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Aura: Fate of the Ages (2004)  
by Bacardi Jim
July 27, 2004

 


Developer: Streko Graphics  
Publisher: The Adventure Company

Those of you familiar with me may be aware by now that I have a long standing feud with The Adventure Company.  Nevertheless, the website and early information released about Aura convinced me to give TAC my money and check out this Myst-clone throwback.  And, at $20, it was worth every cent and then some, despite the game’s somewhat short length and abrupt ending.  This is the most fun I’ve had playing an adventure game since last summer’s underrated Salammbo, and counts as one of the best original release games in TAC’s history.

The term “Myst-clone” gets used a lot in adventure gaming, and has come to refer to practically any 1st-person perspective game with a pre-rendered slideshow presentation and node-based movement.  However, the term is much more applicable to Aura than to many other games.  The premise has you playing Umang, a young student of the Myst-ical science of manipulating magical Rings which allow one to create alternate worlds and travel between them.  Umang is sent out early on by one of his clan’s Elders to seek out his teacher, Grifit, who seems to have gone into hiding.  During his search for Grifit, Umang discovers that there has been a rebellion within the clan, with a power-hungry warlord having seized political control.  Umang becomes enmeshed in a race against time to find Grifit and collect the scattered Rings before the warlord can seize them and use their power to exert supreme control over the clan.  Although Umang travels between worlds in a bizarre flying craft that is a cross between the famous flying boat from Cryo’s Atlantis games and a bomber plane rather than linking books, the theme remains the same.

While Umang is not the typical Myst-clone anonymous-genderless-faceless-nameless-generic-invisible protagonist, he might as well be.  He is seen only in cutscenes (which include all dialogue scenes—no dialogue trees here!).  This leads to one of my tiny quibbles with Aura: the character modeling isn’t particularly realistic nor especially pretty.  Characters tend to look a bit like the Rankin-Bass “Animagic” characters in such classic TV fare as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  However, on every other level, Aura is pure visual magic.  Not since Riven have I so frequently just stopped and watched the screen, murmuring, “Ooohhh… pretty!”  Among contemporary adventure games, only Syberia can compete on the same level graphically.  And I actually found Aura more breathtaking than Syberia.  While Sokal is an undisputed artistic marvel, both of his Syberia games often featured monochromatic settings: stark white snow, the steel grey of Barrockstadt, etc.  By comparison, many of the worlds in Aura are brilliantly, vibrantly lush with color.  The details are sharp and beautiful.  Though obviously “art” and eschewing the photorealism of, say, Riven, Aura manages to provide some of the most visually wondrous environments you are likely to encounter in a game.  The closest comparison might be to imagine Schizm without the compression problems and with a more vibrant palette.  

Another defining characteristic of a Myst-clone is simplicity of interface, and Aura passes this test with flying colors (so to speak).  There are only two icons used: one with an arrow for navigation, and a simple oval one that glows green when over an interactive hotspot.  Hotspots are identical whether you are supposed to use an inventory item there (yes, there is an inventory) or simply supposed to use your hands.  Inventory is accessed through right-clicking your mouse.  Rolling your cursor over an item gives you a close-up and description of the item.  Merely select an item with a click and then right-click again to exit the inventory screen. Your cursor now becomes a picture of the item which glows when you pass it over a hotspot.  Attempting to use the incorrect item automatically returns it to your inventory.  Your inventory also contains a journal which will occasionally get automatic entries.  Don’t worry— no massive amounts of reading here.  The journal entries are all diagrams of machinery and the symbols Umang encounters, acting as a pictorial source of hints.  The save/Load menu is toggled by the Esc key.  

Many contemporary adventure gamers search for the elusive attribute of “non-linearity.”  Aura succeeds better than most adventure games in this respect, and even in those places where your progress is linear, it gives the illusion of non-linearity by allowing you to explore areas in any order you wish, even if you eventually discover that you can’t complete a task because you didn’t take care of something somewhere else first and have to backtrack.  There is also a bit of the annoying “forced” backtracking wherein you have to trot back and forth between two spots.  Fortunately, these occasions are few and the two screens are always less than a dozen nodes apart, so such backtracking never becomes too onerous.  

The true measure of this type of game, for many gamers, lies in its puzzles.  Aura provides us with a mixed bag.  The vast majority of the puzzles are mechanical in nature, figuring out how to activate this or that machine.  In general, these puzzles are terrific examples of the genre.  While the difficulty level is not as high as, say, Riven, the puzzling is predominantly of medium to medium-high caliber.  Some of these puzzles would fit seamlessly into one of Rand Miller’s games, requiring detailed observation of your environment and piecing together of clues from your journal or surroundings.  Most of them flow logically from the provided clues or settings.  A few of them were actually fairly easy.  There were a couple of stinkers.  There is one memorably horrible puzzle in which you must arrange 16 symbols on four panels in order to activate a machine.  Not only was I forced to go to a walkthrough for this one, but even after reading the explanation and working through the puzzle, I still had no understanding of the logic behind it.  This was also the one puzzle that trod close to the line of being “twiddleware,” an all-too-common failing when designers strive to create original manipulation/mechanical puzzles.  In general, I was quite pleased with the quality of the puzzling.  A certain amount of note-taking was required, but the use of the journal kept that from being too burdensome.  There are none of the math puzzles that scare people off from games like Schizm and Rama and none of the brute-force-requires-fifty-plus-steps-and-divine-patience-to-complete nightmares of 7th Guest/11th Hour.

Of course, one can no longer review an Adventure Company game without commenting on the technical problems.  Aura does not have the dreaded Starforce copy protection software.  It seems that TAC may finally have abandoned this bit of malware in response to the public outcry against it.  In general, Aura seems to run better than most recent TAC releases.  It installed flawlessly for me and never crashed.  However, I did encounter what seems to be a commonly-reported bug in the game, one Aura shares with fellow TAC game Jack the Ripper.  On occasion, the navigation arrow cursor will fail to appear, thus precluding you from traveling a necessary direction.  This requires exiting and restarting the game.  There is also a built-in glitch which allows you to recover one of the requisite items from an area without going through three-fourths of the “necessary” steps.

My final quibble with Aura is about the game’s length.  Not that Aura was absurdly short.  It took us about 12-14 hours, though that included having to redo one entire section due to the vanishing cursor and our stupidity in not having saved the game recently.  At a mere $20, Aura provides plenty of play time for the buck.  My quibble is with the fact that the game misleads you into thinking it is going to be much longer.  When you first activate Umang’s flying machine, your “map” indicates that there are four different worlds to visit.  It turns out that the world in which you begin counts as one of those four, thus only giving you three more worlds to visit.  And Umang’s journey to the final world is over almost as soon as it begins, acting merely as the setting for the final lengthy cutscene.

Then again, perhaps my disappointment with the unexpected end of the game was partly due to the sheer enjoyment I was having.  Aura was a revitalizing breath of fresh air from a publisher whose name has become practically synonymous with drab, cookie-cutter titles.  The designers at Streko Graphics should be proud of this, their first game to be released in North America .  They have created a gorgeous, lush, interesting and fun puzzle-based adventure game, breathing life back into a sub-genre that many people wrote off as dead long ago.  The end of Aura certainly suggests the possibility of a sequel.  Should Streko survive, look for me at the head of the line when Aura II: Worlds Beyond is released.

SCORE: 8 ½ (out of 10)

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