Dreams are a notoriously mixed bag. Whilst some can have us skimming the sunlit Pyranees in blissful zero-gravity, others seem all too willing to send us reeling into the jaws of our own personal hell. Others are dull as porridge, and slip away during the second gulp of morning coffee. To my incontestable relief, however, Alice and Smith’s new ARG transpired to be none of these things. Having recently joined the frontier of Early Access, Ahnayro: The Dream World ushers players into the mystic realm of oneiromancy, balancing a complex narrative with challenging, real-world research in a promising extension of The Black Watchmen universe.
Developer: Alice and Smith
Publisher: Alice and Smith
Previewed on: PC
Also Available On: N/A
Release Date: Fall 2016
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Graphically, Ahnayro feels something of a departure from Alice and Smith’s usual ARG fare, adopting a period style closer to Woman in Black than Minority Report. The familiar hi-tech mainframes and dabbles in cyberespionage are switched out for candlelit desks, sepia-hued photographs and Ouija-style sigils, and it feels decidedly fresh coming from the secret-service hallmarks of NITE Team 4.
If there’s something Alice and Smith has always done well, it’s immersing the player, and they don’t seem to fall short here. In Ahnayro, players take on the role of a Victorian researcher, delving into their increasingly odd dreams to uncover secrets that allude to the game’s psychological plot.
Each dream presents an assortment of objects, each of which carry ‘fragments’ that must be deciphered in order to progress. Naturally, these are muddled together with characteristically dreamlike oeuvre. Blotted photographs and scrawled riddles surround pocket watches, pipes and other Victorian gear, offering hints to guide the player’s research into real-world history to uncover a dream’s meaning.
But simply finding a name or a place isn’t enough to progress. Once each fragment is solved, the player must then uncover the relationships between their findings, in order to link fragments together to uncover the object’s inner meaning. Some meanings transpire as concrete and straightforward, whilst others are decidedly slipperier, wading the waters of religion, reality and the human mind. Though Ahnayro’s enthusiasm for mythology and psychology is palpable from the off, you’ll never research the same thing twice. I even found myself learning a few interesting tidbits as I delved deeper into my 19th Century psyche.
Ahnayro’s focus on existing events not only aligns it well with its ARG predecessors, but allows the game to breathe freely with a unique and riveting narrative that doesn’t feel spoon-fed. It’s faintly comparable to Her Story inasmuch as players are only invited to uncover Ahnayro’s story; something that really adds to the immersion of the psychoanalytic gameplay. A mysterious voice over lends now and then to decoding cryptic hints, but it’s frequently rendered inaudible beneath an overbearing piano soundtrack. Whilst haunting and suitable against the Victorian setting, Ahnayro’s soundtrack feels off-putting, especially during some of the more complex conundrums. And after disabling music for a while, I honestly felt that the spectral sound effects overlaying the game’s interface were enough to aid the game’s supernatural mood.
Puzzles are particularly well-planned and even better hidden. Solutions usually take the form of a single word; names of places or notable folk, to be spelled out via a selection of letter pairings across a sacred sigil. The sacred geometry board is a welcome inclusion, for it places just enough restraint on a puzzle’s possible answers to give a vague sense of direction to each investigation. Whilst some fragments are solved with a spot of general knowledge, others can stump for hours. Indeed, many conundrums saw me hunched over my keyboard, typing madly into various search engines like a neolithic Sherlock Holmes. I even resorted to Bing during one investigation. Sorry Google.
But though puzzles can initially feel cryptic and occasionally prolonged, they’re immensely satisfying when the conclusion’s finally sussed. Information is consistently well-researched, with hints leaving accessible breadcrumb-trails across the internet for players to unearth. I found myself exulting eureka on numerous occasions throughout my dreamworld endeavours, and due to the game’s persistent attention to structure and detail, I never truly felt I’d stumbled upon the answer.
Alice and Smith might be treading new waters with a new Victorian style, but Ahnayro’s period focus and engrossing storyline ultimately prove intriguing as a unique addition the world of The Black Watchmen. Whilst objectives can feel prolonged and overly-cryptic at first, its research-based puzzles offer a weighty challenge that never ceases to test the limits of player-curiosity. If you’re a fan of narrative exploration and complex puzzle-solving, Ahnayro’s Early Access launch marks a promising new entry in the ARG niche.
You can view Ahnayro: The Dream World’s Official Trailer below.