Clueless is the word
Aura: Fate of the Ages is the first game from Canadian-based developer Streko-Graphics. This point-and-click game, played from the first-person perspective, has beautiful graphics, seamless integration of cut scenes, and a few interesting puzzles. But what strikes me most about this game is the unfortunate mismatch of various game components, which renders the whole game into a series of disjointed scenes and keeps you forever clueless and disengaged.
Game starts in a low gear, never shifts
Unbeknownst to us, the ignorant and lowly masses, the universe is guarded by the secret cadre of wise men (apparently no women) who call themselves the Keepers. The Keepers train the next generation so that their hold on the universe will continue. You are Umang, the best and brightest student of Arakon, who sends you to Ademika to continue your studies with the master Grifit. However, something seems to have gone amiss, and when you arrive at the house in Ademika the master is not there. You find a cryptic note from him telling you to prepare the ship and the navigation map (without telling you how). You are left alone there, with a journal with afew pages of drawings of some elaborate machinery.
You look around in the house and you find some gadgets whose purpose is not evident just by looking at them. Step outside, and you can discern several large structures under the night sky that clearly need some type of activation. NOW WHAT? You are left alone in this place with no master to guide you, and you are not sure what you are supposed to do. So far not so exciting. I am starting to regret my purchase. At this juncture, a good adventure game offers you some kind of motivation to solve puzzles and get you going on their “adventure”. It could be in the form of a villain appearing out of nowhere, or an explosion outside that precipitates some event, or a manuscript that prompts you to explore hitherto hidden places. None of that is offered in Aura. The pace of the game is very pedestrian. The game starts in a low gear, and never goes into a higher gear. There is no compelling reason within the game for you to proceed.
Near the end of the Ademika non-adventure, your mission is sort of defined. You are to travel to other worlds and collect certain rings and tetrahedrons - whatever those are - so that they don’t fall into the enemy’s hand. Despite the threat from which you are supposed to be fleeing, the game does not pick up the pace there. The story never quite develops beyond this point, and you soon forget why you are doing what you are doing.
What’s with the rings and tetrahedrons?
What holds the game together is supposed to be the quest for the sacred rings and the tetrahedrons held by the elders. “Great power and immortality await those who possess the sacred rings.” So says the box that contains the game CDs. Am I playing The Lord of the Rings? The game manual also says “…the elders of the clan are able to travel to parallel worlds and even create new worlds with the help of these rings…” Or maybe I am playing Myst or Uru? Oh and what is this tetrahedron? What’s so special about it? It is never explained in the game. Since the game abandons any effort to further develop the story or the character after the initial world, you don’t fully understand what these rings and tetrahedrons are about, and what your role is in trying to collect them.
Besides, when you hear “rings”, don’t you picture a ring that you put on your finger? That’s what I did, but the “ring” in this game turned out to be more like a puzzle piece made of concentric metal loops, a rather clumsy looking object that you can’t possibly carry close to your body (definitely not on your finger). Not just the rings, but many of the inventory items simply do not look like what they say they are. For example in Ademika, you will pick up a “generator”, but it looks like a cigar with bumps along the outer surface. You know it is a “generator” because the screen tells you it is a generator when it magically floats into your inventory bar. Ditto for the “navigation map”. It is not a map per se, but it is a rigid-looking, square tablet with destinations programmed in. Things are not what you think they are, and that adds to the overall befuddled feeling you get throughout the game.
Beautiful but disjointed worlds
Thanks to the very linear nature of the game, the airship takes you from Ademika to Dragast with snow-peaked mountains, then to Na-Tiexu. You have no choice in the matter. In Na-Tiexu, there’s a room with four mirrors from which you can now embark on a pseudo-nonlinear (but buggy) exploration of four different worlds – Astrology World where you meet the Astrologer, Spirit World where you meet the Spirit Woman and her underling, Children’s World where you meet ungrateful children (or you could say Crystal Cave World where you find a cave with crystals), and Magical World where you wonder what’s magical about this world. After solving puzzles in these worlds, you get to go to your final destination, Island of Unity.
