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Myst III: Exile
Gaming history regards Myst as both a pinnacle achievement and a fluke. Depending on who you ask, some may tell you that Myst is a frustrating contortion of a slideshow puzzle game. Others, who see the game on a different, deeper level, will tell you that it blends the feeling of world immersion with an incredibly simplistic interface with almost perfect results.
Myst and Riven: The Sequel to Myst were both originally developed by Cyan Studios, the brainchild of Rand and Robyn Miller. The Miller brothers created a series based on an underlying theme of literacy and creativity which surpassed all expectations and continued to become one of the best-selling series of all time. The original Myst, until replaced by Myst Masterpiece Edition and realMyst, continued to sell copies well into 1999 and 2000, and is currently the most widely-sold PC game ever. Myst was even used as a benchmark in its day of what a multimedia PC should be capable of; anyone remember MPC-2?
Another game produced in the same era held a similar reverence in the PC world, though its popularity was much less than Myst's. The Journeyman Project had a similar feel to Myst, but with tech and time travel mixed in. Presto Studios, the wizards behind the Journeyman Project series, have risen to the task of creating the newest game in the Myst series. Given the similarity of the two franchises, it's no surprise that Presto is more than capable of exceeding our expectations in producing a new sequel.
Myst III: Exile continues the series' legacy with several all-new Ages to explore and discover as the player tries to unravel the mysteries of the world and save an entire civilization from doom. While it ties in comfortably with the plotline from the original Myst game, Exile can be played without any prior knowledge of the events occurring in Myst and Riven.
Atrus, the central character of the Myst series, is descendent from a great civilization of artisans known as the D'ni. The D'ni possessed the extraordinary ability to create worlds, known as Ages, by writing a thoroughly descriptive book outlining its features. The D'ni suffered from their own pride, however, and their civilization fell as the books they wrote were destroyed. Atrus' parents and grandmother escaped from K'veer, home of the D'ni, while the tumult was drawing to a close. Atrus' mother died as he was born, leaving his father in agony as he fled from the pain.
More than thirty years later, Atrus has been working on trying to rebuild the civilization of his ancestry, and has written a new age for his family and the D'ni survivors to occupy and thrive within. The name of this new age is Releeshahn, and Atrus hopes for it to be a new beginning for himself, and a place for his new baby daughter to grow up and blossom. His hopes are dashed, however, when an unknown enemy suddenly links into his home, steals the book of Releeshahn, sets the library on fire, and disappears, linking into the book of J'nanin. While Atrus and his wife, Catherine, are busy trying to keep the books from burning up, you boldly flip open the linking book and travel to J'nanin to confront this newcomer and recover Releeshahn for Atrus.
J'nanin is another Age that Atrus had created before as a training ground for his two sons, Sirrus and Achenar. It primarily serves as a hub world which links to several other training ages preserved there, Voltaic, Edanna, and Amateria. The antagonist of the story, Saavedro, indicates that he is luring Atrus there to show him the damage that Sirrus and Achenar have caused to his home world, Narayan, and to his life. He hates Atrus, believing that Atrus behaved magnanimously and refused to repair his dying world, and possibly even encouraged his sons to brutalize Narayan.
After Saavedro retreats, the mechanism holding the book of Narayan retracts, placing the Age out of your reach. As a hologram of Saavedro's face tells you once you enter his chamber, you must travel to the three training ages and collect symbols from them. Once collected, the symbols must be scanned by the mechanism to grant access to the Age of Narayan. Saavedro has also recorded messages for Atrus in several places in the Ages to explain his turmoil, and also as a means of coming to grips with it himself. Thus the player assumes his task of pursuing Saavedro in an attempt to rescue Releeshahn, essentially reclaiming Atrus' future from a man that believes he no longer has one of his own.
Exile differs from the prior Myst games in that it is no longer a "slideshow". Prior Myst games gave static images on the monitor which could be interacted with using a pointer. Exile differs from these in that you can now freely rotate the scenery at each of these nodes and examine things at different angles. Not only does this make the game more immersive by magnitudes, it also allows the designers to keep this in mind when designing puzzles. What does that mean? Be sure to look up and down, because sometimes the solution could be right over your nose!
