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Nairi: Tower of Shirin

Nairi: Tower of Shirin

The supply crate I’ve found myself in is far from the cozy confines of my house in the rich district.  Even though I was not allowed to leave or go outside, my house offered a place of solitude and study that I took for granted. Now, my parents have been arrested by the Royal Guard, my tutor had me smuggled outside of the city, and I’m being held captive by a gang of cats.

Nairi: Tower of Shirin, a point and click adventure game from HomeBearStudio, tells the story of a girl who is trying to figure out what has happened to her life.  In the opening scenes of the game we see Nairi go from sheltered rich girl to being held captive by a gang. What I quickly discovered was that, much like Nairi herself, this game is short and not to be underestimated.

First and foremost, Nairi is a classic point and click adventure game.  You will be picking up items, combining them with each other, using them on characters and settings in the world, etc.  For those that have played classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, this format will feel familiar.

The initial series of puzzles in this game tasks Nairi with escaping the confines of a jail cell.  As a fan of point and click adventures, the systems feel instantly familiar. A toolbar at the bottom of the screen shows Nairi’s inventory.  Within moments I am clicking and dragging items on top of one another to see if they can be combined to make unique items and testing out different areas of the screen to see if they can be interacted with.

Much like other games in the genre, the player is interacting with still scenes in the background for the majority of the game.  These still scenes, along with the rest of the environments, are visually striking.

The art style of Nairi is a cross between Professor Layton, Studio Ghibli, and classic Disney.  Nairi is a human but the majority of the world she interacts with is filled with anthropomorphic animals who occupy the same space as humans. The color palettes used in these environments are wonderful, the developers using lighting and clever color combinations to pull the player’s attention to key items.  During my playthrough I was consistently thinking that this was one of the prettiest point and click games I’ve ever played.

Regardless of how an adventure game looks, it is nothing if the puzzles aren’t engaging and in the case of Nairi, the puzzles don’t disappoint.  Nairi has it’s puzzle solving sections arranged as set pieces where there is a bigger environment to explore, usually with multiple rooms and locations that are all connected to a larger puzzle.  The first set piece I encountered involved channeling water into a series of rooms to unlock a certain set of items. What initially appears as a simple task proves quite difficult in practice.

Nairi presents its puzzles in multiple ways and you will need to use items and observation skills in order to solve them.  Very rarely did I come across a puzzle that just involved clicking an item and simply combining it with the environment. There were a series of puzzles in the first set piece that required me to read glyphs off the wall, use dials to solve a slide puzzle, and use clues in the surroundings to suss out the solution.  

All of the puzzles in Nairi are satisfyingly frustrating, somehow testing the edges of patience up to the breaking point just before the solution presents itself.  At all stages of the game I thought I had been stumped but, after taking a step back and looking at things, I would find the solutions to be readily available.

There is a hint system in the game in the form of your companion Rex’s journal.  These are most certainly not giveaway hints. The journal may suggest an area or show a picture of a statue you may need to use but it never outright gives you a solution.  I found these hints to be just enough to put me on the right track without taking away my sense of discovery. As I progressed, the puzzles got more and more complex with the final act involving a room swapping puzzle that had me flattened for over an hour. The answers were all there, it just took time and persistence to find them. The puzzles in Nairi are among the more satisfying  I’ve solved in a point and click game.

To those who are familiar with this genre, you already know the trappings involved in these games and Nairi is no exception.  There is a lot of backtracking between areas. Sometimes you try to use an item with the environment and it doesn’t work how it should.  I had a situation at the beginning of the game where I tried to use a crowbar to pry up a floorboard and it didn’t work. As it turns out, I had to use the crowbar on the opposite side of the same floorboard for it to trigger the event.  Annoyances for sure, but they come with the territory of this genre of games.

I also encountered a few bugs, almost all of which included not being able to close items I was viewing.  For example, towards the end of the game you have to use a book to translate runes. Everytime I opened the book, it wouldn’t let me close it and I had to force quit the app and restart the game. I played this on a Switch so I took a screenshot of the book and had to flip between the game and the screenshot gallery in order to solve the problems. It wasn’t game-breaking but it was noticeable.  It is worth noting that I was playing a pre-release version of the game so the hope is that these issues may be addressed via a patch.

