The Eyes of Ara is a first person, point & click adventure that sends you to explore every loose brick and every secret passageway in an ancient Scottish castle. Tasked with disabling a signal broadcasting from within, you are the only person who is brave enough to take the job. Local contractors would rather deal with their unstable WiFi and other disrupted communications than go fix the problem. That would require them to enter the place, and the castle has a bit of an unsavory reputation in the town. What lies inside is more hype than reality, but an unexpected surprise nevertheless. In an interesting juxtaposition of ancient architecture, futuristic technology, and astrological mythology, The Eyes of Ara delivers a madding (the good kind) puzzle experience in a gorgeous location.
The story unfolds from journal entries peppered throughout the castle, written by multiple family members. The main narrative begins in 1995, when the owner’s sister and her two children come to live with him. He wasn’t too happy about this – as their constant presence and noise would disturb his work – but they had fallen on hard times. Reluctantly, he agreed to let them move in. His sister’s constant harping about feeling “spirits” in the home and the son’s propensity to get into things he shouldn’t irked him to the extreme, but as he got used to not living alone anymore, his emotions thawed. He began to enjoy having them around.
Clementine, the uncle’s favorite of the two children, was interested in some of the paranormal activity in the castle, specifically the balls of blue light that follow you around. Her uncle explained that they were robots and part of the experiment he was working on. That made Clementine even more curious about the castle. Eventually, however, the balls of blue light started to make her mother and her brother nervous. Her mother came to the conclusion that the floating balls were devices that trapped evil souls in their “cold, mechanical shells” and, eight months after moving in, she left with her children against Clementine’s and the uncle’s wishes. For the next nine years, the uncle continued his experiments, but disappeared on the night he was due to complete them.
And you pick up where he left off.
Mechanically, there are a variety of puzzles. Some are a one-time deal, but most reoccur throughout the game with some minor changes in scenario or placement. The mural puzzles in the mother’s bedroom and the uncle’s bedroom are the most time-consuming to solve – so time consuming that the developers added in the option to unlock the murals with a code in their most recent patch. I was unable to locate the code, so I had to do it the old-fashioned way, which wasn’t too terrible. The concept to solving the mural puzzles is not difficult, but it takes a lot of rotating to put everything back in its right place; the venn diagram mural puzzle is the worst offender.
That’s how nearly all of the puzzles are in The Eyes of Ara: not too hard, not too easy, but just right. When one sways in one direction of difficulty, there is another that swings the other way to balance the experience out. Everything is a progression, so there are some things you will need to solve in a particular order to move on to the next chapter. What’s great about the puzzles is that most of the time the solution is either in the same room as you, or in the room next door, which can either be ridiculously easy or stupid hard, depending on your powers of observation.
What the game isn’t, however, is something that you can breeze through; while it employs many common puzzle mechanics, it forces you to look for the answer and often calls back to a strange codex you found earlier in the game many times. Not all solutions are completely intuitive, but the game doesn’t mislead you. All interactive objects are there for a reason (aside from a few armories and cabinets; they don’t always contain important items). There is a solution to either open, unlock, push, turn, flip, or activate them, and they sometimes also drive the narrative of the past into the present. There are maybe two clues to puzzles that make their solution painfully obvious, but the game doesn’t hold your hand; it sits back and tells you if you are getting hot or cold. Keep a notebook and a pen handy at all times – you’ll need it.
Stylistically, there is nothing scary or haunting about the castle. It’s old and, yes, there are these weird blue things that follow you around everywhere, but the setting is actually an inviting place. The further up into the castle you go, the more fascinating and unique things you’ll find. One of the most gorgeous rooms is the planetary projection room featuring nine mythological murals for each planet and their symbol, and (of course) the planets themselves. The focus on planets and star constellations was heavy, but not cheesy or overbearing; by understanding that many of the puzzles’ answers are rooted in that kind of mythology, you come to understand the uncle and what drives him as a character, even though you never meet him.
100 Stones Interactive delivered a well-rounded and thoroughly planned puzzled experience for their debut title. If you are looking for a challenging and immersive experience that provides several hours of gameplay, The Eyes of Ara is your game. It’s one of the few games that makes earning all of the Steam achievements worth it.
The Eyes of Ara was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer: 100 Stones Interactive | Publisher: 100 Stones Interactive | Genre: Indie, Adventure, Puzzle, Point &Click | Platform: PC | PEGI/ESRB: N/A | Release Date: July 19, 2016
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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