After Robyn and Rand Miller saw the mind-boggling, record-breaking, rationale-defying success of Myst, a sequel was pretty much a guarantee. Some books came in between and Myst and this game, setting up the story for the battle o’ wits here, and ensuring that the Myst series would be telling a real story instead of just clicking through some pretty pictures. It’s one of many good moves Cyan made to improve this, and future sequels to come.
Riven takes place immediately after the end of Myst, right down to the same chamber you ended in, with Atrus working quietly on a book. Through a brief introductory speech, Atrus informs you that you must use his book to travel to “The Fifth Age” – Riven – and rescue his imprisoned wife Catherine. You must also use a booby-trapped book (identical to those that trapped the brothers in the original) to ensnare her captor – Atrus’ megalomaniacal father Ghen. But wait, there’s more! The world of Riven is breaking down, its inhabitants are in danger, and you must find a way to signal Atrus when your tasks are complete so that he may offload his wife and the natives before Riven goes kaput. In return, he offers a big pat on the back, and to figure out a way to send you home.
If it sounds like a lot to handle, you’re correct. And in line with the first game, you’re never given clear or explicit clues as to how to go about it all. Though quite unlike the first game, as soon as you travel to Riven you are captured, and your trapped book stolen by a native – schhhwaaa?! People in a Myst game? Apparently the designers took the criticisms of the rather empty worlds of the first game to heart, and addressed them all in the sequel.
Quicktime was integrated sparingly in the first game to create moving objects in the background, and messages from other characters, but Riven takes it up to the next level. Water now ripples and moves realistically. You will encounter various creatures throughout the game, from insects milling about to large dinosaur-like creatures sunning themselves on rocks, all brought to life through use of sound and embedded Quicktime. You will actually meet living people through the game, and interact with them on a very limited basis – i.e. nearly every character you meet will be separated from you by jail bars – but you can also see villagers running to hide as you approach, or sounding alarms from treetop watchposts.
In fact, the villagers of Riven form the source of many of the puzzles and exploration you will do. You’ll need to learn a bit of their society, and learn their number system through a cleverly introduced and logical system. They’ve also built some pretty cool stuff, and you’ll even learn and interact with a rebellion started by an anti-Ghen faction. There’s certainly a whole lot more to Riven than simply wandering through fantastic locales and solving puzzles.
The graphics have been bumped up considerably as well. Everything continues to be CG-rendered, as it was with Myst, but the texture work is simply amazing. Most of the textures in the original version of Myst seem to be taken from hand and computer work, especially the near-laughable tree and grass images. Most of the textures in Riven seem to be actual or modified photographs. Gold-cast domes shimmer in the sunlight, dirt and grass have a realistic grit to them, close-ups of metal reveal pebbling and spots of rust. Grainy, yes, but photorealistic, indeed; and makes the world that much more worth exploring, and brings its fantastic designs that much more to life – from the windswept crags of Ghen’s tower to the ominous hive-tree from the cover art of the box.
Moving around the islands and exploring has not graduated far beyond the original. Every location and item are still made up of mostly static, pre-rendered scenes, that change to other images and angles depending on where you click. They have attempted to ameliorate this by using motion blur to blend between the two frames. I personally found the effect more nauseating than immersive, and you can turn this system off, though at the cost of snap-jumping between scenes as in the first game. Either way, I appreciate the option.
In terms of difficulty, Riven is about on-par with the original. The major difference is a substantial amount of back-tracking – so don’t be discouraged if a puzzle seems impossible to solve. Also, while Myst island served mostly as a hub for your explorations into the other Ages, Riven is pretty much the source of all the puzzles and content of the game. Don’t worry, you will find books to link you to other Ages, but these are mostly short affairs. Riven itself is divided into five islands connected by a mag-rail system offering an exciting little ride, again courtesy of Quicktime. If you dig up the original version, you’ll have to hot-swap multiple CDs every time you switch islands, but if you haven’t played Riven before then you’re in luck – a DVD version exists with everything on one disc.
Riven can be a little confusing at times, mostly because of its intentionally abstract nature. Sometimes it’s not clear what you should be doing, aside from the generic “explore,” but the payoff from finding a new gadget and piecing together what it does (“hey, what if I try this…!”) is well worth it. I also wasn’t completely clear on what Ghen had done previously that was so allegedly evil, or the impetus of the rebellion, all of which I assume are explained in the book. It works from the characters’ point of view to not understand everything that’s going on, and the books aren’t even close to a requirement, but you may want to check them out for the complete experience. You will also get clues and some backstory from in-game books, exactly as was in the first game. You also have a sort-of inventory allowing you to carry a few books, like Atrus’ journal on the immediate matters-at-hand around with you.
The sound is just as fantastic as it was in the first game, perhaps even a little cleaner. It came too early for surround sound (a shame), but the environmental effects they’re able to pull off with stereo are still very impressive, and play a huge role in making the world come alive. Also, as in the first, sounds are the key to a few of the puzzles – so make sure to turn your speakers up and pay attention to the noises around you.
If you flat-out didn’t like Myst, you’re not going to like Riven, because the core of the game hasn’t changed. If you don’t like exploring, seemingly without purpose for many hours at a time, you’re not going to like Riven. If you don’t like the idea of having to learn a new number system, copying down symbols for later reference, and solving abstract puzzles, you’re not going to like Riven. If you’re biggest complaint about Myst was its lack of purpose or its lack of “things to do,” you’re going to like Riven. If you loved Myst, go love Riven.
Many improvements over the original, interesting story, better graphics with better detail.
Can be confusing, if you didn’t like Myst, you won’t like this sequel.