The story of Nairi’s parents appears to be the central focus of the game.  Nairi is determined to get back to the rich district to find out what happened to her parents and help them out of trouble. I expected to follow this journey through to its conclusion through solving puzzles and doing tasks. Maybe it was me making some snap judgements or maybe it was my past experiences with point and click adventure games that lowered my expectations, but I wasn’t expecting the story of Nairi to be anything more memorable than a girl helping her parents. I was wrong.

After solving the first few puzzles and learning a little bit more about the world, it becomes apparent that there is much more happening beneath the surface. There are rival gangs fighting for control over the Poor District, each having a long standing history with one another that informs how they interact. There is a mysterious figure known as the White Mask who is abducting citizens with an unknown purpose. There is evidence of an ancient civilization, the Noorians, who have left messages behind of an impending doom. Nairi, along with her rat chaperone Rex, seem to encounter one mystery after another in their attempts to get Nairi home and each of them are legitimately interesting.

I became interested in the story of Nairi in a way that I wasn’t expecting. The dynamics between that rival gangs are tense in a way that made me feel the weight of their histories. The interactions between Rex, a former gang leader, and the current gang leaders display these rivalries in a surprisingly realistic and emotional way for cartoon animals. It was touching for me to read the emotion in Rex’s face as he dealt with the demons of his past in his attempts to help Nairi. It is a testament to the artists and the direction of this game because it is not easy to convey emotion effectively through still images.

I was equally invested in the stories of the White Mask and the ancient Noorian civilization.  It is hard to talk about this aspect of the story without giving away too many of the plot points however it is necessary to talk about because this game plays with the expectations that games have given players over the years. As I approached what would be the conclusion of the game I learned things about the world and about Nairi herself that both surprised me and made me excited to see how it played out. The typical ‘hero’s journey’ gets stood on its head a bit in the final act of the game. I appreciate that Nairi was keeping me on my toes and giving me as many questions as it does answers.

And then it ended. It just ended.

The ending of Nairi: Tower of Shirin is one of the most abrupt endings I have ever experienced in a videogame. If I am being completely honest, it reminded me of the infamous climax of Halo 2, where Master Chief is told to “finish the fight,” and then the credits roll. The cutscene that was shown right before the credits rolled in Nairi was fantastic. More of the story of Shirin had been revealed, including details about the Noorians and the Soluna faith that I hadn’t known about.  Some major events happened with key characters that shook up the story. It felt like the end of the second act of a great play. All of the conflict had been revealed, details emerged that clarified some of the more convoluted aspects of the story, and the third act was poised to be very interesting. Then the credits rolled.

It goes without saying that I was very disappointed; I was loving my time with Nairi and I wasn’t ready for it to be over, because none of the conflict had been resolved.  However, I wasn’t surprised. Nairi is an indie game whose development was crowdfunded. When looking at the Kickstarter page, HomeBearStudio specifically states that they wanted to make the game about a 10 hour experience but it would be longer if they hit their stretch goals.  It feels very much like they didn’t have the resources they needed to complete the game the way it was envisioned.

After getting over the shock of the abrupt ending, I agreed with the design decisions that were made.  There were two solid acts of a videogame that I got to play through. If focus was taken away from these two acts to wedge in a third that wasn’t as polished, I could see my overall experience being less positive.  Having not spoken to the developers directly, I am making assumptions about the development process and could absolutely be wrong. Regardless of the reasoning, Nairi comes to a screeching halt but the journey to that halt is certainly worth the effort.  

Nairi: Tower of Shirin surprised me at every turn. It surprised me with it’s incredibly striking visuals. It surprised me with the quality of the puzzles and the engaging story. It also surprised me with how abruptly it ended.

If you have any love for the point and click genre, I definitely recommend that you check this game out. From a reviewer’s standpoint, I think you should play it for its great story and intricate puzzle. From a fan’s standpoint, I think you should play it because, hopefully – if the game does well enough financially – HomeBearStudio will be able to finish what they have started.

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