Indie Game Review: Adera – Episode One: The Shifting Sands (Windows 8/RT)

Nestled in a small area in the Xbox section of PAX Prime 2012 was where I first found Adera.  Four or five Samsung tablets were on display running Windows 8 with a handful of games built for Microsoft’s newest operating system.  Upon approaching the booth, a woman standing nearby asked if I wanted to check out any of the games.  Looking at the various options, I pointed at the most interesting looking choice out of a list that included mainly racing and puzzle games.  The woman smiled and told me she was glad I had chosen that game.  She was one of the developers of Adera.

Even with the developer standing right next to me, my first experience with Adera was not pleasant.  The game took a while to load and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do without direct handholding was difficult.  Couple this with the noisy insanity that is PAX and the nearby Tomb Raider section and I quickly lost interest.  After about three minutes, I politely thanked the woman for showing me her game and told her I might check it out in the future with little intention of actually doing so.  When Adera popped up in the Windows Store as a free download on launch day, I harkened back to my brief playtime at PAX and decided to take the plunge anyway since the price point carried zero risk.  Boy am I glad I did.

Adera – Episode One: The Shifting Sands, developed by HitPoint Inc., is a hidden object puzzle game that pays obvious homage to the PC classic Myst.  The story follows antiquities expert Jane Sinclaire, who finds herself and partner Hawk stranded in an unknown area after their helicopter crashes.  Hawk is injured in the crash and Jane sets out to save the both of them, uncovering a mystery along the way.  I’ll avoid going into further story details for Episode One, but let’s just say it has a “Lost” vibe to it that I assume continues throughout the planned future episodes.

The first thing that stands out about Adera is that it’s a truly pretty game.  No, it’s not pushing polygons like Battlefield 3, but Adera is a joy to look at.  The mostly static backgrounds pop with bright colors and each object within the world is intricately detailed.  It’s clear that HitPoint Inc. set out to create a world that felt vibrant and alive and in this regard they succeeded with flying colors.  I found myself paying less attention to the game’s objectives and focusing on taking in every detail of the environments instead.

Speaking of objectives, gameplay in Adera is straightforward.  You guide Jane through various environments, finding tools, pieces, and other collectibles which allow you to make your way through the puzzles thrown her way in order to advance the plot.  Objects aren’t overly difficult to find but do a good job of hiding within the colorful environments and there is a good deal of collectibles to uncover.  Puzzles work in a similar manner – if you’re a guru, you’ll fly through Adera, but most casual gamers will find Adera’s puzzles to be decently thought provoking without becoming frustrating.  If you ever get stuck, Adera offers a well thought out hint system that provides a hint but has a cool-down period after using it.

Adera is a game that begs to be touched.  While it works adequately with a mouse and keyboard, Adera shines when you’re feeling your way through the adventure.  There’s something about the physical feedback of tapping the screen to discover a hidden treasure, or dragging a tool from your inventory to solve a puzzle that feels immediately accessible and welcoming.  Touch allows those with little to no experience with gaming to easily pick up Adera and enjoy themselves with little learning curve.

Not all is perfect.  Voice acting is painful at times, and there were a few head-scratching moments where I found the puzzle solutions to be unclear.  Why specific items work in certain circumstances while others do not is not always sensible.  I won’t give any direct examples to avoid spoiling the solutions, but this happened a few times throughout the game and I hope it’s addressed in later episodes.  There’s also a good deal of backtracking so if you don’t like seeing the same areas over and over you might find yourself a bit annoyed.

The story is a bit on the light side and The Shifting Sands ends rather abruptly.  Obviously, this is an episodic game and I fully expect HitPoint to flesh out the story over the course of the next few episodes much like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series, but if you hate waiting for resolution you might want to hold off on Adera until the season is out in its entirety.

It should be noted that Adera can only be played on Windows 8 or Windows RT.  If you have a prior version of Windows, sorry –  you’ll have to upgrade to play this.  The Shifting Sands is free to play, but subsequent episodes (such as the recently released Episode Two: The Shadow Path) will cost around $5 a piece.  Adera is also one of the first Xbox games on Windows 8 and comes with some of the bells and whistles you’d expect such as Achievements and cross-device play.  I enjoyed being able to sit at my desk and play Adera using my desktop PC and pick up the game exactly where I was at from the couch using my tablet.

On a hardware related note, I played Episode One on a medium spec PC and Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet.  The game played solidly on both, with the PC slightly outperforming the Surface RT in load times and overall speed, which is to be expected.  However, as I stated before, Adera is a game built for touch and it was easy to overlook the slight hiccups in performance for the added benefit of tactile feedback.  If you’re looking for the best possible experience, I would recommend playing on a touchscreen ultrabook such as Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga.

While Xbox Games on Windows 8 is still in its infancy, The Shifting Sands is a standout title and shows that this platform could have a bright future.  In a gaming environment filled with shooters, it’s encouraging to see Microsoft and HitPoint Inc. take a risk creating a new IP in a classic gaming genre.  Adera – Episode One isn’t perfect, but it is filled with heart and I can’t wait to see where Jane’s adventure takes her.  Enough talk, I’m off to play Episode Two!

Final Rating: 8.0/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On:  Windows 8 PC, Microsoft Surface RT
Time to Complete: 2-4 hours
Gamerscore Earned: 200/200
Purchase Price: Free
Current Price: Free
Recommended Purchase Price: Free
Why You Should Buy It: It’s pretty, fun, and free!
Why You Shouldn’t Buy It: If you don’t like episodic games or Windows 8, avoid Adera

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About Josh Campbell