Aurora: The Secret Within
First posted on 10 November 2008. Last updated on 10 January 2011.
The game is available at GamersGate.
Aurora: The Secret Within is an older style point-and-click adventure game from a small Italian game development studio that is primarily operated by 2 indie developers, Michel Palucci and Alessio Restaino. You play the character of John Pileggi, a struggling private investigator in Roswell, New Mexico. The time is, of course, November 1947—just after the infamous story of the alleged UFO crash at Roswell hits the news. Not surprisingly, your investigation follows into this event. There is a twist, however, that takes the story in this game to a different direction than most other fiction on the so-called Roswell incident.
Pileggi is so hard up that he even takes a case that is written on a paper and slipped under his door. Unlike a noir crime fiction, there is no blonde bombshell walking into the private eye's office. From there, it is a straightforward, mostly linear investigation from the first clue to the next.
A few times, however, there are multiple ways to solve a problem or advance the story. For some problems, you get only a single chance to solve them in a particular way. If you fail, do not despair; the game provides an alternate "solution for dummies". For example, at certain point a professor asks you some science and mathematics questions, the answers to which are not given elsewhere in the game. Once you get into the questions, there is no backing out and coming back (except by restoring an earlier saved game). If you fail, the professor will not give you the information you need. However, the game provides another, simple, albeit less interesting, way to get the same information.
The game uses pre-rendered 3D backgrounds with real-time 3D characters. At least, that is how it appears, though the system requirements advertised by the game do not suggest this. The characters you meet do not move around much, except in pre-rendered cut scenes. However they are made, the graphics are competent. They may lack detail, but they are still attractive and functional. You may have (as I have) a little trouble finding some objects because they are hard to see in some dark scenes. There is no in-game adjustment to increase the brightness and contrast.
The audio presentation does not fare as well as the video. Ambient noise is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sound effects do not blend in well with the ambient noise. Musical scoring is rare, so that it becomes glaring and distracting when it is used. There is no speech. Characters talk only by text that is displayed along the bottom of the screen. Dialog is by a simple menu system. Other internal commentaries and observations made by Pileggi are also by text.
This leads us to the game's great failing: worst translation ever! The English language translation is frequently incomprehensible. At first, I may have considered this cute, after a fashion, for the dialog, since the details usually do not matter. Yet, it quickly becomes serious when it gets in the way of my understanding of the game world. The tooltips for inventory items are not even translated at all and are left in Italian. This means that I sometimes will not know what an inventory item is. For example, a metal objects that looks like a slightly straightened fish hook with no barb has some incomprehensible (to me) Italian name and the comment of a "picklock" when inspected in the inventory. As it turns out, it is an oddly shaped pry bar. It is never presented in any context, so there is no way to know the size of it—not so good for opening locks, but much better for smashing things!
The translation issue is pervasive. Newspapers, letters, and files are difficult to understand. Others are not translated at all, including some observations and the sign on the town library which says "Biblioteca" (the latter is forgivable, since it is part of the graphics, and there is an English description when you see it).
In parallel to the language translation issue, there is a cultural translation issue. Perhaps because I have never seen Roswell myself, I find the references made by the game quite funny. For example, a little 3-room hovel in Arizona, some holdover from the depression with no electricity or indoor plumbing, has a wine cellar. There are numerous oddities like this, any of which may be dismissed as a natural aberration, but together add up to a skewed portrayal of a small American city.
A separate problem with the text is that it is timed. You do not click to continue, it just fades away or is replaced with the next bit of text. The problem is that the timing is frequently off, where a large block of text disappears before you can get past the first line. This is especially a problem when you are trying to take notes from the text. There is no way to go back and see many texts (and other images and cut scenes) once it has passed. The translation issue applies here too, since you often need extra time to try to piece together the broken English.
The inventory is a dropdown bar of icons across the top of the screen. When it is not displayed, there is an inventory icon and a black area where the inventory will drop. Why not just leave the inventory open? Clicking on an icon brings up a close-up of the item, and you can combine items by dragging and dropping. You also drag and drop an item onto a screen object to use it there.
The cursor changes when you pass over an active object, indicating what you can do (such as use, take, and talk). However, there is no change when the action requires an inventory item. The game plays fair with this, though, so that anything that is needed to be activated with inventory will be prominent or expected.
The save game just saves files to a directory, so you can have as many as you want and name them however you like. Yay!
It is possible to fail (for example, you are thrown in jail) in this game, so you are wise to save regularly. It does not happen easily, though; the events leading to failure are obviously risky or stupid. There is 1 dead end I have discovered, but that is clearly a bug in the implementation and not in the design. (When you open the grate in the mine, go through immediately, else it closes and leaves you trapped.) There are at least 2 endings, but only a single good ending.
It is not really a dead end, but when you get to the end game, you no longer have the information available to achieve the successful ending. You will be able to see it long before, though, so you better take notes. That may sound like a no-brainer, but when you get the information, it appears at the time that it will be kept in inventory until you need it.
There are a few real-time challenges. These are simple affairs requiring only a few clicks on a static scene. Failure of some challenges (including the ending) can mean an end to the game, but in such case you are automatically restored back to repeat the challenge. The others are repeatable, with no consequences for failure other than having to try again.
The puzzles are generally simple, uninspired, and sometimes contrived. The only difficulties come from the translation problem and the text timing. There is a slider puzzle, representing the reassembly of a torn letter. For the most part, the puzzles are contextual.
Aurora: The Secrets Within could have been a decent little adventure, and, in Italian, it might currently be so. Without proper language localization, the game simply cannot build up a good atmosphere for the story. It even has trouble building a comprehensible framework for the puzzles. With no exceptionally good qualities to counterbalance these deficits, I have to recommend that the English language version of this game be avoided by any but the most obsessive adventure game fans.