Guest review series continued: Myst IV

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Peter Miller continues his guest review of the latest in the Myst saga, Myst IV: Revelation (Mac version). WARNING: SOME SPOILERS!

A few days on and I’m still enjoying Myst 4. I have now spent some time wandering around Spire, Haven and Serenia. Without spoiling too much, some further musings. One thing that occurred to me yesterday is that I’m playing the game with a very critical eye, and after thinking about why that was I came to the conclusion that this game is so good that its imperfections, when they appear, stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game. Because this project is so well realised, it should be perfect. Or at least, some of the rough edges should have been sandpapered a little more.

A few examples by way of explanation: after a little exploration of Tomahna, I went through to Spire and was delighted to find myself in an original and engaging Myst world. Everything about it, from the craggy vertiginous staircase to the glowing crystalline floating rocks with their swarms of luminous fireflies, is wondrous. Ubisoft have understood a fundamental thing about the Myst experience, and that is that delight in the environment is as important as solving the little mysteries along the way. Spire is enigmatic, dramatic and beautifully executed. The puzzles are tricky (and in one case bereft of logic, or at least any I could see) but integrated appropriately. The musical score is engaging and mysterious and the ambient sound works very well.

My first disappointment came when I visited Haven. Now I hasten to say that I am being picky with these criticisms, but only because I think that a little more attention to these details could have elevated Revelation from a great game to sheer artistic genius. Haven’s jungle world is beautiful and lush. The designers have excelled themselves in conjuring an exotic and fantastic environment. The music is a little less than perfect in this world, with (as pointed out by the Headless Hollow illuminati) unfortunate faux ‘native drums’ a la Lion King being a little too focal in some areas. The sound ambiences are rather better, with mysterious sirens and wolf howls off in the distance, and all manner of unusual chattering wildlife. What really lets Haven down are the CG creatures that populate its wonderful scenery. It is almost as if the designers suddenly lost all their creativity in some late-night beer-and-pizza blowout. It’s not that the concept is not good—far from it. The creatures that browse in the swamp weed and clamber up through the trees are a great idea, it’s just that they are done poorly. I’m sure that what the designers have achieved is technically very clever; integrating 3D animals into the world in such a way that they appear to be actually there is quite impressive. But there are two major problems in my view: First, the creatures are for the most part daft. I wish people would avoid the compulsion, when creating alien life, to use the “what if we crossed a cow with a triceratops, gave it some wacky appendages, paint it mauve and made it walk on its hind legs” method. It never works. How about getting some biologists to advise you on what a browsing swamp creature might actually look like? And while I’m on the subject, never, never, never rip off another person’s alien creature: “hows about we cross one of those cute mogwai with a monkey?”—cheap and annoying. It’s not Gremlins it’s Myst and it deserves its own original and sophisticated creatures.

The second problem is that all the animals feel very ‘stuck-on’ despite their relation-to-the-player persistence. It’s a shame. It’s one of those things that drops you out of the reality of the world, rather than draws you in. It makes you aware that you are playing a computer game. Personally, I think it would have been preferable to have dropped these creatures entirely, and risked criticisms of the world feeling ’empty’.

Serenia, on the other hand, has some fine ‘otherworldly’ life. Its Roger Dean influenced quasi-Mayan landscape is simply beautiful. I haven’t explored much here yet, but suffice to say that I found it intriguingly explorable and well worth the effort of solving the extremely annoying and badly executed bookshelf puzzle (I mean, come on guys—I knew how to solve the puzzle well before I could wade through the illegible and obtuse D’ni text renderings. That’s not good puzzle-setting; that’s just difficult game mechanics. And I had to use pencil and paper, which kind of defeats the whole concept of the photographic journal introduced in Myst 4.)

I re-iterate: my criticisms are minor in the scheme of the whole show. Myst 4 is a remarkable achievement. I strongly feel, though, that it is a pity that a final Quality Control pass was not done on the game and some of the messier elements whipped into shape. It would have been worth the extra wait. I’m up for testing of Myst 5 chaps. I’m a hard taskmaster, but your game will be better off for it.

Stay tuned!

Myst IV

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