“The solution often turns out more beautiful than the puzzle.”
While Frank Herbet would have you believe that fear is the mind killer, anyone who has spent thirty minutes playing Myst can tell you that frustration is the real nail in the cranial coffin when it comes to figuring out point-and-click puzzle games (regardless of how many psychology experiments use it as a control). With seemingly limited gameplay mechanics comes the need for innovation and complexity, so developers often devise the most convoluted schemes to keep blood pressure high and players busy. The catch here, however, is to make sure the reward measures up to the challenge, and The Eyes of Ara, a new indie adventure game from 100 Stones Interactive, seems to fit the profile.
Set in a cliffside citadel rife with secret passages and moldering carpets,The Eyes of Ara sets the scene for your traditional haunted castle narrative. We, the player, are sent in to investigate a strange transmission that has all the local townsfolk in a tizzy, and soon discover there is more to the decrepit battlements than meets the eye. Through a series of journal entries, invoices, and drawings we dive deeper into the personal life of the hermit who lived there, and learn about the intricate workings of his secretive machines (which look to be a straight ripoff of Peter Dinklage in Destiny). While boilerplate in a lot of ways, Ara’s plot fits nicely with the environment and gives the player an excuse to believe why one house would have so many ridiculous puzzle doors.
As with most point-and-click games, The Eyes of Ara depends solely on reading clues, collecting keys, and opening locks. While the clues, keys, and locks may vary in function and appearance, the basic gist can be boiled down to pairing one item with another to produce the next puzzle: Keys can be rotated, floor tiles can be swapped, and switches can be flipped. Little notes, open books, and hand-drawn pictures offer substantial guidance, and several of the hints are cleverly insightful. The heavy emphasis on astronomy provided both a cohesive theme for the puzzles and a chance to move away from the haunted mansion motif. The game also offers players the chance to further fulfill their OCD tendencies with a number of random collectibles. Coins, pictures, and little figurines can be hoarded, but the benefit to picking these up is purely achievement-based as far as I could tell, and all it did for me was weigh down my trousers as I searched for the real puzzles.
While it sounds simple enough, the difficulty ramps up early in the game and players will find themselves managing a laundry list of unsolved puzzles and challenges. At one point I remember digging out a pad and pen and actually jotting down combinations and notes in order to solve puzzles down the line (since you can’t collect clues, possibly due to your character’s lack of pockets or hands). I can’t tell you the last time I actually had to use IRL notes to beat a game. That alone showed me just how invested I was in moving forward with the story, a drive not born of professional integrity (for I assure you I have none), but rather from pure interest alone. Some puzzles even frustrated me to the point of turning off the game and taking a break, but I found myself drawn back to it time and time again.
As with its famed predecessor, The Eyes of Ara carries players through the world scene by scene. Free movement is limited to turning your character’s head to look around, and progression is only accomplished by clicking your way down the hall or up the stairs. Unlike Myst, however, The Eyes of Ara really put the time into its makeup and hair. The game is downright gorgeous and I wished at every moment that I could just simply run freely through the halls instead of teleporting from one side to the next. It really does feel like the environment shrinks when you can only stand in the center of the room instead of covering every corner at your own whim, and while I understand that much would be missed in the point-and-click gameplay, it still feels stilted to structure such a pretty world so rigidly.
One thing I found particular irksome was the complete lack of video settings. There was no way to set the resolution or full/window screen, and for some reason the game defaulted to my side monitor, regardless of what I set as primary and secondary in windows. This wasn’t a deal breaker, but I find it hard to throw a rock at my Steam library and not find a game that has complete control over resolution. It just seemed like a strange thing to leave out*. I also noticed a niggling spelling error in one of the game’s texts, but I’ll leave that to the developer to figure out (I’m sure the Gemini twins will forgive you). The music was pleasant and unassuming, and I didn’t end up turning off the ever-repetitive sound effects until the fourth hour in, which is far more than I can say for most games that find their way to my desk.
Ultimately, my time spent with The Eyes of Ara was far from wasted. The beautiful environment, difficult puzzles, and worthwhile sense of achievement almost made me forget my character was glued to the floor of each room. I’ve been tough on point-and-click games in the past, but 100 Stones Interactive has actually made me stop and reconsider: If I’m so engrossed in a game that I end up scribbling notes all over my desk like a handsome version of Einstein, then something is being done right.
*Note: 100 Stones Interactive insists that there are Resolution settings on the main menu tab. Please excuse me while I castigate myself for being so dense.