Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces–to be continued in Myst V–is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Fulfilling great expectations

The culprit: Riven (PC, Mac, PlayStation)

Riven had some pretty big shoes to fill, as the sequel to one of the most famous games ever made. And I’m happy to say that, not only did it successfully match its predecessor, but actually trumped it in every respect, resulting in my favourite game in the Myst series, an opinion shared by a large portion of the fanbase. And this despite the fact that it adopts a mostly linear structure which would not be reused in subsequent games, thus making it something of a standalone in the series. Be that as it may, between its release in 1997 and the release of Myst III in 2001, Riven sold over 4,5 million units. Doesn’t quite match Myst’s 6 million, but it’s close enough to indicate a successful sequel.

In terms of gameplay and presentation, Riven is very similar to its older brother, but its scope is much greater, despite mostly taking place in a single age. Sounds paradoxical, but this titular age, on its own, is four to five times as large as a single Myst age, which, in a series so heavily based on creating immersive worlds, is something I can only applaud. The graphics have greatly improved, which also helps with immersion and creates a deceptively peaceful atmosphere with a disquieting undercurrent. If you get the feeling that you’re being watched…well, that’s probably because you are. Overall, the storyline is darker than its predecessor and has greater urgency to it, but also a significantly stronger backbone, culminating in a momentous, satisfying conclusion. With Sirrus and Achenar out of commission, the Stranger now has to deal with the fact that they lured their mother away to Riven to make trapping Atrus easier. Needless to say, it has resulted in a pretty big mess. Puzzles abound, just as they did in Myst, but they are more complex, more numerous and probably the most organically integrated in the entire series. This also fits the theme of the game, conveying the feeling of a cohesive structure attempting to hold a disintegrating world together (there’s a reason it’s called Riven).

Riven has never been remade, which I find to be a distinct shame. None of its successors have been remade either, but they either have free roaming or a 360° camera, none of which Riven has. Which means that, since the release of RealMyst, it’s the only game in the series which is still restricted to its original slideshow presentation. There is, however, an ongoing, fanmade project called The Starry Expanse which intends to remedy that. I hope it comes to fruition, but even in its original form Riven a wonderful, beautiful game, and if you enjoyed Myst, you are pretty much certain to love this one too.

Detailed review available! Read more here.