More of a rehashing of Aura: Fate of the Ages than a sequel, The Sacred Rings is yet another Myst knockoff aimed solely at adventure gamers with a high tolerance for frustration. This Streko-Graphics game is deeply difficult and overflowing with excruciatingly obtuse puzzles based on the same sort of surreal contraptions that were introduced by Atreus back in 1995. However, like its predecessor, and unlike much of the Myst series, The Sacred Rings lacks a well-developed plot and interesting characters, which makes it tough to summon up much enthusiasm for trudging through this airless collection of brainteasers.
For what it's worth, the plot picks up right where Aura ended. Apprentice Umang of the Clan of Keepers awakens in a strange, apparently movable house in possession of the sacred rings that solving a lot of weird mechanical puzzles led him to in the last game. However, his quest remains unfinished, as a group of rebellious Keepers headed up by the evil Durad have started a revolt to try and grab the rings and the two pieces of the Tetrahedron artifact, which can be used together to grant great powers to their bearers. Soon you're off on another scavenger hunt through new surreal dimensions with a lot of locked doors and bizarre gadgets.
It's hard to tell up from down in The Sacred Rings, as Streko-Graphics has again given characterization and story little attention. Much of the plot is developed in grainy cutscenes, complete with stereotypical characters and a villain who actually "Muhahahahaha!"s about your plight at one point. You spend all of your time exploring a handful of locales trying to figure out what you're supposed to be doing, so you have no time for idle chit-chat. The game's visuals are good in a 1999 sort of way, and they establish an intriguing setting by being imaginative, although they are also both claustrophobic and seriously dated by a reliance on Myst's one-step-at-a-time movement. And while the impressive voice acting makes characters come to life (especially Umang), there is little of it because your interactions with human beings are few and far between.
So it's really all about the puzzles. And make no mistake, The Sacred Rings boasts an impressive collection of out-there challenges geared to test your reasoning and your sanity. There is a fairly wide variety as well, although each usually comes down to scrounging for clues and then pushing buttons, turning gears, or activating something similarly mechanical. Most deal with glyphs, colors, or some other geometric patterns and shapes that have to be dialed up or plugged into a machine (although you do get tossed the odd curveball, like in one instance where you have to examine the patterns presented by partially burned candles), so it feels like you're breaking one code after another. All are extremely hard, which leads to some satisfying "Aha!" moments where everything finally clicks and a solution comes to your mind.
Still, just as with Aura, Streko-Graphics doesn't provide enough context for your puzzle solving. Not only is the game missing the backdrop of a satisfying story, but it's also missing even the barest of motivations. You're typically plopped down in some whacked-out garden or a metal building with more sealed hatchways than a submarine and abandoned with nary a clue of what to do or how to go about doing it. Right at the very start of the game, you wake up in a strange house with a weirdo who tells you only to find a way to open a stuck metal door, before he goes off and takes a nap. You aren't even informed which of the house's many doors he's referring to before he goes beddy-bye. Clues are provided through notes and letters, although they're typically so mysterious and/or wordy that they could be considered puzzles all on their lonesome.
Exploration is very tedious, both due to the step-by-step movement and a need to scroll your cursor around to carefully examine every object on the screen. The latter is particularly annoying, because it feels clunky and because areas are loaded with fine details that make it impossible to tell what's useful and what's not. You come across a desk loaded with books and odd-looking paraphernalia, yet only one item is accessible. A shelf features three locked cabinets, yet only one of them can be opened. And so on. It's nice from a visual perspective that the developers took the time to dress up the game's varied environments, but there are way too many red herrings here, which makes it very easy to overlook vital objects and clues.
You need to be a hardcore puzzle-solving adventurer to get any entertainment out of The Sacred Rings. While the game features some truly devilish mysteries that provide no small sense of accomplishment when solved, don't expect to get through this one without checking out an online walk-through...or tearing your hair out.