Graphics in Myst III are rendered in 640x480, but the game manages to do an incredible amount with what most would consider a really small resolution. The game's graphics look reasonably good in software rendering mode, but Direct3D rendering makes the game feel and play like a smooth movie. As a matter of fact, Ubi Soft has made a point of this by advertising the game in previews before theater movies.
The sound is of equal pedigree. The ambient sounds of nature are very appealing in Edanna, with the wind rustling through the plants and the water gently splashing against the rocks. Voltaic contains the sounds of machinery and industry, while Amateria carries with it a haunting melody that matches the landscape's mysterious appearances. Voice acting is good too, and more spaced out than it was in either of the prior Myst games, giving a more continuous dispersal of the storyline to the player.
Voice clips and movies don't tell the whole story, of course. The majority of the plotline and story are conveyed through the journals of Atrus and Saavedro. As the game runs its course, you can locate missing pages from Saavedro's diary, which clarify his feelings and motives and also give clues to passing obstacles and puzzles. This is one of my favorite aspects of the game, and thankfully, the designers of Exile allow you to bring these journals along with you so that you don't have to consult a library as was required of the player in Myst. One small problem I had with the journals, however, is that sometimes the clues left in the diagrams don't help in solving problems, or aren't very easy to identify in the real world. Without spoiling puzzles and plot, just let it be said that I finished the game without using several of the diagrams.
The puzzles and mysteries encountered in the ages are solved using a variety of innovative mechanisms and systems. Each age carries its own theme and underlying concept. The age of Voltaic is themed in archaeology and machinery, with furnace boilers and electric generators. Amateria features hundreds of hexagonal stepping stones and a tempestuous atmosphere, along with a veritable roller coaster of rails and guides for a marble-dropper contained at the top of the central structure. Edanna is contained totally within a massive tree, within which many other unique plants and flowers grow. Because each is different in construction, the puzzles presented in each are also extremely different, which provides a fantastic blend of uniqueness to each of the worlds. Furthermore, should the player grow tired of solving one, he can retreat to one of the other worlds for a change of tack.
I believe the structure of the game to be an improvement over the prior volumes. In Myst, for example, the player is exploring the world without any real purpose other than to discover why he's there and what he can do to escape. In Riven and Exile, however, the player is given a clear objective that he typically must solve in baby steps. This, I feel, is an improvement. Particularly in Exile, the player has a strong impetus at the beginning of the game, and the wish to continue the game is furthered by the dropping of plot points and clues regularly through the game. Some might feel that the story would be choppy or cumbersome given the game's non-linear flow, but the diary entries and video clips are structured so that, aside from a few which are played only near the beginning and the end, the majority of the plot can be found at any time without the player having to worry about missing pieces.
Puzzle quality in general has also been improved upon since the first Myst game. No timed puzzles are in Exile, nor are there any puzzles involving locating a very well hidden switch. Granted, you might miss some details if you're not paying attention or looking all around (and up and down), but that's just careless observation, and not a case of camouflaged machinery or anything. Some of the puzzles, particularly in Amateria, are just really fun to solve, and then to watch the results of your solution come alive. It really gave me a sense of accomplishment.
In the end, I expected to get a little bit more gameplay than I did out of Exile, having completed it in less than eight hours. However, given the pace that I attacked the game at, I could easily see someone taking twice as long, methodically analyzing each of the puzzles. And for the record, I didn't read a FAQ until the *very* end of the game. I solved each of the puzzles in the training ages without any help. Exile is still a great game to play with a good friend or companion, though, putting your heads together to solve the riddles of the Ages.
Exile was a beautiful journey that reminded me of how much I used to love adventure games. Now that adventures have been eclipsed by RPGs, RTSes, and FPSes, nobody really stops to pay attention to some of the classics like Myst, The Journeyman Project, the Zork series, and any of LucasArts' assorted SCUMM games. They're part of what made the gaming industry what it is today, though, and thus should be equally appreciated. If you've got the time, take a break from the frenetic pace of your mainstream gaming and relax a while with Exile. If you've got a little bit more time, then I *heartily* recommend the Myst novels by Hyperion. They're written by the Miller brothers, and they shed an incredible amount of detail and background onto the already well-crafted story.
Myst III was no disappointment at all. Truly a polished gem, and worth anyone's attention.
Rating: 9/10 SystemLogistics
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