Guest review: Myst IV demo

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Headless Hollow welcomes the esteemed sound designer Peter Miller (of ‘The Ring’ fame) with this guest review of the new Ubisoft Myst IV downloadable demo (Mac version):

Let me say from the get go that I am a big fan of the original Myst, and of the sequel to that game, Riven. I think it is universally agreed that these games redefined the puzzle/adventure style game which, up until they came along, were pretty much devoid of atmosphere and style. Having said that I was less enamoured of the clumsy Exile, which, for all its technical progress on the first two titles was bereft of the magic and charm of those games.
So it was with high hopes for a return to form that I downloaded the demo for Myst 4: Revelation.

Well. It started badly. This is no tiny example file—the zipped demo is a whopping 185 meg, which is a sizeable investment of time if you’re not on a fast pipe. What makes matters worse is that if you’re a Mac user, the archive has been incorrectly formatted and it took me quite a bit of experimenting and hunting around the web for advice before I could actually boot the demo. That this problem has not been rectified as of this writing is a sad indictment of the disinterest which Ubisoft shows to Apple users, forgetting that the Mac platform was where the Myst saga was originally born. Why should they care, I guess, when all the money is in the PC world.

My first impression on beginning the game was one of shoddiness. After an explanatory introduction by our old friend Atrus, we are taken to a game menu that looks cheap and poorly designed. It is offset somewhat by the music that we hear: an engaging change of style from the previous Myst adventures. The track is interesting and evocative and even a little dark, something like a cross between the almost ubiquitous Lisa Gerrard and some of Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings.

Upon entering the game proper, however, the music turns into a bland Riven copycat, with none of the panache of that work. It was so reminiscent of the mediocre Exile music that I found myself wondering whether they’d just re-used some music from that title for the sake of expedience.

Visually, this segment of the world of Revelation looks wonderful. In the demo, the player arrives on a moonlit night outside Atrus’ room. Complete spherical vision is implemented—you can look left, right up and down, wherever you wish. From the wooden walkway on which you first appear there are a number of buildings visible, although unreachable in the demo. The moonlight illuminates everything with a soft blue glow, and a slight mist drifts across the moon and stars. Stand there staring at this beautiful sky for a minute or two and you might even see a shooting star zip across the heavens. Beneath you, a river runs down into a chasm, a mist of water spray rising above it in the distance. A breeze stirs the trees and moths dance around the lamps that light the walkways. There is motion in everything. In addition to all this, a clever depth-of-focus trick is used to defocus the background slightly if the player is looking at something close. It’s subtle but effective. Sound-wise, we are treated to the usual ambient sound, nice but not spectacular. The outside atmosphere sounds a little generic to me, almost identical to the town ambience in Diablo 1 (or maybe it’s just the owl). One annoying thing: on transitions, the ambience fades out and in again. This has the effect of breaking the continuity of place and I hope it isn’t this way in the game. They managed crossfades in Exile, so it seems to me that it should be possible here.
A major disappointment happens when you click to enter Atrus’ room. As with Exile, transitions through doors and so forth are accomplished by a bridging movie sequence. This particular one is very rough, with jagged edges on the doors, lighting mismatches and a very noticeable drop in resolution. It’s the kind of thing that Cyan spent so much time on getting right in Riven. It might seem like a small criticism, but these things smack of franchise to me—let’s just get the game out so we can make some money! Attention to detail is not just a luxury in the world of Myst: it is the very foundation upon which the Myst reputation was built. I sincerely hope that this is just an artifact of the demo. Personally, I wouldn’t even have allowed this in a demo, but maybe I’ve got higher standards than those that Ubisoft find acceptable.

Inside this room, we are treated to more beautiful visual ambience. The light from the moon picks out dust motes floating in the air, and potted plants sway gently in the breeze. There are a number of things to be discovered whilst poking around. One innovation for Revelation is an animated 3D hand cursor (available in left or right handedness!) that changes to indicate the actions it can perform. Clicking on objects throughout the room has the effect of causing the fingers to tap on things with an appropriate sound: glass, paper, wood. It’s cute. If something can be examined closely, the hand magically produces a magnifying glass.

There are the requisite journals and notes to be found in here, the threads of the beginning of a story concerning Atrus’ two troublesome sons. It seems a bit like a rehash of things we have encountered before, and it’s a tad disappointing to be going over this ground again. Still, I will reserve my judgement on that point until the full story is available. It seems to me though, that given the extraordinary possibilities inherent in the Myst universe, the tale of familial woe has been explored a little too thoroughly. We shall see. The documents in the study are adequately ‘Myst-like’ but they are somehow detailed with less love and conviction than we have come to expect. Once again, it smacks of a watering-down of a concept, and a fear of deviating too far from the tried-and-true formula.

There is of course, a puzzle to be solved, and it is a relatively straight forward button-pusher, with a superfluous ‘hint’ parchment to be found in the room (I suppose you don’t want the demo to be too puzzling or you might scare off the faint-of-heart). It’s a nice enough teaser though, with a pretty visual component.

We also discover that there are some tools for ‘recording’ your Revelation experience, both as stills and movies. While I could figure out how to make a recording, there are no notes with the demo to tell you how to retrieve your recording. I assume that will not be a problem with the game proper.

There is also an amulet to be found that enables flashbacks and voiceovers in appropriate places. A friend who ran the demo was unable to activate these features properly, even though his computer was almost identical to mine. On that subject, I have to report that the demo was very buggy, and crashed several times in play. I am so unused to crashes under OS X that this seemed entirely unacceptable to me. Once again, I will make allowances for the demo. I desperately hope this is not indicative of the release, or I will be first in line for my money back. There is no excuse anymore for a full release that is this unstable.

Myst 4: Revelation has a lot to live up to. My own hope is that it transcends the rather vapid puzzle solving that was the main point of Exile and has something of the flair of Riven with its complex subplots and wonderful air of mystery. The demo has enough intriguing and magical set dressing to make me want to like it and I only hope that Ubisoft has taken the time and care to look after this special world.

Big Fish

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mike
    Sep 14, 2004 @ 06:32:58

    Great review. Very accurate. I downloaded/played the PC version and while I noticed small things you pointed out. I was very impressed byt the clouds blowing over the moon and the depth-of-field effect (though VERY sublte and almost not worth it).

    I was more disappointed by the difficulty (or lack thereof) of the one and only puzzle. I hope that they get exponentially more difficult after this introductory starting point.

    I am glad I am not the only one that was hoping for more out of this demo.