Anna Leah Karasik
- Developer: 100 Stones Interactive
- Publisher: 100 Stones Interactive
- Release Date: October 15, 2019
- Price: £11.69 / $14.99
- Review code provided by 100 Stones Interactive
Fans of classic 3D brain-ticklers like “Myst” and “The Room” will be thrilled to know that the genre is still very much alive through “The Eyes of Ara,” which originated as a PC title before coming to the Switch. This game invites players into a mysterious castle where seemingly simple tasks can turn into multi-step monstrosities of puzzles. With three distinct areas and plenty of hidden collectibles throughout, I easily sank over a dozen hours into this game on my long commutes.
The Mystery Unfolds
You’re a technician tasked with getting to the bottom of a strange signal that’s begun emanating from an abandoned castle. From the outset, you learn that this seemingly simple job has scared many off before you, since the castle is believed to be haunted… godspeed!
One of the first notes you encounter in the game reveals that townsfolk near the castle believe it was once occupied by a man who conducted research there, as well as his sister, niece, and nephew. As you uncover more notes and journals, you slowly gain answers to the big questions: What exactly was this man researching? What befell this family?
The game takes its time in answering these questions, exploring the nuances of each character’s feelings through their own writing found around the castle. The entries are refreshingly short – up to two small pages. Their brevity is appreciated, since it’s important to read all of the notes: most of them contain puzzle hints in addition to lore.
As you learn more about the characters and their actions, you will begin to notice the meaning of certain details around the castle. Objects that seemed decorative at first take on a new meaning, and notably, the existence of the mind-bending puzzles at every corner starts to make sense. Collectibles hide throughout the castle, taking the form of things like coins and figurines – and they are all eventually explained through the texts, too.
In the end, it all culminates in a moment that makes you, the person who just came to solve a seemingly simple task, unwittingly become a part of a story much bigger than yourself.
A Not-So-Simple Fix
As you work your way through the castle’s three main areas, you’ll quickly learn that the key to success is observation. Any unassuming table could house a note with an essential diagram, or a book with a hidden keyword. Important switches might be found below or above you. The upside of this is that the cavernous castle never feels empty; the downside is that it invites mindless pixel-hunting when you’re stuck. And trust me – with so many wild puzzles, and so many (necessary) collectibles out there, you will get stuck.
Now, pixel-hunting is extremely easy when playing this game in handheld mode, which is entirely on the Switch’s touch-screen. This mode feels very smooth to play – if you have a good place to rest your Switch, that is. Your other control option is TV mode. This option feels clunky compared to touch mode, but makes up for it by providing a slight vibration over intractable areas.
Puzzle Solutions present themselves in a multitude of ways, and become increasingly more difficult. Some simply require finding a few gems, while others require you to solve mind-bending tactile puzzles. My favorite ones required you to flip back through the books and notes you’ve encountered, which are all easily accessible from your item menu.
Once you’ve solved a puzzle, you can no longer “zoom in” on it – making it easy to tell what you no longer need to pay attention to. In the same vein, all reference material and items you acquire will only be accessible in the area that you acquired them in. These are welcome mechanics in a game where just about everything interactable is either a puzzle, or part of a solution.
As with many other games in this genre, your character stands in a fixed position in each room, meaning that it’s much easier from a design-perspective to create detailed textures that make use of the Switch’s graphical capabilities. Through this lens, we see a gloomy castle, scattered with Roman mythological and astrological imagery. The lighting is gorgeous, if a little dark, although that can be quickly rectified in the options menu. I highly recommend doing this, as it makes spotting some smaller items and collectibles much easier.
The mysterious environment is backed by wonderful ambient music, which adds a lot to the ominous mood of the game, while not being the least bit distracting. “Big” moments may be accompanied by a swell in the music, as well. The sound effects that accompany puzzles and interactions are satisfying: the rustling of pages, banging of a locked door, or creaking of an opening chest gives you just the right amount of feedback as you play with interactable objects.
Bringing Brain-Busters Back
The Eyes of Ara feels like a modern-day version of those PC puzzler classics I mentioned at the beginning of this review. I say “modern-day” because it streamlines many mechanics: for example, the puzzles aren’t spread throughout a vast world, but instead kept within one of three areas; lore and hints are revealed through short notes, and are accessible from your item menu. The frequent lore revelations are a perfect incentive to keep striving for the next puzzle, the next area, the next note, to figure out how this story ends. The result is a game that will surely please puzzle-lovers in the mood for something nostalgic – yet fresh – to contend with.
- Challenging puzzles
- Interesting storyline
- Seamless touch controls
- Clunky TV Mode motion control
The Eyes of Ara provides plenty of challenge, intrigue, and visual appeal, making it a perfect choice for even the pickiest puzzler.