Review: Auro -- A Monster-Bumping Adventure

By Dave Lane 20 Feb 2015 0
No such thing as a milk run. No such thing as a milk run.

If you’re the kind of sophisticated lady or gentleman who peruses Pocket Tactics [I'm revising this in my bathrobe whilst watching COPS --ed.], there are two probable reasons why you recognise the name of Auro. Firstly, it springs from the mind of idiosyncratic designer Keith Burgun, maker of Empire and 100 Rogues. Secondly, it’s “that-game-with-the-thirty-stage-tutorial” [this is not a joke --ed.] where it is possible, nay--likely--that you will lose. A substantial tutorial has come to be seen, within the environment of mobile gaming, as somewhat uncouth, like showing up at a party with a lengthy list of dietary demands. A sophisticated game, the sages say, should usher the player into the game with a minimum of fuss. Thirty levels of tutorials? You might as well use the Ludovico technique, surely.

But look at Auro. Look at those gorgeous, Toriyama-esque character designs and chunky sprites. That’s not an unfriendly game is it? Auro’s tutorials are indeed, though brief, rather thorough. But it only does it because it cares, reader. Auro wants you to understand. It wants you to have a good time. It wants you to see how clever it is, and to show you how clever you are.

Auro is a tight, finely honed puzzle game clad in the monstrous milieu of a dungeon crawl, similar to Hoplite and 868-Hack. Players are cast as the bratty prince Auro, trying to drive off evil overlord/irritating twerp prince Argo by smiting his monstrous minions. Auro, though, doesn’t have much fighting expertise beyond his fondness for shoving things into the water which floods your castle’s dungeons. To triumph against progressively nastier waves of foes, he must use a selection of spells in order to shift and bump the beasties to their watery (or airy, or fiery) doom.

He done fell in the water! He done fell in the water!

Auro is a slight game in many ways. There are nine spells, and fourteen creatures, combined into randomly generated levels. You could play it for thirty minutes and feel like you’ve seen all Auro has to offer, and in a way, you have. You could also play it for a hundred hours and still feel like you’re scratching the surface, because all of those elements are multi-purpose tools. Air spells move you around and out of trouble, but they also leave behind windy vortexes which can be weaponised against flying and heavy enemies. A fire spell can be used to blast one varmint into the depths directly while leaving behind a flame to bump another foe into. Even the monsters themselves can be turned to your advantage – hulking troggles can be lured into trampling over their allies, springy slimes can help you jump to safety or bounce another creature into the water. This is a game that rejects the modern conventions of "unlocking" and "progression" and invites you to find pleasure in getting good at playing what's there. You don't play chess to unlock different sorts of rooks, Auro seems to remind us.

Upon picking up the game, you’ll find it laborious to deal with even a single monster, but you’ll soon find there are few situations you can’t get out of with some ingenuity and a couple of spells– when they’re available. Used spells go on a cooldown timer that is decreased not by turns elapsed but by stepping on one-use power tiles. To refresh your magical mojo, you’re required to push onwards, potentially into a bigger group of enemies – but that’s the kind of situation Auro’s scoring system likes to you to be in.

I need ice puns - someone call Arnie! I need ice puns - someone call Arnie!

The scoring system is what makes the game’s interlocking gears spin. Every time an enemy dies, you receive one to four points, and tick up the meter that determines what each kill is worth. When you take actions which don’t involve monster-slaying, this meter decreases. The player is incentivised to string spells together into arcane flurries that dunk monsters faster than an episode of To borrow a line from Littlefinger, the climb is all there is. To borrow a line from Littlefinger, the climb is all there is.[/caption]

This strong core engagement means Auro is suitable for short bursts of play – a normal run will last somewhere between five and ten minutes - while being addictive enough for lengthy “just-one-more-go” driven sessions. In that respect it measures up against prominent score-driven puzzlers from Tetris to Threes – but Auro, with it's occasionally fiddly rules, lacks the immediate satisfaction of those games. And Auro has none of the elements of unlocking goodies or building a character that 868-Hack or Dream Quest boast. Auro only offers, in slightly different forms, a challenge to reach higher and higher scores. Burgun can always be relied on to re-balance and bug-fix (the major bugs which troubled earlier Android builds are now nowhere to be seen in either version) but seems more inclined to strip away content than add it. Is Auro demanding enough that it needs to offer players something more substantial than a rating or a leaderboard?

Ultimately, no. Unless you get nothing out of contained, minimalist games, what complexity Auro does have is amply justified by the elegance and depth of its mechanics and the charm of its presentation. It may be slightly more demanding up-front than a Tetris sure, but show it a fraction of the forbearance given to an RPG or a 4X game and you’ll be entranced by a beautifully efficient design that makes the player feel like some arcane trickster genius. It’s possible that as, you keep playing, those rushes of insight and improvement will get rarer and rarer, and you’ll put Auro down more often. But sooner or later, that design will call you back. And it’ll feel so natural you won’t even have to touch the tutorial.

Reviewed on an iPad 4 and HTC One S.

Review: Auro -- A Monster-Bumping Adventure

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