Review: The Sacred Rings (PC)

The Sacred Rings
Developer: Streko Graphics
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Genre: Adventure
Release Date 03/07/2007

I know, I’m supposed to be retired. And I am. It’s just TAC sent me these two Adventure games back to back and it’s not like we have anyone else on staff doing reviews. Broken Sword IV was poor and reminded me exactly why I quit the industry to begin with. Scared Rings looked kind of neat though. From early screenshots it reminded me of the classic game MYST. I never really got into MYST though. I like my fantasy games to be RPG’s and my Adventure games to be either Terror-based or grounded in the real world. I can see why MYST was as massively popular as it was in its heyday though. It’s a well made game and I like most of the puzzles in it. It’s just a matter of taste that Adventure + Fantasy don’t mix well for me.

Upon receiving this game from TAC, the press release read, “Enclosed you will find your review copy of the PC CD-ROM video game The Sacred Rings, the sequel to 2004’s popular Aura: Fate of the Ages. This surprised me. I’d never heard of Aura and in 2004, I was churning out about 30 video game reviews a year. I felt I should probably look up this game so I could comment on it. Maybe do a little compare/contrast on the original and the sequel. Sure enough, the original game, Aura went gold. However the reviews of this game that I found were most unkind, referring to the game as “MYST with brain damage” and other slurs that basically reviled the game as a third rate version of the most popular Adventure game in North American history (Although The 7th Guest is a strong contender for that title too) with the gaming masses.

Sadly with the Adventure genre, you can tell just by seeing what site reviewed a game, what the score will be. Gameboomers, Quandary, and Just Adventure lavish praise and high marks on every game in the genre. Other sites like Gamespot and IGN tend to give Adventure games relatively low marks due to the games being more of an intellectual bent and well…heir reviewers don’t share that mindset. Let’s leave it at that. It all tends to even out, although more often than not I side with the higher scores, as games like Barrow Hill, Tunguska, and Still Life are games I really enjoy.

Little did I know that this game would make me swear at levels I haven’t since Shadow of Druaga. Oh my God, I hated this game so much I don’t think I’m going to touch another game until Raiden III gets ported to the PS2 a month from now. I was doing so good too on the road to recovery.

You want to see why this game melted my brains? Read on!

LET’S REVIEW

1. Story

Adventure games are generally considered to be thick and rich with story. Besides puzzles, this is the genre’s bread and butter. But then there is The Sacred Rings. The recap all of Aura in 5 minutes, and that plot condensation is more story than you get in the 6 hours it will take you to play through TSR. Hey, the initials of this game are TSR. It’s Gygaxlicious!

In Aura, it appears that your main character, Umang, collected a bunch of magical rings and a device called the Tetrahedron. Some bad guys decided they wanted these mystical artifacts and so at the bequest of the Keepers, aka the good guys in Aura I guess, Umang leapt through a portal to another dimension. And that my friends is how Aura ENDED. At least it seems to be the case from the intro to TSR. Honestly that sounded like the worst ending ever to me. But then, I hadn’t a) actually played Aura, and b) I hadn’t gotten to the ending of The Sacred Rings yet, and what a long and arduous task that would be.
Umang, like every other character in the game, is totally unlikable. He has no real personality or depth to his character. He’s just a toady for the Keepers, of whom we learn NOTHING about, save that this one time they accidentally opened a dimension portal to these guys calling themselves THE SHADOW LEGION, and they appear to be pretty nasty psychos all around. Thus we root for Umang who at the end of the second act basically infers that the lesson of the game is “The ends justifies the means.” BAD MORAL TO TEACH IN MODERN DAY AMERICA there Streko.

So much of the game doesn’t make sense story wise. You spend a full third of the game in a single house trying to figure out how to make it walk (I know how that sounds, but it does make sense in context of the game). Then you blow it up. Needless to say, the owner is pissed because you have now made him a hobo as well as made him your unwitting cohort against the rulers of this planet. He tells you to get lost, but then when he reappears in the game again, he’s your best freaking friend! Double You Tea F?

If anything, this spare threads of a plot are there to guide you from one puzzle to the next. In all honestly, that’s most Adventure games at their very core. However, they also usually have well thought out and designed plots to obfuscate this obviousness. Here, you just want to hit the space bar and skip through the cut scenes. Out of all the characters in the game a single one, Frid the Executioner has an actual back story and fleshed out personality. Everything else is little better than a mannequin. And not the Michael Gottlieb version either.

If plot is an important piece of your enjoying a game, then run far away from this one. The story at times is contradictory, at times inane, and often nonsensical. I was actually happy to get the bad ending because it meant Umang died. You should not be rooting for the character you are playing as to die. This was a dreadful production through and through and the plot was merely the first of many painful things I will have to recount here for you all.

Story Rating: 3/10

2. Graphics

The visuals of TSR were generally good. The interior of buildings, the outdoor settings during daylight, and little things like close ups of pieces of furniture or even a skeleton in a torture chamber were pretty nice to look at. But there were also things that could have used some work.

