America - Front
America - Back
By Kelsy Polnik 05th Oct 2019 | 2,658 views
When playing puzzles games of various styles my favorite aspect is - perhaps not surprisingly - almost always the puzzles themselves. It's very satisfying to solve the riddle that has been stalling your progress, or even to immediately put the pieces together and temporarily feel like a prodigy. Other aspects of these games are usually secondary to this, but The Eyes of Ara produces one of those rare packages where the narrative and atmosphere stands on an equal footing with the impressive array of puzzles that drive the core of the game.
As you drift towards an ominous looking castle in your row boat during the opening scene the sense of isolation is fairly immediate. The only preamble before you disembark the small vessel is a one page note informing you that you've been contracted to enter the castle to find out what is broadcasting a signal that has been disrupting local communications for the past couple of weeks. It seems that the locals may be a bit superstitious and have heard stories about the castle being haunted, hence why they've brought you in from out of town. In the earliest 'training' section of the title, when you're simply entering the castle, you’ll find more evidence of these supernatural-horror themes, but fairly early on this gets replaced with what I felt was a considerably more interesting sci-fi infused concept that gets stronger the further you advance.
The story of The Eyes of Ara is told mainly through various documents found around the manor. Journal Entries, children’s drawings, posters, books and scattered notes tell the tale of a reclusive man of science who takes in his sister and her two children in their time of need. It’s a simple and heartwarming story that gets entangled with the larger narrative of obsessive scientific research, stargazing, and a search for things beyond the Earth. By the end of my time with The Eyes of Ara I was honestly surprised how invested I had become in a couple of the characters and solving the final mysteries of the game.
The puzzles presented here are largely not for the casual cryptographer. If you're expecting a quick and easy puzzle adventure then you’ll leave The Eyes of Ara disappointed and unfinished. You're briefly eased into the puzzle solving logic of the game and then abruptly pushed into the deep end of the pool of mysteries. You’ll be tasked with using a multitude of skills in order to solve all of the riddles, which include math puzzles, logic puzzles, decoding puzzles, spatial awareness puzzles, pattern recognition, reading comprehension, mechanical puzzles, word puzzles, and often combinations of these. A moderate to high level of player intelligence is demanded fairly early on and the game only gets progressively more challenging as it progresses.
There are a few in-game options for hint modes, which I turned on somewhere in the second chapter. These help you identify areas that need to be searched for clues or objects, but do not in any way help you to solve the actual puzzles. I liked this approach, as it forced me to thoroughly examine my inventory, backtrack to search for additional information and objects, attempt different approaches to demanding puzzles, and occasionally just test answers through a trial and error method and make sense of the answer after the fact. I came to appreciate that there was no crutch for me to lean on and I couldn’t simply have the answer given to me after a couple failed attempts. Some of the puzzles very late into the game had me seriously worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish The Eyes of Ara, but with some perseverance (as well as pencil and paper) I was able to achieve that euphoric sense of satisfaction by overcoming what initially seemed insurmountable. To put that into perspective I spent roughly half my 10 hours of game time solving 4 puzzles near the end of the game, and the other half solving the other several dozen.
The title's progression is something of a puzzle in itself as well. Each area has a blocked exit that you need a specific item to open. This object is obtained by solving several puzzles that feed into each other, ultimately unveiling the final object needed to reach the next part of the game. In addition to that there are a few types of collectibles sprinkled throughout the castle: coins, photos, figures, and colored orbs. When working on a puzzle it’s often unclear if you’re working towards the ultimate goal or a mere collectible item. While they may not progress the story I welcomed the extra puzzles for those moments that I was stuck and needed a break from a particularly baffling puzzle.
Upon completing the game I was intrigued to know if there was some kind of special ending for collecting all of the extra objects and solving every last puzzle. With the help of an out-of-game guide I was able to clean up the items that I'd overlooked on my initial playthrough, but the result was not worth the time invested. A die hard fan of the game may find the reward more satisfying, but I was more than happy with the ending I had received for simply completing the game.
The control methods available for the Switch version are interesting as well. The game offers you the use of the joy-con IR sensor or my preferred method of using the touch screen in handheld mode. With the touch controls it's very natural to simply drag the screen to move your view and push on objects you want to pick up or interact with. Many puzzles also involve sliding or rotating gadgets or items and the touch controls perfectly complement these.
Sound design is incredibly minimalist route and you’ll often find yourself in near silence, outside of the rattling and clinking noises you make as you attempt to interact with your surroundings. When you solve a puzzle you’ll get trained, Pavlovian style, to anticipate a pleasant little jingle affirming your success. I feel like this may be the area where the game was most lacking and it could have used a few musical themes to keep the world feeling just a bit more alive.
The Eyes of Ara is a throwback to classic 90s PC puzzle adventure games through and through. Outside of the modern visuals it doesn’t attempt to add anything new to the genre, instead it sticks to its roots and does so very successfully. Outside of some uninspired sound design the game really shines and caters to those who love the genre by expecting the player to bring a certain level of intelligence and patience with them from the start. In return you’ll be rewarded with some great puzzles, a wonderful mystery to uncover, and some well realized characters to spend your time with. Just don’t worry about collecting all those coins!