Myst V: End of Ages review
Close on the heels of Ubisoft's Myst IV: Revelations came the announcement of Myst V: End of Ages from Cyan Worlds, the original creative genius behind the game that many still see as the ultimate adventure paradigm. Along with Cyan's welcomed return to the fold, word that the new title would also be the last Myst game created great anticipation, but the fact that it has arrived so quickly may give pause to Myst aficionados. Will this dénouement prove a worthy, if nostalgic, end to the phenomenally successful series?
Before we see how the door closes on this fabled franchise, it might help to take a moment for a quick synopsis of the history and storyline in the Myst games thus far. In the original Myst, players were introduced to the central theme of every game since: instant access to fantastic worlds through a "Linking Book." You arrive as a stranger summoned to assist Atrus, a recurring character in the series who needs help dealing with his various and sundry familial trials. Atrus is among the last of a humanoid race with the power of "The Art of Writing." Meaning, he can create Linking Books to just about anywhere. Dysfunctional families aren't limited to the real world, however, as two of Atrus' sons, Sirrus and Achenar, abuse the power of the Linking Books and wreak havoc throughout the "Ages" or worlds of Myst. With your help, the brothers end up being imprisoned as a result of their crimes.
Thus came Riven, which focuses on Catherine, the wife of Atrus, who needs to be rescued from yet another dysfunctional family member--his lunatic father, Ghen. What do you have if you don't have family, right? For Atrus, that would be peace of mind.
In Myst III: Exile, the franchise was handed off from Cyan to Presto Studios. Here we find Atrus trying to rebuild D'ni, his homeworld, and being interrupted by a psychopath bent on revenge; a lingering repercussion of his sons' destructive path. They had destroyed the man's Age, and he wished to hold Atrus accountable for their actions. Aren't kids great? We are introduced to Atrus' daughter Yeesha in this game, who will make a notable appearance in EoA.
Myst IV: Revelations specifically deals with what happens to each member of Atrus' family, so to avoid laying out any spoilers, we'll consider it sufficient to say that several characters in the series undergo some rather significant change.
While the main Myst series was straying true to its conventional roots in capable third-party hands, Cyan was hard at work on the ambitious URU: Ages Beyond Myst. This game laid a divergent track in the Myst universe, where Cyan hoped interest in an online community would blossom, but instead became truncated into a single player experience with two expansions.
In Myst V: End of Ages, this reviewer feels an overwhelming gratitude that Rand Miller and his group have successfully weaved a cohesive pattern from a historically convoluted skein of story arcs, and all within a game that any beginner could pick up without scratching their head in confusion. Well, not too much, anyway. The entire Myst concept has always been pleasantly ambiguous.
In End of Ages, your game begins in familiar surroundings: Atrus' prison room in K'Veer, which you helped him escape in the original Myst. It appears that Atrus has passed the torch--or in this case Tablet--to his now-fully grown daughter, Yeesha. She will place upon you the heavy burden of a quest, stating that the Tablet "called" you to her. Soon you are ushered on your way to the task of thinking and linking.
In your travels, you will also meet Esher, the polar opposite of the pensive and cryptic Yeesha. Esher makes it known that he will be your source of help and information, and lays some doubt as to whether you can trust Yeesha, though nuances of his own make you doubt the purity of his motives.
So once again you reprise your role as the philanthropic "stranger." To simplify what follows in the game, I will boil down the basic premise in EoA: you are chosen to accomplish tasks in four Ages and ultimately unlock the Tablet, resulting in the end of your journey and the game. Easy enough, right? Yeah.
You will do this with the help of the Bahro, a technologically skilled yet socially stilted humanoid (if apish) race. They will be your help and hindrance; you will find Esher's allusion to this, and personal distaste for the race, rather warranted.
To acquire the Bahro's assistance, you'll need to make use of slates found on pedestals throughout the various Ages. You will use these slates to literally draw rudimentary symbols that the idiot savant Bahro will (hopefully) recognize, causing them to render puzzle-specific aid by adroitly carrying out your request. For instance, at one point you will come across a body of water which you cannot cross. Using the slate to draw the appropriate symbol prompts the Bahro to use their technology (magic) to create a way to cross to the other side. Elsewhere in the game, you will lay the slate down in a cave at just the right spot, causing a Bahro to appear and assist you by inadvertently creating a way out.
By helping you in this way, the Bahro act as the intercessors in puzzle resolution. This is a masterstroke idea, whose implementation can unfortunately be a little frustrating. I get nervous when I have to draw a straight line with a pen. "Drawing" on the slates with a mouse made me want to jump out of my skin. Thankfully, a straight line can be a sine curve, as the slate was very forgiving of my woefully inartistic efforts.