First are the character designs. Once again, we refer back to mannequin as an appropriate adjective. When there was movement show, it was jerky and awkward, like a Punch and Judy puppet show. The characters were all lanky and their limbs and faces all seemed far too long. The exception to this was the evil leader of the Shadow Legions, who had a pot belly that at times seemed reflective and at other times like a beach ball superimposed on his actual stomach. Poor design work here.

Then there are the night scenes. It’s not that they do a disservice to darkness. Rather the exact opposite. At times it is so dark, it is hard to make out any detail and you have to get up to your screen to see what it supposed to be on the screen. This is very poorly done and it was horribly annoying to have to get up and get close to the screen to see what the hell was supposed to be going on here.

As most Adventure games have simplistic or limited controls, a great deal of development goes into the static images that pass for graphics in this genre. Because point and click games tend to have very little in the way of moving visuals, coupled with the lack of any real sense of urgency to KILL THINGS RIGHT NOW! NOWNOWNOW!, what is one the screen tends to be very detailed and dynamic. Alas, this just isn’t the case for much of The Sacred Rings. My favorite things to view were either the forest before the abandoned mine or the Witch’s Island for the visual raining effects. It’s just that TSR doesn’t hold up to the high level of quality graphics this genre is generally known for. At times what is on your screen is great, but at others it is pretty dull and on rare occasions, even ugly and frustrating.

Graphics Rating: 6/10

3. Sound

The music and the voice acting are by far the best part of this game. I really enjoyed the musical score. Every classical style track was well done and fit the mood of each area. I really enjoyed listening to the game, even if playing it was akin to being kicked in the genitals. I find orchestral music is a perfect match for the fantasy setting, although that may be considered a bit on the nose. Even when I was frustrated with the controls, lack of common sense to certain puzzles, and annoyed with the story.

The voice acting is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that there is so little plot and even less characterization. I recognized at least one of the voices from previous TAC/Dreamcatcher games, but I couldn’t place it.

I always find sound to be the hardest quality to write about in a review because you can’t hear anything from the printed page, and god hoping this review will steer you far away from the game, so you won’t get the chance to hear it for yourself. Be assured that although you’ll be missing out on some quality background noise and some impressive voice actors who obviously got to the core of their characters far better than the people playing the game will, it’s not enough by any means for me to recommend picking up this game.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Generally point and click games score really high here. Controls are simple and involve nothing more than clicking your mouse. Want to talk to some one? Pick up your mouse, move the cursor on top of the NPC, and click. Want to pick up a object? Do the same thing? Want to interact with the environment? Again, it’s just move the mouse and click. It’s hard to ruin the controls in an Adventure game, but The Sacred Rings sure tries its damnedest to do so.

For one thing, the game repeats the control scheme of Got Game’s Scratches, which you may remember got a 5.0 from me. No, it doesn’t have the constant freezing up or stalling that Scratches did, but it does have the first person 360 full motion aspect going on. What this means is that the entire game is played from a first person perspective like your FPS. Now a lot of adventure games are like this, but in most point and click games, your point of view is static until you click a directional viewpoint change. Here you are constantly in motion. If you move the mouse left, your character’s vision and what you see on the screen moves that way as well. It’s great on theory, but like Scratches the controls here are hair trigger and so what you see moves very quickly. Now I don’t get motion sickness playing games (except for Bubble Bobble Revolution), but as with Scratches this control setup will bring it out in those who have even a hint of it. Thus the controls, by their very nature will forgo a portion of the gaming public from playing this, which is too bad as Adventure games are generally for those that have issues with a lot going on at once or get queasy from a lot of sudden movement.

The other issue is that when it comes to actually interacting with the environment with this game, the controls are far too picky. Yes, I know. This is like the Anti-Adventure game. Controls are too loose with the navigational, but exceptionally anal and precise when interacting with the environment. You see, in most Pn’C games, when you want to click on something, you can click in a small radius around the item you are trying to monkey with, as it makes things easier. In a lot of TSR, not only do you have to click on the item precisely, but it has to be a specific part of the item that often seems to be a single freakin’ pixel. Case in point is the chemistry set. At one point you have to make a potion to cure an old lady of her chronic migraines. You spin a wheel to get the appropriate ingredients. Then you press a release valve to put the ingredients into a test tube. The you press the release valve on the test tubes to put the ingredients into a bowl. However, 99.99% of the time when you try to release the mixture from the test tubes, the game will read your command as, “Slide the test tube over.” It took me literally 15 minutes to finally get the tubes to work. It turns out you had to press the release valve in one ultra specific spot, and even if you were but a fraction of a millimeter off, it would slide the test tube. Holy hell was that annoying.

This was without a doubt, one of the worst Adventure games I have ever played control wise. It was spotty where it needed to be precise and overly specific when it needed to be more flexible. It got just about everything one can get wrong control wise and it truly made playing this game a grueling nightmare.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 3/10

5. Replayability Rating

Most Adventure games are exceptionally linear and offer only a single ending. TSR actually offers you a few endings. Some involve getting caught by the bad guys and dying, which in and of itself is impressive as most adventure games don’t have the concept of “Game Over.” However, the game is still highly linear and thus once you beat the game, you might as well just go back from your last save point and watch the ending you didn’t get the first time. That’s it. Still, that’s more replay value than most Adventure games. Probably the only time you’ll ever hear me say this game does something better than other point and click games.

