The Eyes of Ara is an adventure-puzzle exploration game, similar to titles in the Myst series. The game was developed by 100 Stones Interactive, and originally released in 2016, but this review will focus on the recently released Nintendo Switch version.
The main game loop involves maneuvering around an old abandoned castle, finding puzzles, and then figuring out how you’re supposed to solve those puzzles. Most of the puzzles involve manipulating some object, such as rotating tiles on a wall. Other times you’ll be blocked until you find and use an item on a contraption first, which then allows you to progress further. In other cases, you’ll have a series of objects that can be manipulated, but you won’t really know what the correct configuration is until you find a note somewhere else that provides some clues.
For example, at the start of the game, you’ll very quickly run into a dead end. It’s up to you to be curious enough to explore the area further, until you find something that could help you progress. There isn’t any reason to rush, so you can calmly take your time and explore everything in the area.
Solving a puzzle generally provides access to one or more new rooms, leading you to even more things to look at and manipulate. Clicking around a room will let you zoom in on areas of interest, which can contain puzzles or collectibles, such as coins and photos. I’m unclear as to the purpose of the collectibles (I have yet to finish the game), but finding more stuff in a game about exploring is always fun. Lastly you’ll come notes that present some additional plot, or information on how to solve another puzzle.
The game looks great on the Switch. Environments are densely packed with doodads and things to click on. For a game originally designed as a mobile title, I enjoyed looking around rooms and searching for things to interact with. Although, there is an ever present sense of isolation.
The world in the Eyes of Ara feels empty, but not in an unfinished way. Rather, you just feel lonely while playing. As you progress, you’ll notice how quiet the game is. That’s not to say the game is silence. There are ambient background noises, and manipulating objects generate appropriate sounds: stone blocks groan as they rotate around each other, and wooden boxes creak as you open them. The emptiness comes from the things you DON’T hear…other people.
I compare it to times when I’ve worked late, finding that I’m the last one in the building. There’s an unnerving calm as I know there should be people moving around and things happening, but instead all I really hear is the absence of activity. In Eyes of Ara, I really felt like I was walking alone in a big empty castle, with equal parts curiosity and loneliness pushing me to explore further. What’s behind the door? Someone to talk to? Nah, just another box. But maybe there’s someone behind the next door!
As far as controls go, there are two modes: single Joy-Con or attaching the Joy-Cons to the console (“handheld” mode).
Single Joy-Con mode acts like a laser pointer or remote control. You hold the controller, pointing it at the screen, which in turn moves a cursor on the screen. You can press one of the face buttons or bumper to interact with objects in the environment, effectively allowing you to “click” on the objects. This is fine, until you realize that a Joy-Con has no way of knowing where the TV screen is relative to the direction you’re pointing it. It really doesn’t matter which direction you point the Joy-Con in. Cursor movement is determined by relative motion of the Joy-Con. Pointing up moves the cursor up, even when you’re not facing the screen.
I’m sure this isn’t the first game that’s used this control style on the Switch, but it’s the first time I’ve encountered it. I didn’t like it because it didn’t feel very accurate. Regardless of how much I focused on trying to control the cursor, it always moved pass the thing I was aiming for. Maybe I just need to git gud. I dunno.
Furthermore, Joy-Cons are very light, so when trying to aim the cursor and press a button, the force from my finger or thumb would actually move the Joy-Con, causing the cursor to move off of my target. I misclicked a lot while playing Eyes of Ara.
Once I got tired of the single Joy-Con approach, I attached both Joy-Cons to the console so I could try the handheld mode. However, this mode doesn’t use the Joy-Cons! Instead you’re only using the touchscreen to play the game in this mode. Swipe gestures turn the camera, and tapping acts as a click. You can even use multi-touch gestures to zoom out, similar to zooming out of a map on a mobile phone. You’re now playing the game on an oblong “phone”.
I really wish the joysticks moved an on-screen cursor in this mode. I was actually sad when I realized that this wasn’t an option (unless I missed it).
Overall, I enjoyed The Eyes of Ara. It’s not something I’m going to be revisiting frequently, but I cherished the time I spent with it.