I don’t know if I should refer to Quern: Undying Thoughts as a Myst clone or Myst homage. Functionally, it’s a rose by any other name, but clone sounds a little cold and sterile, while homage feels a bit sunnier, so I’ll go with that. The point is, I could take a description of Myst (3D version), scratch out and replace a handful of nouns and I’ve got Quern. This isn’t meant to be a criticism, but I could leave it at that and if you didn’t read any further, you’d still have a decent idea of what you’re in for if you pick up this game.
A nameless protagonist mysteriously transported to a fantastical deserted island? Check. An advanced yet extinct ancient civilization? Check. An abundance of cryptic, over-engineered machines that perform relatively mundane tasks? Check. Portals that link to other worlds? Check. If anything, Quern hews so close to the template, first-time indie developer Zadbox Entertainment could have changed a few names, added a roman numeral, called it the “Quern Age” and I don’t think most people would have been the wiser.
I never did get to visit any other worlds, even though the obligatory journals lying around kept going on about connected worlds and such. The
linking book portal in Quern was busted and I never actually got to use it. In retrospect, that makes even less sense now, since it offers absolutely no explanation of how I got there in the first place.
But that’s all absurdly beside the point. Like most games of this breed, the story in Quern exists solely as a pretext to have you to solve a series of puzzles. In at least a few of the requisite notes your unknown abductor/benefactor left behind, he essentially implies that he’s stringing you along and forcing you to solve the puzzles he’s created to satisfy his sick sense of amusement. In fairness, I think it was supposed to be some sort of “test”.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter that the portal was a complete tease. The premise is unimportant, because this is a game that’s chosen to live or die by its puzzles. The island of Quern is filled with strange machines that serve no discernable purposes and locked doors with no obvious keys. You wander around the island while you poke and prod the machines, and push buttons and pull levers until you figure out how to make one work, which opens a door to another machine or provides a key or a missing part or a clue to make another contraption work, which opens another door, and so on and so forth.
It’s a compelling and fairly addictive formula, if you can get it right: make the puzzles too simple and you quit out of boredom; make them too cryptic and you eventually rage-quit in frustration, even though there is a market for that particular brand of masochism. Quern, by and large, manages to impressively fit itself within that surprisingly narrow gap between the two extremes.
If nothing else, Quern is basically a compendium of almost every type of puzzle in the adventure game handbook: inventory puzzles, environmental puzzles, the audio-based “Simon says” puzzle, translating the ancient language that somehow is a letter-for-letter replacement for the English alphabet. The quality of individual obstacles varies from bollocks to great, but on the average, they managed to hit that pleasure center of my brain that compelled me to say “okay, just one more” when my wife was yelling at me to go to bed.
Even though I somehow completed one puzzle by accident, meaning I really didn't understand how I came to the solution, I never found any of them to be unfair. Some clues are much subtler than others, but I never felt “stuck” in the sense that if I had another look around or sat back and thought on it for a bit, I was always sure I’d come across the answer eventually. The one piece of advice I’d freely hand out is not to disregard any of the devices you come across, even after you think you’ve “solved” them. A number of them factor into multiple puzzles, and the few times I did get stuck, it was because I had mentally crossed some contraption off the list that I actually needed to use again in a slightly different fashion.
To that end, you can expect to spend a fair bit of time backtracking across the island. Fortunately, when you solve a puzzle it often unlocks a passage that serves as a shortcut to an area you’ve already visited. Regardless, Quern isn’t exactly a huge island; it takes roughly 30 seconds to sprint from one extreme end to another, so backtracking isn’t too much of a hassle either way.
And you can blessedly run. Quern is a first-person, free-roaming game, and in the grand tradition of such, you can use the standard mouse/keyboard controls to walk, run and look around as you please. You can also technically jump, which I always find satisfying in a purely visceral way, even though it serves absolutely no useful purpose whatsoever, which I find equally disappointing.Continued on the next page...