Here’s the lowdown: the original game is innovative, it’s colorful, it’s challenging, it’s stimulating, and despite all this, it’s imperfect in a few key places. Would I recommend it? Definitely. Is it for everyone? Probably not.
Played in 2D, the goal of the game is to direct a beam of light particles called “the flow” into “audio containers” with different control mechanisms. Split into fifteen acts with four to six chapters each, every act excluding the finale introduces new controls, obstacles, or complications to solving the puzzle. There are no instructions, but whenever a new element is introduced, there is a fairly easy starting puzzle that allows the player to experiment and figure out what effect this new element has on gameplay.
As the player fills up audio containers with the flow, different layers of a looped track begin to play (the music is entirely composed by Dain Saint, one of the game’s developers). The reward for solving an entire act, besides progression, is being able to listen to the full track. As the player moves through the puzzles in each act, more and more layers of the track become available, but this means the player has to fill up more audio containers. Each layer of the track is represented by a different color, and a key part of the gameplay is changing the flow’s color at different points along its journey to match the color of the audio container you’re trying to fill.
The music is ethereal and hypnotic, its primary instruments being piano and strings. I liked it. That being said, it gets very repetitive. If you take ten minutes to complete an act, you’re listening to the same 20-second loop for that amount of time. I have no doubt in my mind that Dain Saint, in keeping with the rest of the game’s look and feel, has composed music you could consider a sort of minimalist art; but even for art, that level of repetition becomes burdensome for the listener. It doesn’t help that the music sounds like it was recorded with a midi instrument bank. I can look past this, though, knowing that the game was developed on a limited budget.
Auditorium was programmed in Flash. For a game using this engine, the graphics are pretty. The rainbow colors of the flow against the game’s black background make for a nice psychedelic light-show. The user interface is also fairly slick; elements of the game that the player can control are well-distinguished and don’t detract from the overall presentation. I highly recommend you play the first three acts for free on playauditorium.com to get a feel for the user interface, because it’s hard to explain in a review. The fact that the game has no instructions probably has something to do with this. For the record, I’m glad that this is a game doesn’t hold your hand via instructional pop-ups, which can often ruin the sense of immersion in a game that could be wonderful otherwise; it’s great that Cipher Prime found a way around having text play a major role in the game.
The puzzles themselves range from incredibly easy to incredibly challenging; but even most of the challenging puzzles shouldn’t take you more than several minutes to complete. A sense of experimentation and creativity is a must for this game, because most puzzles have more than one solution. That being said, Auditorium feels like a game of small adjustments. Once you’ve got the flow moving in more-or-less the right direction, sometimes it’s really hard to get one or another audio container filled up all the way; you’ll find yourself constantly tweaking those elements you can control in order to solve a puzzle.
Occasionally you can solve puzzles by jiggling one of your controls to get it to send light particles to a wider range of destinations. This is something I’m not sure was intended, or even tested for; it feels like a cheap way to avoid finding a real solution because you can take advantage of the fact that an audio container can remain filled for a few seconds after it stops receiving the flow. Even though you’re supposed to solve the puzzles with a static setup (if you visit playauditorium.com and click “learn more” it doesn’t mention jiggling as a way to operate the controls) people who play Auditorium are solving puzzles this way. Just take a look at some videos of puzzle solutions posted by YouTube user FougieH, and read the comments; this exploit is too easy to abuse. I’m surprised it didn’t come up in play-testing, because if it did, this seems lazy on the part of the developers that it wasn’t removed.
I occasionally solved the more difficult puzzles this way because I was getting frustrated spending 20 minutes listening to the same 20 seconds of looped track and trying different static setups for the controls. This is either because I’m stupid and have a short attention span, or because some of the puzzles are literally so challenging that they require use of the exploit; my fragile ego asks me to bet on the latter. While about 90% of the game is fun and casual, the other 10% will stress you out worse than my editor-in-chief (No offence, Shane… really… don’t hurt me). If the steep incline in difficulty is intentional, Cipher Prime are a bunch of sadists; either that, or they haven’t created an entirely balanced game.
Aside from these issues, Auditorium is a fun three hours, which is how much I spent on it in total. It’s got some replay value, because there are different solutions to different puzzles, and it’s a good brain exercise. If you’re a casual gamer looking for a good puzzler, absolutely pick this one up. It’s innovative, artful, and rewarding.
Update, 3/14/2012: I was recently in contact with Andrei Marks of Cipher Prime, who explained that yes, the jiggling “exploit” was intentionally left as a means to solve puzzles. There’s even an achievement for it on the PS3 version of Auditorium! I’ve only played the version on Steam, which doesn’t feature achievements, hence my confusion. This is what I get for my elitist PC gaming attitude, of course. I’m not going to update the review, however, because the bottom line and original rating ring true to my experience of the game.
Also, check out the Kickstarter page for Auditorium 2, which will programmed in the fancy-shmancy Unity engine and will feature a 2-player mode. As a successor to Auditorium, I’m sure it’s going to exponentially improve upon the series.