I haven’t a clue why, after a linear travel through Ademika and Dragast, we suddenly get this mirror room where you are required to go to four worlds to solve puzzles. I find no compelling reason why the setup of the worlds needs to change so drastically in the mid-game as it does in this game. The Island of Unity doesn’t make sense either. What kind of unity is it? Judging from the name, it is perhaps to unite the previous four worlds – Astrology, Spirit, Children (or Crystal), and Magic. Or is it supposed to unite the mechanistic worlds of Ademika and Dragast with the esoteric worlds of Na-Tiexu? That makes more sense, but it is such a dated idea and such a cliché you can only shake your head and laugh.
What’s more, as I just mentioned above, the journey in Na-Tiexu is “pseudo-nonlinear”. If you go to the Spirit World first, for example, certain important events are never triggered. It turns out that to receive your tasks in these worlds you have to go to the Astrology World first. However, after the Astrology World and the Spirit World, you are left on your own. The Astrologer doesn’t bother to tell you what you’re expected to do in the Children’s World and the Magical World. Not even a hint.
The game has some superb, dazzling graphics to illustrate these worlds. My favorite is a sparkling starry sky as you climb up the stairs in the Astrology World, a subset of Na-Tiexu. (I had the screen capture for the wallpaper of my computer for a while.) However, you get this feeling of not really being immersed in any of the worlds. The biggest reason is that you don’t know what you are supposed to do in these worlds. You are not sure why you are there or what you are doing. The worlds are full of strange machines and contraptions and you cannot even guess what they are. You are an insecure visitor. You are there just to solve puzzles and collect certain objects without fully grasping why. (It could be done equally in underground dungeons for all I care.) The worlds are beautiful to look at, but that’s about the extent of your interest.
Brightest but clueless protagonist and Keepers bored to death
You will be very disappointed playing the character Umang. He is supposed to be the best and the brightest, but in the master’s house in Ademika he is totally clueless as to what to do and what to expect. That’s not surprising in itself, because you, playing Umang, are clueless. When you see Umang in a cut scene, he looks like a deer in a headlight. Unfortunately, this cluelessness just continues throughout the game. In every world that you (Umang) visit, you only have a vague idea, if any at all, about what the world is about, and what you are supposed to do and with what. Nothing propels you or compels you to do certain things. You just bumble along.
You will be further disappointed when you hear Umang speak. It’s a rather silly story, but the characters in the game don’t know that and they have to play their parts. Umang, however, speaks with zero gravitas, as if the clan’s crisis and his mission and everything else are no bigger deal than going to a fast-food restaurant to order a burger.
And these Keepers. The wise masters that Umang encounters in different worlds all talk as if they were over-worked employees at a municipal office. “No, no. You used the wrong application form. Can’t help you. Next!” As Umang, you don’t learn anything from them, as they are busy doing whatever paper-shuffling they do. The person you encounter first in Dragast is so absorbed in his jigsaw puzzle, all he cares about is whether you can bring him the missing pieces. Where is a sense of urgency? Isn’t the clan of the Keepers facing the gravest crisis of its existence?
Puzzles without context and logic
Puzzles in this game are hard, not because they require trigonometry or calculation in the base-4 number system (trust me, such a game exists, and I have played it), but the puzzles are given without any context to let you figure out how you may approach them in order to solve them. Let me give you one example. In the Astrology World, the Astrologer tells you he can help put together the Star Dust if you find the Grain of Life in the Spirit World. So you find the Grain of Life and go back to the Astrologer. Now he tells you to clean the Grain. You are expected to somehow know how to clean it. There is no use trying to ask the Astrologer because he is busy (i.e. he is not “clickable”). There is absolutely no way you know how to solve the puzzle without further information. The method to clean the grain turns out to be so foreign and so totally devoid of any semblance of logic, all you can do is to just watch how it happens and scratch your head. You attempt to clean it simply because you are told to do it.
What is more puzzling to me in this particular puzzle is why the Grain becomes the Star Dust. It doesn’t make any sense. The rest of the puzzles in the game are pretty much like this example. The developer’s logic and mine were each in a separate parallel universe, and the two never met throughout the game.
Cause and effect don’t match
This is particularly true with the puzzles in the initial world of Ademika. You are presented with puzzles that involve complicated-looking machines. You are to supply the missing parts or codes. In most cases you can’t tell what the machine is supposed to do just by looking at it. So-called hints in the journal are more hindrance and frustration than help, because you can’t figure them out. You somehow come up with the correct code combination and the elaborate machine starts to do what it is supposed to do. However, the input doesn’t seem to match the output. For such a miniscule input (like inserting the key or programming the code), the result is often a gigantic and elaborate operation of a large machine the purpose of which you have no idea.
