Mystery is the name of the game in this charmingly intriguing indie title from 100 Stones Interactive. Well not literally… The name of the Game is literally The Eyes of Ara and its game, figuratively speaking, is mystery. A quick search for this crowdfunded point-and-clicker will show you enchanting pictures of a huge castle with towers and bridges, lavish interiors in the traditional haunted mansion aesthetic, and bizarre electronic contraptions. Anyone with even a slight familiarity with games in the adventure-puzzle genre would be able to make the obligatory comparison to the games in the Myst series, just based on these images. How will The Eyes of Ara turn out? Will it reel you in with its beautiful scenery and then leave you bored with fifty repetitive clue-fetching quests? Is it going to be another mediocre Myst-like? Or maybe, if you’re an optimist, The Eyes of Ara will be just as grand and impressive on the inside as it is on its surface.
The game begins with a gentle boat ride up to the castle’s side docks. You remove a note from your suitcase and read it, filling you in on the dire situation. Apparently, there’s some strange signal being broadcast from deep within the castle, interfering with the neighboring village’s communication services. To put it in a simpler way, you’re just a tech sent out by the cell phone company to keep their customers happily paying. But hey, not many people get the chance to explore an ancient, abandoned castle on the job, so why not? Quickly, the world fills in around you as you notice pizza boxes and soda cans littered about the entrance area. A popular place for teenagers to spend the night, it seems. This gives the feeling that there’s nothing to be afraid of in this place. It’s just an old building with some odd quirks. Nothing scary…
You head inside the massive structure, solving some incredibly simple puzzles on the way to the entrance hallway. The place is surprisingly well-kept. Maybe there’s a cleaning service or perhaps a caretaker. The environment is furnished with a multitude of little flavorings, filling the castle with history and depth. It meshes excellently with the variety of written texts you’ll be discovering throughout. Notes, diary entries, purchase invoices, machine blueprints all feel intimately at home amongst dusty desks and cob-webbed cabinets. These documents tell you the curious story of the house’s previous residents. A spiritual mother who believed the house was haunted by ghosts, two excitable children who explore the rooms in search of adventure, and a wily old uncle who spends most of his time up in the tower conducting strange experiments. This group of characters becomes the primary source of storytelling throughout the many rooms and hallways of the great castle.
These bits of story are peppered evenly throughout the many mental challenges that impede your progress through the rooms. At times, these puzzles feel so simple that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as I put the pieces in place. In these moments, I really had to wonder what good came of including such easy ‘challenges’ at all. Fortunately, the puzzles slowly ramp up in complexity and difficulty as you roam deeper into the castle. For the most part, the puzzles remain straight-forward and logical, requiring some light inventory work, jigsawing, and hidden item searching. There are also clues scattered around, which you will need to remember, so it’s a smart thing to utilize your screenshot button or a notepad and pen. Beyond these puzzles, the game consists of a large array of hidden items and collectibles. If not for the few puzzles which appear to be designed for people under the age of 7, The Eyes of Ara would feel truly polished and filled out in terms of gameplay.
Much of the ‘complete’ feeling that I mention above comes from the excitement of exploring the dozens of rooms (along with many other hidden rooms!) within the estate. Here, the frustrating fact of the genre is that the desire to explore these lush room is impeded by the statuesque position of the player. There is always something curious that just begs to be clicked on, which is simply not clickable! So, even after you’ve finished the game and received the congratulatory music and the satisfactory vision of the credits scrolling offscreen, you’re still not quite sure if there was some hidden puzzle that you just couldn’t get to.
This contributes to the other faux pas I noticed in The Eyes of Ara, and that’s the surprising level of linearity that the sprawling castle seems to be built upon. There are three or four sections of the castle, and they’re each gated by the ‘main puzzle’ that must be solved before progressing. The first several rooms are one-off puzzles that you never really need to revisit. The fourth puzzle I can remember consisted of pushing two buttons hidden within a room – using the term ‘hidden’ lightly here, because the buttons were sitting out in plain view with absolutely no understandable context. Many of the puzzles and solutions have absolutely nothing to do with the wonderfully decorated rooms they’re a part of. Despite this, the game is gripping and entertaining more often than not.
The Eyes of Ara is cohesive. The story meshes perfectly with the ambiance, which is only interrupted by the seemingly arbitrary puzzles positioned all over the place in ways that you’d imagine would be extremely inconvenient for anyone actually living in the castle. The music is soothing yet mysterious, egging you on but keeping you off edge. The graphics – while nothing stellar – are solid and fit my idea of such an old and intriguing place as well as I could imagine. The puzzles vary in difficulty dramatically, but the majority are quite stimulating. All-in-all, The Eyes of Ara is a relaxing game that would make most fans of the genre quite happy. There’s a solid 15 hours of exploring and puzzling ahead, so it’s a good thing that it’s an easy game to pick up and put down, each time solving just a small slice more of the mystery of The Eyes of Ara.
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