Replayability Rating: 2/10

6. Balance

When I discuss balance in an Adventure game, I tend to look at the quality of the puzzles. There was one puzzle here I really loved. It involved candles of three different shapes that glowed with varying coloured flames. The size and colour of the candle would tell you what would be the next candle to light. The colour of the flame indicated the direction you should move your mouse, and the length of the candle indicated how far you should move it. This was a lot of fun and by far the only enjoyable puzzle in the entire game. The rest were simply dreadful.

My least favorite puzzle was the rock climbing in the dark one. Simply because this combined the worst bit of the graphics in the game with the anal retentive “You have to click in a very specific spot if you want us to register your choice.” It was hard to see what the hell I was doing and there was no rhyme or reason it was just “Try and see what happens.” Lame to the nth.

In most Adventure games, the puzzles make sense. There is a definite logic to what you are doing or it gives you subtle hints to work out. With TSR, you are either given the exact answer on how to do the puzzle, or you are given no hints at all. Annoying as hell. Some puzzles make absolutely no sense and the only way to solve them is by simple trial and error. Where is the sense of accomplishment there? It means even a chimp could do the puzzles if it was taught to click a mouse. Arrrgh.

Simply put, aside from one five minute puzzle in this game, it was completely and utterly devoid of the concept of fun. Everything was either handed to you, or the puzzles were so abstract that even the hard core Adventure gamer would become annoyed at them. Just stay away., That’s all I can say.

Balance Rating: 2/10

7. Originality

If Aura was a bad attempt at being a MYST rip off like other reviewers have claimed, then TSR is a bad rip-off of a bad rip-off. I can’t imagine Aura being this mind numbingly stupid or poorly made. There’s no real plot to speak of aside from “Backtrack and click on things.” I will say that the puzzles are original, but this is proof that originality isn’t always a good thing.

The Scared Rings is your run of the mill terribly made fantasy game. Everything is either cliché or just poorly made. It seems TAC has horrible luck when publishing fantasy Adventure games.. Keepsake was one of the worst games i played in 2006, and now this is making the list for 2007.

Orignality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

When games are this bad, I sometimes want to kick myself for creating this 10 point system and thus having to look at every aspect of a game. But it’s the only way you readers get an actual balanced look at a game, so away I go.

At no point was I enthralled with this game. From the very beginning my thoughts were “I have been in this House for over an hour? Oh holy hell crap on a stick, what if the entire game takes place in here?” The most I found myself thinking about in this game was why it was called The Sacred Rings when there are no rings that show up in the game, sacred or otherwise.

The game took me six hours to beat, but it felt like 2-3 times that length. Every dragged on endlessly and I hated seeing the same cut scenes via the teleporting gondola ride or the decent into the mines over and over again. If I didn’t feel obligated to review this game for IP, I would have happily turned it off 15 minutes into the horrible claptrap of a game and never looked at it again.

If anything, this has pushed me back into my mindset of “I never want to play another video game for a long time” and that’s truly awful.

Addictiveness Rating: 1/10

9. Appeal Factor

Can anyone enjoy this game? Maybe the creators? Maybe the PR people for TAC as the are paid to say nice things about it? Maybe foaming at the mouth Aura zealots, although I doubt such a thing exists. I suppose true Adventure game fanatics could get some enjoyment out of this. It’s not the worst game I’ve ever played mind you, and Keepsake was far worse because that damn game went on almost as long as an RPG. Regardless, this is a very bad Adventure game, and I’m really disappointed to have played two TAC duds in a row, as normally they have an eye for quality. Here’s a hint guys: BRING OVER PATHOLOGIC!

Appeal Factor: 2/10

10. Miscellaneous

I’ll be short and to the point here. There is nothing really enjoyable about this game. It is pretty at times. It has an excellent score attached to the fecal matter that comprises the rest of the game. Everything else is a giant black hole of suck. I can’t think of a single reason that someone would play this game, aside from being a reviewer and basically having to review it. This was one of the worst games I’ve had to review in my 4+ years of doing this. It was so bad I couldn’t really think of anything witty or amusing to mock the game with ala Shining Force Neo. When a game is so bad I can’t even spent part of the review being OTT with cruel barbs to it, you know it’s bad. Either that or the burnout. Who knows?

Miscellaneous Rating: 2/10

The Scores
Story: 3/10
Graphics: 6/10
Sound: 8/10
Control & Gameplay: 3/10
Replayability: 2/10
Balance: 2/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 1/10
Appeal Factor: 2/10
Miscellaneous: 2/10
Total Score 32/100
Final Score: 3.0 (Dreadful)

Short Attention Span Summary
Holy hell people, do not buy this game. Try to pretend it doesn’t exist. If you play it, you migyt as well poke out your eyes and set your digits on fire, because you will get the same kind of reward from the level of self-sadism. At least with the mutilation, you won’t be out thirty bucks.