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The Eyes of Ara Review – Look to the Stars

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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.

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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.

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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

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Joanna is drawn to sci-fi and post-apocalyptic worlds, and games with a generous amount of gore. When she's not gaming, she's convincing her friends it's a good idea to go into abandoned buildings.

Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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