Review: Aura: Fate of the Ages

Streko Graphics (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Fairly good
Dialogue and writing
Very good
Not too hard
Forgiveness rating
You can die in a few spots, but the game just says "try again" and undoes your fatal mistake, so you can't lose progress.

If you talk to fans of fantasy novels about the history of the genre, you may hear a term: "the third-generation problem". (Or "n-th generation".) Which refers to the fact that Tolkien (and it was Tolkien) did this Thing in the 1950s, and it knocked two generations of readers right on their asses. And then people started writing Imitation Tolkien. This was not an inherently bad thing, although it led to some bad books. It was necessary: you orient yourself by the Sun first, and then you can start learning where the stars and planets are. Fantasy was like that for a while.

On the other hand, there came a point where a generation of fantasy readers had grown up on imitation Tolkien. And some of them wound up writing imitation imitation Tolkien. And imitations only get thinner over time. Actual fantasy writing has gotten a lot richer and more multifaceted since Tolkien knocked us over. It's gone in all sorts of new directions. But if you only copy the superficial charms of something which only took the superficial charms of something great, then your line of descent is straight and boring. And so, frankly, is the direction you're headed.

You think I'm going to trash Aura, don't you.

I liked Sword of Shannara. Yes, I was nine when I read it. Yes, I commiserated with my ten-year old compatriots for hours about what a rip-off it was. So what? It was still fun. At the recent end of the scale, George R. R. Martin is writing big-block fantasy squarely in the imitation-Tolkien camp -- lots of history, lots of landscape, no moral, and no pretense of anything but a whole lot of colorful people caught up in an immense story. It's great. (And brutal. And the next book is several years overdue. Dammit.)

So when I call Aura an "imitation Myst" game -- yeah, you're way ahead of me -- I'm not disparaging it. Sometimes you have to pile on the puzzles and the magical scenery, scrape the plot thinner than mayo on a cheap burger, and dig into it. Aura is flashy, gaudy, completely gratuitous, and fun.

It's all about the puzzles, but the puzzles span a surprising range of designs. They're nicely gradated, too. The early ones are all pure pattern-matching: find the clues, associate the symbols, enter the results. Then the clues get more subtle -- not hidden, but easier to overlook. Sharpens the eye, if you know what I mean. And it becomes less clear how to put the symbols together; although I always found the correct solution to be unique and satisfying.

The second section of the game introduces more of what I consider true adventure-gaming puzzles: mechanisms built in the game world, which interact with the world as well as with each other. You have to pay attention to the physical environment, as well as the symbols. I admit that Aura is not the world's champion at this sort of thing. Even its best-integrated puzzles have some arbitrariness to them -- something which makes you say, "Why in hell would anyone build this thing?" I never for a moment believed I was in a truly coherent, subcreated world. But there is some logic to discover.

The third section has all of the above, plus what I call "dream-logic". Puzzles which evoke their own narrative -- create their own rules to make sense in. And again, Aura isn't the best example of dream-logic I've ever seen. Some of the puzzles are badly motivated. A few I got through only by brute-force application of every object to every hotspot. (Hint: if an object is described as "magical", it means you're not going to figure out what it does, except by trial and error. And then you'll say "Huh?")

But the designers are trying, and it sometimes works.

I didn't notice this three-stage evolution of puzzle design while I was playing through the three chapters of Aura. But it's quite visible in retrospect, and it implies some sophistication of the designers. They're not just throwing together Myst-style puzzles. They have a grasp of what they're doing. I'll be interested to see what they do next. (Presumably Aura 2, since this game ends with a cliffhanger and a dive through a dimensional portal. Ain't that always the way?)

Ah, what else do I have to note...

Remember the plot-funnelling tricks that I was complaining about in Black Mirror? This game does them much better. If you can't play with the machines in a laboratory, it's because the owner is sitting right there; you can start fooling with them when he gives you permission. If you can't go one way down a tunnel, it's because you're following someone who went the other way. You'll get a chance to explore in a minute. It's the same hotspot-appears-later trick, but it's rarely frustrating in Aura (because you have other stuff to do) and it's never a surprise (because you have a reason for the limited options, and it's clear when the reason expires).

Similarly, you spend some time going back and forth between different characters. But not much time. It isn't the primary gating factor of the plot, the way it is in Black Mirror.

There are sound puzzles. I've given up regarding this as a design problem, but I have to warn you, because I have no idea how many of you have hearing problems.

I got stuck exactly twice. Once because one object was hard to notice in its environment. The second time, because of an object which had a magical property I didn't notice (or understand) at all. Both of these were real flaws, I'd say; but two bumps in a road of this length is a pretty good track record. (So to speak.) The focus is well-done; if you pay attention to everything, you won't have trouble figuring out what's important and what's scenery. (And if you don't pay attention, you'll miss things. That's the kind of game it is.)

Aura looks pretty good. Each part of the game takes place in a different part of its world, and each has a distinct visual style. They're all over-the-top, nutso-baroque visual styles. But I'm into that. Lots of goofy detail. Lots of bright colors. It isn't photo-realistic -- too many computational textures, nothing with a real-world grain -- but I'm not complaining; there were several environments that made me say "Whoa."

(I must say, though, this game is a prime candidate for the Ministry of Silly Catwalks. What is it with graphical adventures and their insanely ornate walkways? These people put more design work into the steps of a rococo staircase than I've seen in some sports cars. I guess they figure adventurers pay a lot of attention to where they put their feet. Which is, I suppose, true.)

There's a plot, but the game hardly mentions it, so I won't either. (Cute kink in the ending, though.) The writing is generally uninteresting, but as usual, it's hard to tell how much of the mediocrity is translation. (I believe the core developers are Russian, although the development company says it's in Canada.) The characters you meet seem like they ought to be lively... or like they were lively, in the original script. ("How do you know my name?" you ask one. "Is your name a secret?" he snaps. "No? Well that's how I know!" I like it, but it's not enough.)

Summary: Good solid puzzle-fest.

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