Reviews: The Sacred Rings (Aura 2)
In a journey filled with peril, travel through Manula Valley, discover the home of an old witch and an ancient alchemist, & explore a mysterious house that holds a hidden secret as you search for the birthplace of the Sacred Rings
Developer: Streko-Graphics Inc
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Genre: Fantasy Adventure
Release Date: March 2007
Note: Originally published 13 March 2007
I don’t like Myst. This is not one of those situations where I refuse to play it. I tried all five of them and gave up after a short time as I found them too dull for my tastes. Despite Aura being very Myst-like, there was something different about it and it ranks as one of my favorite adventure games as well as being one of the very few I played multiple times.
So count me in the ranks of those who were anxiously waiting for the next installment - the sequel to Aura is here! So how does it compare to the first game? Does it have the same breathtaking graphics, challenging puzzles and original worlds to explore? Well, yes and no.
Umang is back and this time you are tasked to return the Sacred Rings, which you had restored in Aura, to the Keepers. The evil Shadow Legion is out to acquire the rings, so the pursuit is on as you struggle to make your way to the home of the Keepers.
You will find yourself challenged with trying to get your mode of transportation working – a huge walking ship, exploring a witch’s lair deep in the swamps, an alchemist’s lab on a frozen mountain peak, an old cemetery, a mountain cottage, and the Keepers home.
Those who have played Aura will remember moving on to a different world each time you completed a location. While Sacred Rings has different locations to visit, in this game you will find yourself going back and forth to five of them in order to complete tasks after you complete the first location. Once you complete the tasks of those five locations, you will then have the last location – the Keeper’s home – to solve. All in all, you are looking at seven locations to explore.
A Man’s Home Is His Castle
The Keeper’s home is more of a fortress castle nestled into the mountains and has a very Tolkein-like look to it from the outside. It provided one of those jaw-dropping moments when I first saw it and will be one of those locations that stick in your mind years after playing through it.
The inside is huge with lots of areas to explore – from a torture chamber, to an ancient library, to catacombs, to dark halls, to a wizard's tower – it’s all there. I almost started to feel like I was back in Dracula’s castle from Dracula: Resurrection/The Last Sanctuary. The resemblance and same ambiance were there.
Those of you who were disappointed in the extremely short and rushed last chapter/location of Aura will be greatly pleased with the final location in The Sacred Rings – it’s long, anything but rushed, and results in a fitting conclusion.
What It Is And What It Isn’t…
While the emphasis in Aura was logic-based puzzles and minor character roles, The Sacred Rings throws in more inventory-based puzzles with a richer story and characters. The dialogs are pretty short and to the point. There are still plenty of logic puzzles in the game, but you’ll find The Sacred Rings to be more of a balance between the two types.
Once again you’ve got your handy notebook and any important notes or drawings are automatically added to your book, but after the first location when you start working on the five new locations, it becomes apparent that you aren’t playing Aura II. There aren’t many strange devices that you are trying to figure out how to work. While the first location feels very Aura-ish puzzlewise, the remaining locations feel like a different game.
It started to feel like the developers realized this and threw in some logic-based puzzles to bring it back in line with the original game. As a result, some puzzles seem out of place as if they're thrown in and not really integrated. Granted, some of them are real brainteasers…
Another thing is that Aura seems to be more set in high fantasy, while The Sacred Rings seems a bit more down to earth. Not only that, but the game feels a bit darker with its themes – the witch, cemetery, and the sinister castle. While not scary, this sequel does seem to have taken a step in a different direction.
Changing The Rules And The Unforgivable Sin
Ever play a game and everything seems to be going fine then suddenly the rules change without warning and you find yourself throwing your mouse across the room while cussing out the developers for even doing such a thing? Well… they did it.
You know… the big… it.
For two-thirds of the game I was safe with no hint of danger. Let me rephrase that: no hint that the danger meant the game would end in the ugliest way possible. It's one of those moments where the game you have been playing is solidly in the low A/high B rating category, then instantly thrusts itself into the low C/high D range.
While instant death becomes a nuisance and can tick you off, I quickly controlled my sudden frustration when greeted with the, “You have been captured. Game over” screen. No problem. I’ll just try again, right? The game will take me to right before I made the offending move and let me have another crack at it…right?
What happened next had me staring at my screen shouting, “Are you f’n kidding me?!?”
That’s right folks, the next screen os the main menu.
All I could do was load up a previously saved game.
It had been two hours since I last saved.
That save was after going four hours without saving, so it could have been MUCH worse. Even so, after a marathon gaming session and loving life (and The Sacred Rings), I found myself out of my chair and walking about with little desire to go back and play the last two hours all over again.
If at 2am eastern standard time on March 11th 2007 the developers of Streko felt the hair on the backs of their necks stand on end, a chill run down their spine, and their ears started to burn – that was me.
So for those of you playing, when you get to the Keepers area, save often! You will die or be captured frequently. This location changes the rules that are understood after the first six areas where you feel relatively safe from the game suddenly ending on you.
