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Adventure game for PC
Mindscape 1996

The setting could not be more clichéd: you are a futuristic thief (Indiana Jones style) specialising in ancient artifacts. At the beginning of the game, you have received an urgent message from your friend and colleague Colin Scott, who informs you that he has found an underground temple called Aeternis, where the Holy Grail has been guarded by 12 Knights Templar for 800 years, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. But something has gone wrong, and Colin is asking for your help. Without delay, you don your thieving kit and rush forth to confront the hardest challenge you're ever going to meet.

Doesn't sound like much, and the box isn't all that tempting either. Templars! The Grail! Ghosts! Dinosaurs! Yeah, right... sounds like yet another badly done Myst clone... which is a pity, because in the end this game had the best plot I've ever seen in a computer game - and it could easily hold its own against quite a few fantasy books as well.

The problem is that initially the game doesn't give away much. The controls are obscure, your goal vague, and the first few puzzles are very challenging. However, once started, the plot deepens rapidly, and the player will be immersed in a highly detailed world full of historically accurate details, shady and well-written characters, plenty of philosophy and exploration. Oh, and a tyrannosaurus rex or two.

Graphics

Dark, gloomy and chunky. Single screens are very beautiful, especially bearing in mind that the game was released seven years ago. 3D rendering is quite realistic, but movement between screens is jarring and got a lot of criticism even when the game was brand new. On the other hand, everything is examinable from several different angles - something I only learned to appreciate after being frustrated by more modern games like Riven or Zork Grand Inquisitor. And there is a lot to examine. Aeternis offers breathtaking glimpses of both splendour and decay, ranging from Assyrian ziggurats to underground docks, slaughterhouse and a Gothic cathedral, all conveying an appropriate sense of abandonment and neglect.

Music

At times superb, sometimes just trivial. Ambient background music enhances the game's atmosphere quite nicely, but after a while it can get distracting. However, the sound effects are superb. As you pull levers, turn cogs and operate various pieces of machinery, you are constantly rewarded with realistic and suitably chilling sounds. There were moments when an uxpected growl of a T-Rex made me jump right off the chair in fright. Most of the time the feeling of immersion was almost flawless.

Plot

Excellent and thought-provoking. As you progress through Aeternis, a story of lost faith, betrayal and corruption starts to unfold through conversations with various inhabitants of the temple. Occasionally you also come across pages from a diary kept by Tobias, the Templar leader, which provide clues to the history of Aeternis and its all too apparent downfall, the overall motive being one of exhaustion and forgotten idealism.

The guardians themselves are a mixed bunch. Originally chosen because of their excellency, most of them have gone somewhat haywire during the millennia they have spent underground. Some are psychotic, others treacherous, a precious few are still dedicated to their old ideals. Most of the knights have hidden agendas of their own and will be actively trying to use the player for their own ends. The choices that you make will have a major impact to the rest of the game, so you will probably have to play the game at least twice to discover all the locations and talk to every possible NPC.

Apart from the guardians, there is a plethora of minor NPCs to interact with, quite a few of whom are in fact dead at the time. The Grail will not let people die in the temple, resurrecting even the most grimly mutilated corpses and mutated horrors to roam around the dank corridors, but it won’t let them live either: none of the inhabitants of Aeternis can leave the temple without being turned to ashes. In connection to this, there is an interesting little sub-plot in the game involving Oisin and Niamh of the Celtic legends, giving a truly macabre edge to the traditional story of Tir na nOg.

Puzzles

As already mentioned, the puzzles tend to be difficult, although they do get easier as the game progresses. There are multiple solutions to most of them, and often a way to avoid solving a puzzle altogether by finding a shortcut around it. Most of the time the obstacles presented to the player are well integrated into the plot – everything has a reason for being there, although some of these reasons might not be immediately obvious. Roughly from mid-game onwards, the puzzles start veering towards the psychological, forcing the player to make decisions as to which character to trust.

While there is some action involved, in general the game stays true to the adventure genre. The PC is no warrior despite carrying a rifle, and it is possible to finish the game without firing it more than once. Azrael’s Tear has been compared to System Shock, but despite the similar feeling of suspense, it is really much more a thinker’s game.

Overall verdict

It should be obvious by now that I consider this a very good game indeed. Azrael’s tear has a few all too obvious faults which probably contributed to its lack of commercial success, but overall the superb writing and extensive research that has gone into it more than make up for the game’s shortcomings. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to find a copy these days, and although there was a demo release for DOS available a few years back, now it seems to be almost as hard to locate as the game itself. The producer has recently promised to try to convince Mindscape to release Azrael’ Tear as abandonware, but for now, places like eBay or bargain bins in the local department store seem like a much safer bet.

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