Quern: Undying Thoughts review
A Myst clone/homage through and through, Quern doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s an impressive debut adventure that would do Atrus proud.
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.
Aside from my hang-ups with the ineffectiveness of jumping, the interface in Quern is pretty well thought-out. You can use the right-mouse button to freeze the camera in place and control the cursor directly, which makes it easier to violently click around on puzzles without getting a case of whiplash. There’s a dedicated inventory screen you can use to examine or interact with items, but you can also use your mouse-wheel to switch between items on the fly. You also get a screen to look over the letters you’ll find along the way, but most importantly, there’s a screen to look over your notes.
At any point, you can press a key and “sketch” whatever you’re looking at. In effect, this basically captures a screenshot and sends it through one of those photo filters that makes everything look like pencil-drawn sketches. These images are placed into a notebook, where you can make annotations (and thankfully delete them if you’ve accidentally hit the wrong key or just gone nuts with the sketches). I’ve gone into this before, but this is a magnificent thing that every puzzle-based adventure game should have in some form. If it falls just short of greatness in Quern, it’s because colors feature prominently in a number of puzzles, so the black-and-white sketches are rendered relatively useless in these cases. It’s also not quite so convenient to keep switching back and forth between the notebook screen and gameplay screen when you really need to see the screenshot alongside the puzzle, so I often reverted to my go-to method of just taking a picture on my phone and looking at that while I solved the puzzle. Still, even if it’s not perfect, the Quern developers have earned their wings in Adventure Game Heaven, as far as I’m concerned.
These ancillary screens are accessible via a menu or hot-key, which can all be thankfully re-mapped in the control options (something that seems rather obvious but is usually missing from similar games). The game also has partial gamepad support, which is to say that the gamepad controls don’t work with the menus, which is a little weird, but they do work just swell so far as playing the actual game, if that’s your bag.
Games built in Unity tend to be all over the map in terms of quality, but fortunately Quern falls solidly into the upper tier of that crowd. The visual presentation is generally top-notch, even if the obvious budget limitations tend to poke through. Assets are re-used liberally (every tree is basically identical), the sky-box is a static picture of clouds, and there’s not a ton of variety (Quern is a quaint land of rocks and trees…and not much else). But this is nit-picking; the graphics are pretty damned great – not so great that I would still bother with the game if the rest of it were rubbish, but here they’re icing on the cake.
Similarly, the sound design is generally aces all the way around. The ambient effects are all present and accounted for and do what they’re supposed to do – in this case, a lot of clinking, clanking and whirring of mechanical odds and ends – but honestly, as long as the wind doesn’t literally whistle and a slamming door doesn’t sound like a farm animal, it’s hard to screw up on the sound effects.
Background music isn’t something I generally remember so much, but the Myst homage was especially poignant here because it sounded so familiar that I re-installed Cyan's game to make sure it wasn’t my imagination. This isn’t a complaint; I generally enjoyed the music in Myst, and the soundtrack in Quern shares the same dreamy, whimsical cadence which had to be a deliberate reference. Or else I’m just completely tone-deaf altogether, which isn’t out of the question. In either event, I liked it well enough, even if I won’t be humming it in the shower.
While there aren’t a ton of voice-overs, the letters your kidnapper/tour guide leaves behind are all fully dictated, and you do come across one other “character” a few times. Overall, the voice work is quite good, to the extent that I wouldn’t have any problem sitting through either character narrating a History Channel documentary.
Most importantly, the game overall feels technically polished where a lot of its indie brethren usually feel a bit rough around the edges. I don’t recall actually running into any bugs during my playtime, which now that I think about it is a much a rarer thing than it should be, and I was able to get it running smoothly with all the graphics options maxed, even though my graphics card is starting to get a little creaky.
Quern is a relatively small island, but it packs more puzzles per square foot than any other fictional game island this side of The Witness. I’d estimate that it took me a solid 10-12 hours of playtime to finish.
At the end of the day, if you’re not sold on the Myst style of adventure, there’s nothing here that’s going to change your mind, but if you are into that, Quern: Undying Thoughts is definitely one of the better examples of the genre. It doesn’t matter much that there’s ultimately no (compelling) narrative point in solving the puzzles here, because the point is to solve one so that you can solve the next, and so on until you’ve pulled on that thread until the sweater’s been completely unraveled, and then you sit back, pat yourself on the back, and bask in the warm inner glow of your own cleverness.