The other extreme is the Children’s World. Here, there is no clue of what your goal is. You pick up certain items and solve puzzles made almost impossible by lack of information, so that the children can hear the bird sing. After all that trouble, do you get thanks from the children? NO. These two ungrateful brats who live in a crystal cave ignore you and continue to stare into the horizon. Without any feedback as to whether I did things right, I went back into the cave to see if there was anything I missed. Well, there wasn’t. Again, after consulting several walkthroughs, these children are ungrateful and unresponsive like that.
The game comes on 3 CDs and installs completely on the hard disk, although you need to have CD 1 in your CD-ROM drive to play and save the game.
Navigation is easy. You have an almost 360-degree freedom of view to examine your environment, but you can only move in a pre-determined path, one step (click) at a time. Right clicking the mouse gives you access to the inventory bar. At the right end of the inventory bar you have a journal, which will shimmer when a new hint is stored in the course of the game. (But as I have said elsewhere, this journal was more hindrance and frustration than help.) The game’s menu is accessible by hitting the Esc key, and has options for sound control and subtitles. Hitting the space bar will end the cut scenes.
Throughout the game, the hot spots are not very accurately defined. When you are walking on a path, for example, a clickable spot to go forward on that path does not often appear straight ahead. It appears slightly to the left or right of the path. The hot spots for people you are supposed to interact with don’t appear unless you are at a particular angle to these people. In Na-Tiexu for example, even if you see the Spirit Woman’s assistant right in front of you, you have to take a step further forward and turn left to speak to her. In order to talk to the Astrologer you have to go around to his right side.
The game, at least on my computer, is very unstable. It often decides to quit on its own without any warning. This happened to me several times earlier in the game, and each time I was forced to start from the beginning as there was no saved file. I almost quit the game right there.
It could just be my copy (which I bought brand-new), but I also encountered serious bugs toward the end of the game, in the mirror room of Na-Tiexu. When I didn’t go to the world closest to the entrance door, the whole game crashed, and it crashed my computer. After I somehow managed to go through all four worlds and was ready to open the back door one last time, to my sheer frustration the hot spot on the back door completely disappeared! I did all that was necessary and now this! I saved the game there anyway, and abandoned the game for a few days. To my surprise, when I started the game again from the saved file, the hot spot miraculously re-appeared. After consulting several walkthrough sites, the problem seems to be a common one.
What’s with the name?
Forgive me for being very picky, but I have lived in Asia (east, south, south-east) long enough to know that Umang is an Indian name. I remember a small island resort in Indonesia also named Umang. And the world of Na-Tiexu. From the very spelling of the name, it feels oriental – south-east Asian, or Chinese. It is possible that adventure game developers have run out of names to put to their characters and their worlds, but still we expect the game worlds to be named differently from what is readily recognizable in our world, and to be inhabited by people with names we don’t associate with our own.
Can’t shake off this déjà vu feeling…
The game sadly belongs to the “stunning graphics but what else?” genre of adventure games that often come out of Eastern Europe. So much so that as I was playing the game I kept thinking about another, totally forgettable game with great graphics – Sentinel: Descendants in Time from a Polish developer, Detalion (the game review is available from our site). The flimsy story, which feels like The Lord of the Rings and Myst/Uru combined in a haphazard way, never develops into anything interesting. I go from world to world, collecting objects I don’t recognize. I don’t learn anything about the world I am exploring, and nothing I do makes any impact on the world. What the hell am I doing? This is no adventure. (I even said the same thing in the review of Sentinel!)
In the end, I couldn’t care less if there was a rebellion by a disgruntled Keeper. If there was, I’d say good for him. Rebellion and destruction seem so much better than maintaining their beautiful but disengaging worlds. If you want an adventure, don’t waste your time on this one. With annoying technical problems (as described above) I cannot recommend this game. The sequel has just been released (March 2007), but from what I’ve heard so far, don’t hold your breath; only the die-hard puzzle fans need to apply. My final score is 35, the only point-getters being decent graphics and some good cutscenes.
Oh how I long for a good adventure game these days… I think I will now go play Uru again and see if my tree has grown taller…