to change shape.
Aura does have an underlying plot but most of it can be found on the back of the box. There are a few conversations and some cutscenes throughout the game that fill in or flesh out the story but at the end of the day it simply seems you are here to figure out the operation of all sorts of creative and crazy contraptions and retrieve some key objects required to protect four magical rings from falling into evil hands.
To their credit, the designers have managed to work in clues and to some degree, solutions for nearly all of the puzzles in the game. If you are observant and diligent enough to thoroughly explore the levels you will find notes, books, etchings on walls, and many other clues to guide you on the operation of nearly every device in the game. But nothing is handed to you on a silver platter, and you will still have to use some gray matter to work your way through the puzzles in Aura.
The puzzles are numerous and fiendishly difficult and despite the built-in help system the game is likely to scare off casual gamers and perhaps even a few graduates from the School of Myst. Even with a printed strategy guide by my side there were times when I had to reach for the Tylenol. The game is sectioned off into worlds and even into smaller areas, and there is an impressive amount of puzzles and clues in each. Many of the puzzles can be solved in any order, although some solutions must be combined to reach the ultimate objective.
This means that at any given time you are subject to information overload. You’ll have a half-dozen puzzle locations tucked in the back of your head and all sorts of notes and diagrams, some of which you have to draw yourself, so have a pencil and notebook handy unless you have a photographic memory.
Even though the puzzles seem elaborate they are all somehow tied into the worlds in which they reside, and if you think the solutions are complex just wait until you see the wonderful animations of these devices actually in motion. Never before has an animation or movie been such a worthy reward for solving a puzzle.
The game pads itself with some frequent backtracking across previously explored sections, some of which is forced by the gameplay while others are merely dead-ends that curiosity will insist you explore even though logic tells you “you can’t go there yet”.
There is some minor interactivity with the environments. You can manipulate buttons and switches to operate some machinery. There is a clever bridge puzzle in the second world that requires a rather complex solution to activate, but once you have it turned on the rotating bridge will grant you access to several destinations.
Other puzzles require the collection and manipulation of items in your inventory. These follow the standard rules of adventure game puzzles set forth years ago, namely “trial and error”. There is also another style of puzzle that is now made possible thanks to sound cards; musical puzzles. These puzzles are downright evil and if you manage to solve them without a walkthrough then pat yourself on the back.
Aura is a beautiful game. The only thing that comes close are the Syberia games and that is a different style of adventure. Perhaps Schizm or Myst III: Exile would be a better reference, but Aura blows past these titles by offering a game where every image and background is worthy of being framed and hanging on your wall. Even the incidental backgrounds such as passages or small rooms that aren’t crucial to the game are given special care in their design with wonderful textures and realistic lighting.
The worlds are very unique which gives the artists a chance to create theme-based environments that favor technology, nature, or a clever mix of both. The animation is fluid whether you are panning the camera around any of the thousands of scenic vistas or triggering an in-game animation of walking up some stairs or flying across the skies.
Perhaps one of the nicest elements in the game is that every action is animated. Previously, in games like this when you picked up an object it would magically appear in your inventory or if you manipulated something in the game world it simply happened. Now, objects and inventory items glide about the screen as you interact with your mouse. It gives the entire game an extra level of immersion and a very unique style.
I already briefly mentioned the puzzle animations, but they are so beautiful they need to be mentioned again. Every time you solve a puzzle there is a stunning animation of the machine or device coming to life and doing whatever it is supposed to do. These animations are usually accompanied by sweeping camera angles and loads of special effects.
There is a wonderful background score that is part orchestra and part environmental. The music is very professional and quite stirring when it is playing, but often the music slips into the background to make way for environmental noises and the sounds of the various devices you will be playing with throughout the game.
Every sound effect is crystal clear and perfectly placed whether it be the chilling winds blowing through the snow-capped mountains of Dragast, the grinding gears of some complex machine, or the hum of energy as it powers some strange alien device. The sound complements the visuals and creates a totally convincing and believable world, even when that world is based on pure fantasy.
There is also plenty of spoken dialogue in Aura that ranges in quality from average to downright corny. The acting itself it generally quite good but a lot of the script is just sub-par, which furthers my belief than these games are being created by engineers and artists rather than writers and storytellers. A lot of the plot elements seem to be a mishmash of elements from dozens of previous adventure games.
Expert puzzle-solvers will find about 10-12 hours of hardcore adventure gaming in the four wonderful worlds of Aura. Novices and even experienced gamers will likely spend up to 20 hours provided they don’t seek therapy first. Of course these figures assume you don’t run off searching for a strategy guide before you make it out of Ademica Valley.
Much like any other adventure game, once finished there is no real reason to replay Aura, but there is more than enough content in this game to justify a purchase for anyone seeking the ultimate test of logic and problem solving.
If Myst was the Kindergarten of adventure games then Aura: Fate of the Ages is grad school. The complexity of the puzzles and the level of difficulty are staggering, and it’s easy to see this was a game designed by veterans for veterans. If and when you eventually do solve that final puzzle and complete the game you will have earned some well-deserved bragging rights and perhaps an engineering degree.
Aura is a stunning journey, more so in its visual splendor and complex gameplay than its weak narrative, but a journey that every self-proclaimed adventure gamer should experience. If you’ve conquered the rest, try the best.