Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
Aura appeared on the gaming scene without much prior notice. Although the Streko graphics site provided a wealth of early information about the look and plot line of the game, where did the idea come from? To answer that question, there is a great story at the site. Imagine a group of friends and colleagues sitting around a fire. One person begins to spin a tale, others chime in and then someone begins to sketch. Things carry on from there... and the next thing you know they had a serious game proposal. The end result was Aura: Fate of the Ages. I really liked this bit of history. This is creativity at its best. A story told that picks up heart and new substance as one after the other adds their piece. It's a pleasant image. So how did this collaborative effort work out? Very well actually... and here's why.
A Puzzling Place...
Many recently published games have lacked what some would call a healthy dose of puzzling. OK, now is when all you gamers who have been languishing for such gaming moments can perk up and take notice. Aura has puzzles galore. Yep, that's right... it is a puzzler's delight. Those gamers who have complained about the glut of story/character driven tales with just a smattering of in game challenges should feel pretty happy to hear this.
Similar to many puzzle-laden games, Aura's challenges center around machines that you must get running and operate, or intricate lock mechanisms that you must figure out to avail yourself of a doorway or to access a new environment. There are a few inventory-based puzzles, but these are few and far between. No fears here about a heavy bag to carry around on your quest. Oh, and no mazes... not even a hint of one. There are a few sound based challenges, but there are enough alternative references that most gamers should be able to work their way through them.
Now I haven't played a game that was puzzle-driven in awhile. So I enjoyed this aspect of Aura as I worked my way through the game. More times than not when I thought a puzzle was a tad obscure, I would quickly realize it was deceptively obvious. I just hadn't looked at it in quite the right way. There are also liberal clues in the game to most of the puzzles. One valuable in-game feature is a sort of hints sketchpad. Clues are automatically drawn into this notebook as various characters or related documents tell you things of interest about upcoming puzzles. Now this game is not the brain cruncher that some other classic puzzler games have been. But there were a few challenges that required special effort, note taking and applied thought. It is a good mix, and one that will not throw a novice gamer off their stride for too long. Even better, there are enough acceptable challenges to make Aura a good value for even an experienced gamer.
This is a classic quest based tale. We have all seen them before. Find the rings and save the world. You are "the chosen one", hand selected to carry out a mission of grave importance. All that 'hero-saves-the-day' kind of stuff. Aura is well nestled in this classic structure. And naturally, no quest would be complete unless the hero gets to wander through strange new places and meet unusual people. One of the more interesting aspects of this game is that each place you travel to has its own identity and unique look. There is a certain commonality to how characters and puzzles are graphically rendered, but each environment has its own distinctive music, ambiance and style. More importantly, with all these varied places to travel to and explore, the sense of being on a grand trek was always there.
Aura takes place in a world where individuals travel between four primary worlds of magic, science and the fantastic. The Ademika Valley is the gateway to all that awaits in Aura. It is also the world of secret research and sacred rituals. It is depicted in jewel tones and cloaked in twilight. It is a place of meandering pathways and dark secrets.
Then there is Dragast, a mechanical world nestled in the tops of snow capped mountains. This world was largely neglected until a senior and quite secretive clan leader, Armagast, settled there. He and a few select followers built elaborate laboratories and machinery high in this remote compound. Because of the harsh conditions only they remain.
Na-Tiexu is a domain built upon esoteric knowledge. This is a place of astronomy and magic. It is a place of the unknown, the unseen and the unexplained. It is divided into four sub-areas. These regions are the spirit world, the children's place, a place of magic, and one dedicated to the lost art of alchemy and astronomy. This was the largest section of the game, and offered the most diverse mix of puzzles, places to go and the more interesting characters in the game.
And finally there is the island of Unity, a desolate area where all intrigue, betrayal and exploration come to an end. But are all questions truly answered here? All I will say is, this is your quest to pursue and of course your answers to find...
And Those Unusual Characters?
The characters were something of a mixed lot. Oddly, as with another game I reviewed recently, I found myself least attracted to the primary character. The supporting cast was just more credible to me. The main character seemed a bit wooden in expression and voice delivery. He also had this odd look to his facial expressions that wasn't present on the other characters. I am not sure why, but it is as if less time and care was spent on him than the rest. It wasn't sufficient to significantly impact my overall view of the build. But it was a flaw in what was otherwise a very well crafted game. The other characters seemed to have a bit more personality and individual style. There were a few that stood out more than the others, but I also have to say that none of them really grabbed my empathy or thoughts. I think that as a puzzle driven game, characterization was probably not a focal point of the development process. But with a just bit of tweaking, the potential existed for quite a few of these characters to really be memorable. It would have been nice to see what they might have been like.