In the two examples mentioned earlier, the Bahro also take your slate and return it to the nearest pedestal, leading the player to feel that these creatures are less inclined to render assistance than they are concerned about their tools lying about the landscape. This forces you to travel back to retrieve them once again; thus the hindrance. I can only guess the developers planned this as a sort of attenuated obstacle, but it's uselessly frustrating, and served little purpose but to force a muttered expletive from me each time it happened. At other times, you will have to track down your slate again because you've unintentionally dropped it, as apparently the stranger is rather uncoordinated, and can't hold a small rock slate and turn a door handle at the same time. Having said that, the puzzle implementation felt organic and relevant, within a game that requests the player to involve him or herself emotionally as well as intellectually.
The format of the game is pleasingly simplified and customizable. Move the cursor to the top right of your screen and down floats your menu, reminiscent of the original Myst. Early on, you will gain access to a journal where you can take pictures (which also serve as game saves, as many and as often as you want), and write your thoughts down in a very cool script font that you will wish your own penmanship even remotely resembled. You can also access collected pieces of Yeesha's cryptic journal, which you will gather from entries found throughout the Ages.
The graphics are an area in which the Myst games have always excelled, as their focus is on the scenic, imaginative wonders of each world. EoA is no exception. It is a beautiful game that retains the diverse surroundings and familiar first-person perspective of its predecessors, but is rendered in real-time 3D this time around.
Exploration is a pleasure with the responsive engine that breathes life into the environs around you, and offers a full complement of control options. A mouse/keyboard combination allows for completely free roaming, but mouse-only gamers are also accommodated with intuitive node movement, point & click control. A right-click will allow a panoramic look around, while left clicking will propel you along a real-time cinematic track. It is possible to continue clicking to move fluidly and continuously. This is excellent for backtracking or moving yourself through familiar spaces.
Unlike previous Myst incarnations, live actors weren't utilized due to the graphical changes in the game, as EoA opts instead for characters also rendered in 3D. One thing this means is that you can look around when someone's talking to you and hear the difference in the ambient sound of their voice, though often you aren't free to actually move around until they've had their word with you.
While longtime fans may lament the loss of FMV characters, I don't think I've honestly seen such an effective and emotion-eliciting amalgam of motion-capture, lip-synch, and voiceover in computer animated characters before, in any game. Both David Ogden Stiers (the voice of Esher) and Rengin Altay (Yeesha) do an excellent job of evoking the mystery and melancholy that has always been the underlying characteristic of Myst. This applies not only in their voice work, but also in the way they punctuate dialogue with thoughtful and peerlessly timed gestures.
There are times when Esher seems rather glitchy (too much D'ni espresso?) through his monologues, and others when it is smooth sailing, leading me to believe it might be some odd engine differential and not my PC's graphic capabilities. And at one point a Bahro took my dropped slate but failed to carry out what my crude drawing required, standing prone as though he'd had a particularly frightening epiphany that rooted him to the spot, forcing an exit and some backtracking.
The cinematic score lays the framework for fascination and intrigue in End of Ages. While not pervasive throughout the game, it lends the right nudge, and where the music ends, there is always a lush ambient soundtrack to test the boundaries of your sound system. From the reverberation of various underground caverns and interior rooms to the exterior aura of an assortment of creature (those creepy Bahro) and environmental sounds, the Ages you visit truly feel alive. Those with the sound capability will definitely want to use the Hardware+EAX option for best results.
While the use of the slates with the Bahro is an excellent (if uneven) format for puzzle resolution, the puzzles aren't limited to this litmus test. There are also the usual mechanical puzzles that require your mental prowess sans Bahro assistance. These puzzles are fairly typical Myst fare, and for those times a gentle push may be of some help, the menu offers a Prima online help option that, when selected, will pull up your browser showing a hyperlink with up to three levels of hints for each of the four Ages. Of course, for more you'll be required to purchase the official Prima game guide. Many may want to have this, however, as it's chock full of supplemental information about the Myst universe. The game itself, with its substantial level design and epic length (I ticked off about 25 hours myself), is certainly good value for your gaming dollar.
For fans of the franchise, the ending may leave more questions than it answers, but I think any game or cinema experience that ties everything in a tidy package has sold out to an assumed lack of imagination. Go where your world takes you, where you would have wanted things to end, and it will vitalize the endgame experience. After all, that's always been the real goal of Myst: to give you the tools and the means to experience new worlds through the eyes of their inhabitants. In that, Myst V: End of Ages succeeds admirably, providing a memorable finale to a series that will never be forgotten.
A worthy ending for a long-standing series that doesn't quite reach greatness, but will likely please more than disappoint.