The Sacred Rings is a direct sequel to the 2004 graphic adventure Aura: Fate of the Ages. Although a direct sequel, the game does work reasonably well as a standalone title. The prologue offers a summary of the events in Fate of the Ages, which I felt brought me up to speed just fine. The Sacred Rings does not change much from its predecessor, so whether or not you liked Aura: Fate of the Ages you will feel the same way about The Sacred Rings. For those not familiar with the Aura series, I liken them more to “puzzle crawl” graphic adventures such as Myst than more plot driven graphic adventures such as The Longest Journey.
The game’s story picks up at the end of Fate of the Ages where protagonist Umang, apprentice Keeper, is teleported to a foreign realm so he can protect a set of important artifacts from the villainous Shadow Legion, who have invaded the Keeper’s palace. So now this stranger in a strange land needs to find his way back to the Keeper’s palace and restore power back to the Keepers; all the while, he is also on the run from the Shadow Legion. The first person Umang meets is a squatter named Nikofor and the first 1/3 of the game is spent in Nikofor’s modular house uncovering its secrets. Then the Shadow Legion attacks. The middle 1/3 of the story is spent traveling back and forth between a small forest, a small ice area, a small rainy grotto, and a small graveyard. During this time, Umang engages in multiple fetch quests, chained fetch quests, loads of (often inane) puzzles and enjoying limited interactions with people who only know how to say the words “go away!” or “get out of here!” There is nary a peep from the Shadow Legion during this time. The final 1/3 of the game is spent in the Keeper’s palace, which has long since become the Shadow Legion’s stronghold. This area is dark and full of difficult puzzles, but also contains a pseudo-stealth element where it’s Game Over if Umang walks within view of Shadow Legion guards. There are also multiple endings based on a key decision made at the end of the game.
This game is a “puzzle crawl” graphic adventure, meaning the emphasis is on puzzles over plot. I’d estimate that The Sacred Rings is about 15% plot and 85% puzzles. The plot itself is paper thin and could have been better fleshed out. The box boasts 40 minutes or so of cutscenes, but most of those cutscenes are of mundane events like Umang walking up a flight of stairs. Only a scant few cutscenes have dialogue or plot progression, and when they do they’re quite short with terse dialogue. The tiny cast of characters are dry, have no development, have minimal dialogue, are generally unlikeable, and seem to want to go out of their way to hinder Umang’s quest. One exception is Fird the executioner, who is actually given an interesting snippet of backstory. Fird’s backstory is easily the best part of the plot. Dialogue is voiced, but the voice acting itself is as stiff and wooden as it gets. It does not help that characters’ mouth movements do not match the words spoken so it looks like a bad dub from a 1950s Godzilla movie.
The visuals in the game look alright on a technical level, but are devoid of any soul or character. I did not feel immersed in the game’s world at all. The prerendered backdrops blend seamlessly with CG animation (i.e. for doors opening) and the polygon characters have minimal blockiness and very good facial movements (save for the aforementioned Godzilla dubbing). Character designs are pretty dull and nondescript, though. There are some CG movie scenes which have minimal graininess, but are not as refined or wow-worthy as those of Benoit Sokal, who crafted graphic adventures such as Amerzone, Syberia I & II, and Paradise. The music in the game also leaves something to be desired. There are a few pieces of music that play randomly in spurts but they don’t seem to fit the intended environment or scene. The music itself is generic and unimpressive orchestral fare.
The gameplay is everything you would expect in a graphic adventure. You explore environments in a panoramic view, collect & manipulate items, and use them to solve puzzles. There are also a good number of puzzles that rely on obtuse logic and no inventory item use to manipulate objects in the environments. The point and click interface is very intuitive. The icons are easy to read and hot spots are never difficult to find. The difficulty lies in the puzzles themselves, often requiring insanely obtuse leaps of logic to solve. And since this game has minimal plot, there are many puzzles to solve; most of which seem to have zero context within the plot and are just there to pad out game time. Given how small the areas in the game are and the amount of back and forth traveling between them, the game gets repetitive and monotonous. Oh, and did I mention that the clunky save system in Fate of the Ages is still intact here? Yes, each time you want to save, you have to ESC out of the game to the main menu. There should be a clickable save icon or a quicksave hotkey so you can quickly save your game during play.
Although I think I have been fair and objective in this review, I have to come out and say that The Sacred Rings was one of the worst video games I’ve played in years. There was nothing fun, enjoyable, or remotely redeeming about this game at all. The experience was akin to having a root canal. Puzzle crawler fans may find redeeming qualities in The Sacred Rings, but I would still advise against playing this sorry excuse for a game.