The Sense of the Place...
The graphics in Aura are very sweet indeed. There were some areas where the graphics were a bit flat or perhaps under-texturized, as in stone facades and the like. But overall this is one very pretty game. Mini cutscenes where you are in motion are well crafted. You encounter these when getting smaller devices to function, or when traveling on any of the lesser transport devices throughout the game. The cinematic cutscenes follow suit, and are spectacular in some instances. As mentioned earlier, many areas within the game had a distinctive look, so you will get the full force of the graphics in a wide range of settings. I give high marks to Streko for this aspect of Aura.
The sound effects used in the game were well done, and added to the ambiance. In general, I enjoyed this aspect of the game very much. Unfortunately the musical overlays were not equally consistent. In some areas the music did much to pull me into the gameplay. A few of the pieces from the Dragast area were similar to Stuart Copeland's music, and I enjoyed these very much. I just wish the music had been this well done throughout. None of the selected pieces were badly done, but some just sounded out of place. A few other times, the music felt heavy handed and contrived. I enjoyed the music samples that I heard at the 'official site' before playing Aura, and was glad that they appeared in the game. These pieces were all very good. But they may have also raised my expectations, perhaps a bit too high, for this aspect of the overall game.
I will say right now that comparisons to Myst will spring up, if they haven't already. But the similarities are largely superficial. Yes, there is talk about the creation of other worlds and such things, but that is about as far as it goes.
In Aura, the known world is ruled by clans. Among these groups is the clan of 'Keepers'. Their charge is to keep safe certain rings of power, known as the 'Sacred Rings of the World', and also two sacred tetrahedrons. With these rings and ancient knowledge, these keepers are able to travel to and even create parallel worlds. But a wrinkle appears in their lives. Legend has it that should someone manage to unite the rings with certain artifacts from the parallel worlds, then they would achieve great power and immortality. So to further protect the items in their charge, the keepers have hidden the two tetrahedrons in Dragast and Na-Tiexu. Normally none but those with the knowledge and power of the rings may reach these worlds. However there is another means of access aside from using the rings themselves. A long dormant 'Journey Ship' lies hidden in Ademika, where Griffit, a clan elder and teacher to the most promising students, resides.
Despite this rich beginning, much more of the story is obtainable from the 'official site' and the release materials than from within the game itself. In fact, at the end of the game I would not have known even half of these facts. I do realize that with so much stress on challenges, graphics and the magical environments, some things may fall short. I just think that with such a great potential story, it would have been nice to uncover at least this much and a bit more during the gameplay. This might have been accomplished as easily as by adding some reading materials, or a few more lines of dialogue. There did in fact appear to be a lot more to this place than is evident from your travels, and hints were here and there about the nature of the larger conspiracy. I think a game can have a great story and challenges, it just might require a little extra tweaking here and there. Aura seemed rich in opportunity to meet such a development challenge and succeed. I just would have enjoyed seeing this challenge met.
The End of Our Travels...
Regardless of how much you can discuss the graphics, the plot, the ambiance and more, the bottom line on any game is: Will the gamer enjoy themselves, and is the game a good value? Regarding Aura, the answer to both is... Yes!
Did I long for a bit more of that story, hinted at so well on the game site, to materialize? Well yes, I did. Did I wince sometimes at the appearance of our alter ego, and wish I had gotten a better look into a few of the other game characters? Yes, on this as well. But it hardly matters, when you consider the overall game. In the end, Aura proved itself to be a well-crafted game free from glitches or overt flaws... with some grand puzzles, lovely graphics and charm to spare.
© 2004 Laura MacDonald
Developed (2004) by Streko Graphics and published by The Adventure Company (now part of Nordic Games).
Rated: E for Everyone
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium III 800 MHz Processor or Equivalent; Windows 98 SE / 2000 / ME / XP; 64 MB RAM (128 MB Recommended); 16X CD-ROM Drive (24X Recommended); 32 MB DirectX 8.1 Compatible Graphics Card; DirectSound Compatible Sound Card; 2.0 GB of Free Hard Drive Space (2.5 GB Recommended); DirectX 8.1 or Higher; Mouse
Where To Buy This Game:
OR: see our Places To Buy Games for other sellers around the world
Walkthroughs or Hints: