There’s a delicate balance that needs to be met when developing a quality puzzle game. If the puzzles are too easy, players may become bored and stop playing. If they’re too difficult, they may become frustrated and walk away. There also needs to be a sense of purpose, of course, to drive players forward in the form of a narrative or overarching goal. If done well, these games can be a rewarding experience and provide the sense of accomplishment that comes with solving difficult problems. The Eyes of Ara, the debut title from 100 Stones Interactive, aims to strike that balance with a focus on environmental storytelling.
You take on the role of a contractor for a telecommunications company sent out on a remote job: find the source of a signal that’s been interfering with over-the-air communications throughout the area and put a stop to it. It’s a simple enough task, until you realize that the source of the signal has been pinpointed inside an abandoned castle. That castle is where you’ll spend the entirety of your time with The Eyes of Ara, unraveling a mystery closely tied to your task that unfolds before you as you hunt down the rogue interference.
The Eyes of Ara lacks a traditional narrative and, much like other puzzle-based graphic adventure games it’s modeled after, the story is told through interacting with the environment. Information about the mysterious “Eyes”, as well as the most recent occupants of the castle, is slowly revealed by reading documents scattered throughout its rooms. As you explore the castle, you learn more about the last tenants — a researcher and some of his family members — from the writings they’ve left behind. Their characters aren’t particularly deep, but the telling of their time in residence adds a bit of depth to the castle’s history rather than just having you explore a bland, lifeless, and empty game setting.
The overarching tale of the Eyes is told through the notes left by the researcher regarding his efforts to understand them. There’s even a story reason for why the castle is laced with puzzles throughout, which was a little flimsy but a nice touch. The story itself is mostly average, but the game’s execution of this environmental storytelling is spot on and adds to the sense of mystery and discovery that its visuals cultivate.
One gripe I have about how The Eyes of Ara chooses to tell its story is that, despite the many documents scattered throughout the castle to piece together the narrative, there isn’t any kind of player journal that records what you find. You have to go back to previous rooms and click on each document if you want to read them again. This extends to the various notes and scribbles you find related to puzzles. I found myself taking pictures of them with my phone after a while so I didn’t have to keep trekking back to look at them. This hearkens back to the days of keeping your own notes while playing games, sure, but it doesn’t really make sense why the player-character can’t simply pocket the notes in-game.
Speaking of puzzles, there are plenty in the Eyes of Ara that vary in both complexity and cleverness. There are some logic puzzles, some “guess and check” puzzles, and some that are so incredibly simple you may overthink them. The puzzles and environments are well-integrated and require you to be aware of your surroundings. A hand-scribbled note here, a picture there, and a seemingly innocuous book entry may all be pieces to a larger puzzle. The Eyes of Ara pulls these more complex puzzles off fantastically, and there were moments when I felt genuine satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when I figured out the solution to a head scratcher.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with some of the puzzles, however. The game has moments when things temporarily devolve into hidden object mode. There are a handful of times when a vital piece of a puzzle is an object that’s so well-blended into the environment it’s tough to see. There was one instance in particular near the very end of the game that frustrated me to no end because I could not figure out how to move forward. It turned out that I didn’t see a well-hidden object within the environment. Its position was such that even clicking around everywhere and on everything, a tactic to which you never want your players to resort, didn’t help. Though these moments are rare, and admittedly could be blamed on me and my aging eyes, they pulled me out of the experience nonetheless.
The Eyes of Ara’s visuals are quite beautiful. Although the game’s four main areas are all inside the castle, they each have their own distinct look and feel. The amount of detail put into each of the rooms within those areas, from floor to ceiling, is readily apparent as you explore. The one issue I did have with the visuals was that the text within some of the documents was a little hard to read and could use a bit of sharpening. The music is well done and fits the atmosphere of mystery and exploration perfectly. I wish there was more of it, though the game seems to skew towards minimalism in this aspect. Additionally, the music often seems to cut in and out for no discernible rhyme or reason.
The Eyes of Ara succeeds in providing just the right balance of difficulty in its puzzles while expertly weaving them into the environment. While the overall story is fairly average, it delivers on its intention to tell it through fun, immersive puzzles and top-notch aesthetics. The fact that this title was developed by essentially one man in Ben Droste is fascinating and makes one wonder what he could accomplish with a dedicated development team. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to find out.