The Sacred Rings Review
The Sacred Rings (a.k.a. Aura 2) is the long-awaited sequel to the popular Aura: Fate of the Ages, from Streko Graphics. In the first game, a young man named Umang was given a quest to find the Sacred Rings belonging to The Keepers, the guardians of an ancient legend. Now, in The Sacred Rings, Umang finds himself thrust into a dark and unwelcoming world, with no idea of where he is, or why he is there. In his clenched hand, however, are the Sacred Rings that he received at the end of Aura.
Umang quickly discovers that his earlier quest is not yet complete. The Shadow Legion has taken over the Keeper's Palace. They have tracked down Umang, and want the Sacred Rings for their own evil purposes. Playing as Umang, you must find a way to protect the Sacred Rings, and defeat the Shadow Legion once and for all.
In keeping with the design of Aura, the user interface in TSR is a first-person point-and-click interface, allowing full 360-degree panning within individual scenes. As the player moves through the game, changes from scene to scene are done using the familiar scene dissolve transition common to many such games. The interface is highly intuitive, with changes in the cursor indicating directions of movement, items to interact with, etc.
The artists at Streko Graphics have once again done a fantastic job, equaling or surpassing the high quality graphics in Aura. The scenes in TSR are lush and elaborate; the lighting effects and textures provide a high level of realism. The detail within individual scenes is often astonishing. And the characters are rendered and animated extremely well. The screenshots in the sidebar show only a small sampling of the excellent graphics that generate such an incredibly realistic environment in TSR.
As might be expected in a game that combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, and adventure, the scenery ranges from surrealistic landscapes to ancient castles, from bright days to gloomy dungeons, from familiar tools and items to strange and wonderful mechanical devices or methods of transportation. What I found most interesting -- and most appealing -- was that seldom was navigation confined to a "grid" that was easily mappable. Indeed, even inside buildings the passages often twisted and turned, intertwined with stairways and elevators, resulting in a complex 3-dimensional environment throughout the game. This added a dimension of realism to the game play, and thwarted any quick memorizing of a "forward/backward, right/left" perspective. I found I had to rely more on the "landmarks" within a scene rather than simply remembering "three clicks forward and turn right," as I attempted to navigate my way through complex environments that became almost maze-like at times. It was truly an incredible layout and design for navigation and exploration.
The inventory is a simple one; rarely are there more than half a dozen items in inventory at any one time. Inventory items are typically used either as tools (such as a crowbar), or to resolve some inventory puzzle (such as a key, or a puzzle piece). The use of the inventory is simple; however, there is some minor awkwardness in choosing, then using, an inventory item. This sometimes resulted in unnecessary clicks to select and use something, particularly in cases of "try everything in inventory on this object here."
The puzzles in TSR are similar in style to those in Aura. There is a good mix of inventory-style and logic-based puzzles. Most are highly intuitive. And they are all integrated well into the environment and the story, rather than being gratuitous "puzzles for the sake of puzzles." The only distinction I would make when comparing the two is that I did not experience the same challenge level from the puzzles in TSR as I did in Aura. Having been a reviewer of Aura, as well as a contact for players experiencing difficulties with the game, I know that there were many players who felt that some of the puzzles in Aura were too difficult. Personally, I enjoyed the Aura puzzles immensely, and the challenges they presented. However, it is possible that enough negative feedback to the developers may have resulted in a bit of a "softening" of the challenges offered in the TSR puzzles. Still, most players should appreciate that the puzzles in TSR are eminently solvable, with no real "stumpers."
The story line in TSR is a bit stronger than in Aura. But both games focus more on being good adventure games, with well-crafted puzzles -- both inventory-style and logic-based -- than on becoming encumbered with the story. The only negative side-effect of the story line in TSR -- and this really applies to any game that attempts to develop too complex a story -- is the increased linearity of game play. This can sometimes result in a player reaching a point of frustration, because everything that can be explored at the moment has been explored; all apparent puzzles have been solved. Until that one minor "trigger" can be found -- that one action taken, or that one object discovered, or even that one pixel-hunt accomplished -- the game is stalled. Fortunately, this did not happen often in TSR; and the excellent story and game play seemed to make any game linearity tolerable.
The background music, environmental effects, and other audio in the game is once again excellent. As with Aura, the background music was a key factor in establishing the mood in various situations, setting the "tension level," even indicating danger. It could also be light and pastoral, and enhanced game play quite effectively. The character voicings were done well, with no "caricatured" -- or overacted -- voicings. The game's options also offer the ability to identify different volume levels for music, speech, and environmental (i.e., background) sounds -- something I find highly appealing. However, one audio puzzle, though reasonably easy, might present some challenge for a hearing-impaired player, as it relied on the careful pitch detection of audible tones.
There are a number of characters to interact with in TSR, and they are all rendered quite well. There are frequent cut-scenes and dialogues between characters; and the animations are smoother, and the lip movements better, than in Aura. Subtitles can be enabled for all dialogues, but they are rarely necessary (due to the good, clear voicings), and can even be distracting at times.
There are several situations where certain actions, or decisions, can result in Umang's death. And unlike Aura -- where such an occurrence provided the player with a "Try Again" option, which would return them to the point immediately prior to whatever caused the untimely death -- TSR just terminates with a "Game Over" message, and returns to the main menu. This demands more frequent saved games -- particularly at times of obvious peril. But a limitation of 8 saved games makes this difficult. On the one hand, it is desirable (and often necessary) to make frequent saved games to avoid potentially "deadly" situations; but being limited to 8 saved games means repeatedly overwriting existing saved games, and possibly losing contextual information.
Even more surprising was the fact that, when loading a previously-saved game, the saved games were not presented in the order in which they were saved. This meant scrolling through all 8 saves each time to find the most recent one -- often having to compare date/time stamps to insure the correct save loaded. The addition of a simple "Continue from last game" option would have alleviated this problem. (It's unclear why this design was adopted for TSR, since Aura allowed unlimited saves, and they were easy to locate and reload.)
There are multiple endings to TSR -- but not in a way that significantly affects game play. All come at the very end of the game, and basically provide one "successful" ending, and many "unsuccessful" endings, based on a single choice made by the player. The unsuccessful endings are, frankly, a bit disappointing, as each does no more than end the game with the equivalent of a "Game Over -- You Lose" screen -- and the aforementioned requirement to reload a saved game, without the ability to simply retry the scene. The one successful ending is a bit more satisfying and rewarding. There is no indication -- as there was in Aura -- of possible unfinished tasks, or anything else that would portend another sequel. However, based on the caliber of the game, as well as the entertainment value, one can always hope...
The game installation is quite simple, and installs all files on the hard drive. As a result, no CD is required to run the game, eliminating the awkward disc-swapping that often plagues multi-disc games. 2.7GB of disk space is required for the game, with an additional 25-30MB for saved game files. An intuitive menu provides all game setup functions, as well as the normal save/load features. There is also an option to replay any video cut-scenes that have taken place in the game so far -- a welcome feature, given the 40+ minutes of cut-scenes in the game.
In summary, I was highly entertained by TSR. It was a wonderfully successful sequel to one of my favorite adventure games, and not only lived up to its predecessor's reputation, but surpassed it in many ways. I felt that the game length was "just right," offering around 20-25 hours of game play. The graphics were awesome, the audio highly supportive, the story line was entertaining, and the challenge level of the puzzles should not leave anyone out.
-- Frank Nicodem