The Sacred Rings is the sequel to Aura: Fate of the Ages, the popular adventure from developer Streko-Graphics, which introduced us to Umang and the Clan of Keepers. The Keepers are the guardians of the sacred rings – they also keep the secret knowledge of how to travel across parallel universes. Umang is a student/apprentice Keeper with unusual talents.

I’ve been playing a preview version of The Sacred Rings for several hours. This version does not include all the cutscenes, and is missing many of the character animations and voiceovers, so I have only a rough grasp of the story as it unfolds. As a result, this First Look will focus primarily on the game’s graphics and puzzles.

The interface in The Sacred Rings is a breeze. Like Aura, it features a first person perspective with 360 degree panning. You point and click with the mouse to walk from node to node and at any point you can look around, up and down. Having played games recently in which movement is sometimes surprisingly awkward, I applaud the designers for a game in which the gamer can always move and turn with ease.


Initially, The Sacred Rings reminds me of Morpheus. You are exploring the empty, almost haunted spaces of a luxurious ship. It’s filled with carved wood and wrought metal in the Art Deco style. Books and maps are strewn everywhere. There isn’t much indication of how the ship got where it is, stranded in the middle of a rocky landscape.

Another living being named Nikifor inhabits the ship – but you scarcely see him except when he’s sleeping (and snoring) in the crew cabin. Partway through your exploration of the ship you view a menace that is lingering outside. This is the first indication that there is a battle for survival going on. At the moment, though, you have time and leisure to explore every nook and cranny, read through some of the texts, and figure out how things work.

The pace in this opening section of the game is relaxing, with plenty to see and challenges to ponder and solve. I thought the balance between exploration and puzzling was pretty good – nevertheless, this is not a game for someone who wants plenty of dialog and character interaction, or for someone who gets frustrated by frequent puzzle-like barriers to progress.

Myst Meets Gormenghast

As you play deeper into The Sacred Rings, the similarity to Morpheus wanes, and you find yourself in a universe of gothic surrealist fantasy. The Keepers have failed in their quest to protect a part of their realm, and a brutal army has taken up residence. The situation is dire. Umang, through fate or coincidence (or some internal power unknown even to himself) may be able to reverse the dark tide of events. Flashbacks flesh out the game’s backstory – one flashback in particular is disturbing and quite moving.

There’s a sense of awe the first time you encounter some of these environments – you’ll see towering mountains, huge crystals erupting from the ground, monumental statues. The worlds feel ancient – metal is rusted, wood finishes are worn, carpets are stained, tile scuffed.

There are some sunny places – the exteriors of the ship in the early sequences, and the leafy glade by the mine, for instance. But other places are somber, with a ghostly atmosphere, ominous skies and mist. Moss carpets the stones and rain falls into ponds filled with algae. Even in the darker parts of the game, though, surprising dabs of color appear -- multi-colored flickering torches, magical mini-fireworks, colored fireflies trapped in a jar.

Ambient sounds are excellent – chirping or cawing birds, rain falling on the roof, mournfully howling wolves

The characters in The Sacred Rings are not ordinary. Their faces are quirky or careworn or smooth and powerful. They wear odd clothing that suits the environments. Although there are no lengthy dialogs with the characters (so far, anyway) the gameworld feels occupied, and the characters bring a sense of tension, danger, bitterness and – just maybe -- hope reawakening.

Keeping Your Wits

The puzzles include mechanical and inventory-based challenges, symbol and pattern interpretation, fetch quests and sound matching -- a nice mix. The inventory is easy to access and use. Some of the challenges require trial and error. (Well, I had to use trial and error, though I easily could have missed a clue.) You have to find objects, but the corresponding hotspots are large enough that I would not describe this as pixel hunting. Some of the puzzles require you to distinguish between colors or musical tones. So far, no timed sequences.

The early puzzles are well clued, but as you advance through the game they become increasingly difficult, and you have to solve more and more of them by wits and persistence. Successful solutions usually are rewarded with animations or cutscenes that show new areas opening up or other changes in the gameworld.

The Downsides

The game contains only eight save slots – not nearly enough for a game of this length and complexity. There are also a few glitches in the preview version – mostly text-based problems involving the subtitles and saved game descriptions. I’m assuming that these glitches (preview versions are frequently full of them) will be ironed out in the final version of the game when it ships.

Bottom Line

There is a lot to admire in this brooding, expansive game. The first person perspective, mechanical puzzles and multiple worlds are reminiscent of Myst, but there’s something more here. The further you go into the game, the more the atmosphere creeps into you. Partly it’s the game’s earthy charm and magnificent landscapes. Partly it’s the story, particularly the flashbacks that chronicle a tale of love, madness and loss. The peoples of this world clearly need a hero/savior, and Umang may be the best chance they’ve got. When The Sacred Rings ships in 2007, I intend to be there to see if he succeeds.

Would you like to learn more about The Sacred Rings? Read the full review by Inferno.