Unforgivable Sin II
So the rule of thumb when playing games is to save often. Heck, I do that all the time - unless there are limited save game slots. Limited save slots just force you to stretch out the time between saves in the event you want to play a certain area again. When you have unlimited slots, then you tend to get into a mode of saving frequently.
So does The Sacred Rings have unlimited game slots?
No. There are only eight slots.
Add this to the instant game over/reload a saved game thing and you will find the absolute pleasure you had playing the game while bowing to the Streko idol thrust instantly into wishing lightening would rain down from the heavens on top their heads…
How can a group of developers do so much right, then toss it all out the window over something so easy to implement? Was this a joke? Surely someone had to stand up and say, “Excuse me…I don’t think the instant game over/reload/limited saves thing is going to go over so well…”
Graphics Excellence…sort of
Streko has developed a reputation after Aura for richly colored highly detailed graphics. Can the same be said of The Sacred Rings? That depends on which area you are in. I was a bit surprised at the muted tones used in this game compared to the first. They still look excellent, but seem to have lost that special something that's prevalent in the first game.
The high degree of detail is there, but somehow seems lost in the close ups. While the scenes all looked very crisp on my system, whenever I went into a close up, those same scenes seemed a bit pixelated.
The animations are surprisingly very blocky-looking in places as though they had been overcompressed with a noticeable loss of color. One of the nice features is being able to replay any animations you have already seen via the video options on the main menu. I just wish they hadn’t been compressed so much so I would have more of a reason to play them back. During the middle of the game when you are traveling back and forth between locations, it can become a bit tedious watching those same animations each time. However, Streko has allowed us to skip them during playback by pressing the spacebar – thank you.
There are some areas that have the magic that made Aura so special and cause the player to pause and take in the scenery, such as the alchemist’s lab and the witch’s house. The Keepers' fortress also has that richness we have come to expect from Streko. There are many areas that had me panning around slowly pouring over all the details of the construction. The Sacred Rings is, for the most part, a very beautiful game.
They Do It In Europe
The Sacred Rings comes on four CDs. Normally I don’t really mind, although I much prefer popping in one DVD and installing the entire game at once. It’s not a showstopper nor will it effect how I feel about a game, but it is an inconvenience. So adventure game publishers… can you please… with sugar on top… start publishing games on one DVD instead of the multiple CDs?
All Things Must Come To An End
Despite my extreme frustration over the "instant game over" thing, I found myself hooked on The Sacred Rings from start to finish. I spent well over 12 straight hours playing through it and only used a walkthrough a few times when I was hopelessly stuck for an extended period and needed to continue on for the sake of the review.
The intellectual challenges are present and many come with that “Aha!” feeling when you solve one. As can be expected, some are very easy to figure out, while others will have you scrambling for a walkthrough.
I was in adventure gaming heaven 99% of the time while playing The Sacred Rings. It was that 1% of the time with the instant death that had me lividly ticked off…so overall, in the scheme of things, how much of an effect should it have on the overall grade?
Is it perfect? No. There are some glitches here and there. For example, having a mouse cursor that says you can move forward when, in reality, you can’t until you do something else first. Some screens at the cottage/mine area slowly rotate to adjust themselves to a straight horizontal when you enter them giving you a slightly dizzy feeling. There are a few stretched textures in some places, as well as a really ugly graphics glitch in the first location when you look up at the sky, that obviously were missed during testing. Am I being nitpicky? Yeah, I probably am. The bottom line is that there are a few flaws in the game, but none of them is major enough to affect the gaming experience – well, other than that game over thing.
There are some disappointments. I really wish some of the areas had been developed further. The swamp area is pretty small and the cemetery is a bit of a letdown. The main gate for the cemetery is extremely creepy with an obvious Tim Burton influence and I couldn’t wait to go in. However, once inside, the graveyard seems pretty barren with a few crypts scattered about. It's hardly the experience that the gate hinted it would be.
I really try to stick with the JA rating standards and put my personal feelings to the side. I found The Sacred Rings to be an overall great gaming experience; I’m sure there are some readers who think a game should be severely downgraded for the unforgivable sin, but I just can’t do that when the vast majority of the game is done so well.
For an "A," “a game must either set a new standard of excellence or it must nail the existing standard.” Well, The Sacred Rings comes very close to nailing the existing standard, but the limited save slots and instant game over/load a previously saved game thing clearly pushes it out of that range. If those are parts of the existing standards for adventure games, then the genre truly would be dead.
A "C" game “has significant flaws. It will leave you with a feeling of time wasted.” I have to admit that having to replay long stretches of a game after being killed or captured definitely falls into the feeling of time wasted, but overall the game was time well spent.
The Sacred Rings fits solidly into the B range. It IS a superior game, but not perfect. It may not be the Aura II most are expecting, but it is still a great game, richly detailed and big, but there are some flaws. Expect to get a lot of playing time for your money with this one – just remember to save often during the last area…
Final Grade: B-
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Operating System: Windows® 2000/XP/Vista
Processor: 1200 MHz Pentium® 3 / Athlon™
Video Card: 64 MB DirectX® 8.1 Compatible
Disk Space: 3500 MB Available
CD Speed: 16x
RAM: 128 MB RAM
DirectX: 9.0c (Included)