Aura: Fate of the Ages Review

Aura: Fate of the Ages is an adventure game in the genre of the Myst or Schizm series. According to an ancient legend, The Keepers possess the sacred rings of the Worlds. The legend states that these rings provide the holder with the ability to travel to parallel worlds, where special artifacts exist. And whoever brings these rings together with the artifacts from the various worlds will achieve great power and immortality. You are Umang, a young man sent on a quest to find these special artifacts and unite them with the rings.

Like many other recent adventure games, Aura has fairly significant hardware requirements, particularly hard disk space. The only installation option requires 2GB of hard disk space, with a recommendation of 2.5GB. The good news is that once Aura is installed, the second and third CD-ROM can be put away, and the game can be played entirely with the first CD-ROM in the drive. The installation went smoothly (although it took about 20 minutes to load the 2GB of files to my hard disk); and I found almost no difficulties, anomalies, or other issues in firing up and playing the game.

Based on previews, demos, and pre-release screenshots I had seen, my expectations for Aura were very high. Nor was I disappointed. As in many similar adventure games, the user interface is first-person, point-and-click. Individual scenes allow full 360-degree panning (except while in some of the puzzle close-up views); and transitions between scenes are done in a Myst-like dissolve from one scene to the next. Changes in the cursor indicate available directions of movement, and simply clicking on those spots produces the desired movement. Similarly, picking up objects, or performing actions (e.g., opening a door, flipping a switch) is accomplished by clicking on those objects at the appropriate time.

As far as the game itself, the first thing that is noticeable in Aura is the lushness of the scenery. The artists at Streko Graphics did an oustanding job of designing 3D scenes, and populating them at an incredibly detailed level. This not only contributed to the beauty (and awesomeness) of the game, it also provided a certain level of additional "game play", as many of the scenes contained dozens of detailed rendered objects, all of which looked like they just might be important to the game -- and yet, most of the detail was simply to lend realism. Only after doing extensive exploring would it turn out that perhaps only one single object was actually involved in the game play. Yet searching for that one object was more often than not a rewarding experience, merely in terms of taking time to fully explore the intricate worlds created by the Aura developers.

The scenery, as might be expected, is frequently surrealistic, giving the graphic artists even further opportunities to exhibit their skills. Much of the game takes place outdoors, with bright sunlight, vibrant colors, and high contrast. The detailed texture mapping lent further realism to the scenes, and the objects contained in them. Exploring the various worlds of Aura was quite a treat.

The inventory is a very simple one. Items picked up immediately go into inventory, and there is no ability for multiple items to act upon each other within the inventory. The use of many of the items is intuitively obvious; others, however, have no apparent connection with anything in the game, requiring a certain degree of "try-each-inventory-item-on-this-active-spot" type of playing.

This brings up a very important factor about Aura. The game is laden with puzzles -- with a fine balance between inventory puzzles and pure logic puzzles. However, the vast majority of puzzles -- of both kinds -- should be considered highly intuitive puzzles. You won't find any pure mathematical puzzles, no slider puzzles, no obvious lock-and-key puzzles, or anything else that looks vaguely familiar. But you will spend a lot of time thinking things like "There has to be a reason for these switches here, and there's nothing else to tell me about them, so I have to make some inferences."

The story line is a bit weak, although it is not really necessary to enjoy Aura as an adventure-puzzle game. Other than the fact that Umang (you, the player) is trying to find certain sacred objects, and return them to their rightful place, the basic story (such as it is) simply allows you to explore one world after another (in a clearly serial fashion), solve enough puzzles in each location to obtain the appropriate objects, and move on to the next location. That's actually oversimplification, but the focus is clearly on the puzzles. What I found to be quite interesting, though, is that -- despite the highly intuitive nature of most of the puzzles -- they were all "solvable". None produced that awful feeling that most adventure gamers hate, when, after finally solving a particular puzzle, the primary emotional response is "That sure was stupid! Who would ever have thought of that???" Instead, there are clear clues to virtually every puzzle in the game. In fact, as I played the game, there were several puzzles that I solved purely by trial and error (disappointed, at the time, that the game hadn't given me enough clues to fully solve it), only to find out later that I had missed an obvious clue that would have made the solving much easier.

Toward the end of the game, the last few puzzles seemed to deteriorate slightly in this regard, moving away from the clear intuitive, logic puzzles that had become the hallmark of the rest of the game. The earlier puzzles were cleverly crafted -- and aided by some very imaginative and cunning clues. There were very few clues to the last couple of puzzles; it was almost as if there had not been quite enough time to fully flesh out the development and implementation of those last few puzzles.

I've already commented on the graphics, and I'll add that the audio portion of the game was also remarkable. In addition to ambient sounds (with full panning sound as I pivoted nearby a sound source, such as running water or a crackling fire), the background music was incredible. If the game had come with an additional CD of just the background music, I think I could listen to it for some time. Moving from pastoral to intense, from happy to stressful, the music definitely contributed to the mood throughout the game. Even the voicing of the instruments was done with a careful eye (ear?) to the resultant effect.

One technical problem I had with the game was an occasional instance where a mouse click would not be picked up by the game, and I had to click a second time. This became especially frustrating when, after getting used to the problem, I would often click a second time if I didn't get an immediate result the first time, only to discover that the game had picked up both clicks -- and I had now moved farther than I intended.

There were one or two other minor interface "glitches", as well, but only one that caused some gameplay problems. There are numerous cut-scenes in the game, many of which are dialogues between your character, Umang, and another character in the game. Frequently, there is important information contained in those dialogues. However, once a particular cut scene has been played, it cannot be replayed, without reloading a saved game. There is no record kept of the conversations which the player can go back to, and refer to what was said. To make matters worse, any of these cut-scenes can be terminated by typing any keyboard key. In my particular case, I was playing on a system whose volume is controlled via keyboard keys. I lost count of the number of times that a cut scene would begin, the volume would be too low, and involuntarily I would hit my volume key -- only to have the entire cut scene terminated, and have to restore a saved game and replay to that point. It would have been much less frustrating, had the developers limited the "terminate cut-scene" key to a single, unique keystroke.

Also, during the dialogues, it is fairly common to show close-up shots of Umang or another character. While the characters are rendered quite well, for the most part, Streko needs to do a little bit more work on animating the mouth movements. Most of the characters hardly moved their lips when they talked; and when they did, it was reminiscent of a low-budget Saturday-morning cartoon.

There is only one point in the game where your character can "die". Yet the game is "user-friendly" enough to simply put up a "Try Again" message, and return you to the point immediately before where you made the death-inducing decision. In this manner, there is really no chance of losing unsaved progress in a game. Saving games, however, is quite simple, and you can save an unlimited number of games. Each will be saved, along with an image representing the current location, and a date/time stamp. It is also quite easy to locate saved games and re-load them for further play.

Finally, without giving anything away, I'll say that the ending of the game seems to do more than just hint at a sequel. The player is presented with a closing cut scene that is reminiscent of a TV soap opera -- not only indicating that there are still "worlds to conquer and puzzles to solve", but with an added element of conflict introduced right at the very end, unbeknownst even to Umang, the main character.

In summary, I found Aura to be quite entertaining, and mildly challenging. The game provided about 20-25 hours of enjoyable play time, the graphics and 3D renderings are wonderful, and the sound track is very supportive of the game. Those who consider themselves "intuiters" will especially appreciate the game. I would look forward to any sequel with great anticipation.

-- Frank Nicodem