In 1993 two brothers released a game that was not only a surprise hit, but which topped the best selling chart for PC games for 9 years; that game was Myst, a point-and-click puzzle game that set the benchmark for its genre that persists even today. So when a game comes out that is described as ‘Myst-like’ it’s worth checking out, if only just to see how well it fits into those massive shoes.
As The Eyes Of Ara starts you are treated to a gorgeous cinematic; a boat winds its way down a river towards a castle. While not graphically stunning it is the first signs of Myst inspiration. It looks a lot like the older game, the same oil painting feel to it, but smoother and dripping in nostalgia. This isn’t always a good thing: too many games these days allow gameplay to suffer in lieu of making a desperate bid to recapture the feel of bygone days. Five minutes later though, while solving a puzzle to get into the castle itself, it becomes clear that the comparison isn’t just skin deep.
You play as an engineer hired by a client to go to an abandoned Scottish castle in order to investigate a strange signal that's been knocking out the local Wi-Fi and tv. Only, according to the locals, the castle is supposedly haunted. As a result several other engineers sent to solve the issue have ran away with their tails between their legs. A promising start. This could have easily been the set up to an Amnesia: The Dark Descent-style game, relying on cheap jump scares and tension in order to distract you from less-than-challenging puzzles. The Eyes Of Ara doesn’t take this path and stays true to its genre of a player-driven mystery. Throughout the castle are scattered notes, letters, and diary entries from the last inhabitants of the castle, namely, a scientist and his visiting spiritual-medium sister. The further into the castle you go the more their story unfolds and the truth of the hauntings becomes apparent. That being said, the story isn’t actually that good. It’s quite cliche in ways that cannot be explained without spoiling the plot; what can be safely said is that it definitely takes a backseat to the puzzles themselves. It’s done in such a way that the game can be played by almost completely ignoring the story, with only a few puzzles having tie-ins with with the actual narrative. This is not a bad thing, however, far from it. The ability to only go as deep into the plot as you like is always welcome and opens the game up to players that dislike a text-heavy experience. The problem here is that if you do decide to go for the full immersion, read every book and find every letter, it feels like an afterthought. The characters haven’t left much of an impression on the castle they lived in, outside of those parts needed for the puzzles, and while there is evidence that the castle was once inhabited it feels staged and mainly only consists of plates and cups scattered around.
The real meat of The Eyes of Ara comes from its gameplay, which mixes both challenging and trivially easy content in amounts that push you to keep playing. For every simple ‘find the key’ section there are two tile sliders so hard they make you want to pull your hair out just beyond it, and this in turn rewards you with another easy ‘copy the pattern’ style puzzle to ease your feelings of annoyance. This formula can be seen in other games like Professor Layton or Broken Sword, mixing the difficult with the obvious to change the pace and keep players interested. This tactic is very obvious in The Eyes Of Ara, the first level being comprised of just one room with all solutions within close proximity to the puzzle itself, whereas the second level takes part over a few floors where answers could be many rooms away. By the final level the puzzles have become so difficult as to be obscure. While some puzzles, by their nature, can be tackled by brute force most are challenging enough to more than earn the game its Myst-like reputation.
Controls in The Eyes of Ara are very basic, all of it being done via the mouse. Items are picked up by clicking, and used with each other or their respective riddles by dragging and dropping them where you want them to go. The cursor changes when moved over something you can interact with, making it very new-player friendly, and the camera’s drag-to-pan system, while initially in reverse and difficult to grasp, becomes second nature. Movement between different rooms is done by clicking on doors or stairways, if you can travel the area becomes clearly highlighted, making distinguishing between locked doors and available areas easy, if somewhat jarring. This isn’t the only thing to seem like an odd design choice, as some puzzles make little logical sense. For example a wooden chest with no visible wires or connections can only be opened by pulling a lever you have to restore power to. While the game is no stranger to weird technology these few puzzles that seem to be disconnected from the solutions to give you pause for thought.
Any issues with the gameplay are relatively small, and generally have an in-game workaround, like the reversed camera, but there is one point that has to be made against the game; when you receive letters or notes, or find clues for puzzles, these are left where they are. There is no gallery to look at found articles, no journal of items found. If you find a clue in one room the best thing to do is make a note on physical paper to save you backtracking when you eventually find its corresponding challenge. It’s not a huge issue, and in some ways it helps with the immersion, but it is a luxury we have come to expect of games in the last few years and it feels odd to find it missing. The Eyes of Ara also employs a treasure hunt of sorts. Throughout each stage are collectibles hidden away behind puzzles or innocuous-looking scenery. This means that, though you have completed a level or floor, there is a lot more to explore and do outside of the basic requirements to get to the next part of the game. Whole hidden passageways can be found that lead to a few of these collectibles, like coins or a figurine, and in some cases extra parts of the story. If you’re a completionist the game can go from around 10 hours long to over 20; it’s entirely optional, however, and is only there for those who have to nab every achievement or want to round out the story a bit more. All-in-all it is a good little game, and even if it doesn’t reach the level of difficulty or acclaim that Myst reached, it is certainly worthy of a place in the collection of any fan of the genre.