Friday, December 10, 2010

Review: Myst: Masterpiece Edition (PC)

Myst was released back in 1993 and one of the first games to make use of the CD-ROM, featuring pre-rendered backgrounds and video sequences. It turned out to be one the best selling PC game of it time. The Myst: Masterpiece Edition was released seven years later in 2000, upgrading the graphics from 256 to 24-bit and adding hint system, but leaving the game otherwise unchanged. Another version of the game was released the same year called realMyst, featuring a fully realtime environment instead of pre-rendered graphics. This review is about the Myst: Masterpiece Edition.

The game starts out without a big introduction. The player is dropped on the island called Myst, without an explanation, task or goal. A bit exploration will lead to a short speech from Atrus, a person with the ability to create portals into other worlds in the form of books. The player then learns that something went wrong and that the books have been hidden around the island in save places. Some further hints on the location of said books can be gathered in the central library of Myst and the books themselves are hidden in structures around the island, including a spaceship, a regular ship, a large set of gears and a clock tower. The island itself is rather small, featuring not much more then these structures. The players task is now to unlock each book and travel to the world they are connected to. In these worlds, which themselves are of a similar size to Myst itself, the player has to collect pages which are needed to complete books in the library and thus will unlock the final puzzle.

Graphically the game is presented from a first person perspective. Featuring mostly static backgrounds with very little or no animation. While the graphics certainly show their age, they still manage to create a decent atmosphere thanks to the nice wind and water ambient sounds in the backgrounds. Navigation in the world can however at times be a bit confusing, as the game doesn't provide a proper map or compass and lacks transition animations. Often it isn't very clear if a turn to the left will turn you around 180 degrees are just 90 and thus it is not unusual to step past something or miss a turn.

The interface of the game is extremely minimalistic, all the interaction and navigation in the world happens via the mouse, they keyboard stays unused. The mouse cursor doesn't change when an item is usable and an inventory is not present in this game. The few times where you have to pick up an item and use it, it is handled by changing your mouse cursor to that item. Without the ability drop or store those items it however becomes quite confusing as to what happens when you have grab multiple items at once. One noteworthy tweak to the regular pointing and clicking presented in the adventure genre is that in Myst you are not limited to only clicking things, if you want to pull a leaver you have to click and drag it into the appropriate direction. It is a nice little touch that increases the immersion a good bit.

The save system in Myst is a bit weird, as it doesn't save your exact location, but always drops you back at the start of the given world. Accomplishments in the world are preserved, but one has to walk back to the point from where one left. This isn't much of an issue, as one can quickly travel around in Myst and be back to where one left in often just a few seconds, but it is an irritating thing non the less.

The puzzle design in Myst is often not that great, as the puzzles aren't build around logic or item combination, but instead focus on observation. A typical puzzle in Myst is one where you pull a leaver or push a button and then have to figure out the effect that it had on the world. Cause and effect are often times a few rooms apart, so it can get a little tedious at times to figure out what happened. Puzzles furthermore often come in the form of very basic key/door patterns, you see a code or pattern in one place and have to enter it in another to unlock a door or mechanism. Entering those codes can be a bit tedious and also feels uninspired, as none of the mechanisms in the world really has a purpose other then acting as an convoluted input mechanism for said code. Another annoying issue is that the library you visit in the very beginning of the game contains important hints for puzzles you will see only much later in the game and without an inventory to put those books in, you have to basically transcribe those hints yourself, as you can't reach the library easily when you need to.

The thing that saves puzzle design in the Myst: Masterpiece Edition however is its great hint system. A click at the bottom of the screen will give you access to a map of the island and location specific hints in three levels, going from vague suggestions to basically detailed solution. The hints are written in the style of a person accompanying you on your journey, so they integrate very smoothly into the whole experience without feeling out of place. This removes a lot of the tedious trial and error from the game and make the game easily finishable without falling back to third party walkthroughs. The hint system also provides some of the needed track keeping that the game otherwise fails to provide.

Overall Myst is still a decent game, especially taking its age into account. The Masterpiece Edition, while technically being not much of an improvement over the original, is a much more enjoyable experience then the original due to its hint system. The often lacking feedback on actions and basically non-existent track keeping of the tasks you have already accomplished however pulls the game down quite noticeably. So does the almost non-existent story. While the few bits of dialog you get are nicely delivered, they just aren't enough to give your journey much of a meaning and the ending is kind of a let down. You get another piece of dialog and then just get send back to the island of Myst for some free exploration, which however is pointless at that point, as you have already seen anything of that island already. A proper ending cinematic or even a simple credit roll is missing, giving the ending a very inconclusive feel.

Technical notes: The game frequently crashes when showing the transition animations between the different worlds when playing it in Windows 98. This was solvable by uninstalling QuickTime and then reinstalling the version from the Myst CD.

The Masterpiece Edition also contains a glaring bug: In a note for the final puzzle the word "on" got changed to "off", making the note confusing and unusable, the text provided by the hint system however provides the correct answer.

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