Review for Lisssn
With its Myst-style slideshow presentation and a focus on audio-based puzzles, Lisssn positions itself as something both very familiar yet fairly unique in the adventure genre. Sometimes unique can lead to really great things. Sometimes it can be truly disastrous, as it’s extremely hard to build something from nothing with no pattern to go on. With its abundance of trial-and-error obstacles and extensive backtracking, Lisssn falls closer to the latter than the former, though it does have a few redeeming qualities for those more interested in puzzles than stories and characters.
The queen of the night has captured La Musica, the personification of all music in the world, and locked her in a dungeon within the bowels of a sound-based… amusement park (for lack of a better term). It’s up to you to find the two parts of La Musica’s magic flute and the thirty playing cards that sport her likeness in order to release her and bring music back to the world. It’s hard to write more about Lisssn’s story, as that’s really all there is to it. The premise is just an excuse to travel through an environment bereft of characters, completing puzzles until you solve the last one for which you are literally given a thank you before the game quits.
While not required, when you first start exploring the vaguely Edwardian/steampunk theme park, you should take some time to read the in-game manual, which describes the sometimes cryptic elements of the interface that appear at the bottom of the screen when you move your cursor there. Some of them are relatively obvious, but others aren’t so clear, such as a brown and white smudge to bring up the in-game map and a pair of speakers that lead to a close-up of an even larger pair.
These speakers lead into the hook for this game, as Lisssn is about paying attention to sounds to help solve the majority of puzzles. Some of the obstacles involve being able to discern where sounds are coming from, so you can use the close-up speakers to test your stereo setup in order to ensure that sounds are actually coming from the appropriate direction.
The rest of the interface is straightforward. Wandering around is typical of Myst clones (including Lisssn co-designer Knut Müller’s own RHEM series), clicking the center of the screen to step forward a node or clicking the left or right sides to turn in those directions in slideshow fashion. Occasionally you can take a closer look at areas in the environment, for which the mouse pointer will change to an eye icon. The cursor will also change when you encounter a place where an inventory item can be used – most of the time. There are a couple of key instances where it does not change and you have to make a leap of faith and use an item anyway.
The inventory is accessed through an icon on the interface bar, switching to a screen that looks like a cross between a sewer and a crypt. Slots are arrayed about this screen to hold your possessions, the La Musica cards you’ve collected, and sometimes musical note cards that you can temporarily carry with you for certain puzzles. Clicking an item will automatically take you back to your current game scene where you can attempt to use it, preventing any opportunity to combine acquired objects. Once you’ve selected something from the inventory, the mouse cursor changes to resemble that object. With a few I found that it was difficult to tell what part was actually the pointer, which meant I sometimes had to try using the same item two or three times on some of the smaller hotspots.
I termed the environment here an “amusement park” as no other phrase seems so apt. There is no attempt to present a logically flowing world here. Within the space of a few screens you may find yourself roaming through a graveyard, a railway system, an underground lake, and an ice cavern. Oh, and I can't forget the ghost room with its bedsheet-style specters. Each area clearly represents its own discrete puzzle waiting to be interacted with, and your movement through them is simply to take you from one challenge to the next. The visuals for the different locations are serviceable but not spectacular, and I felt no need to stop and take my time to admire the scenery.
At its heart, Lisssn is very much a puzzle game with a focus on audio. Most of the puzzles do feel a little gimmicky in order to maintain the theme, however. In the ghost room, for example, two rows of spirits appear, one near the ceiling and one near the floor. As they do, either a high or a low sound is played and you have to click on a ghost in the correct row. This puzzle could have just as easily worked with a visual indicator instead of sound cues.
In a few cases the audio nature of the puzzles is actually used to good effect, such as when you have to tap out a series of Morse code dots and dashes to open a particular door. Or when you must fill water goblets to different levels to get them to make differently-pitched sounds. Unfortunately, these puzzles are marred somewhat by the fact that you have to do multiple repetitions of each in a row before being allowed to proceed.
Nothing better exemplifies both the highs and lows of Lisssn than its maze. For those still reading after the dreaded M-word,the maze provides a good feel for the majority of gameplay in microcosm. First off, the entrance is locked away behind a door requiring a combination to open. The code is not determined through any sort of clever means, it is merely discovered. At least, it is if you remember to be a good house guest. (Gameplay Tip #1: Always close doors behind you!) Once the door is unlocked, you then have to travel out of your way to get an audio clue. In this particular case, it is a certain sound effect that will act as a guide. The maze is built of a series of chambers, each with two or three doors that play their own respective sounds, with the volume for a given door increasing as you draw near to it. This produces a grating cacophony of overlapping sounds that you just have to put up with until you escape. You can’t turn the sound off because, of course, you need it to guide you.
But here is where the clever bit of this particular puzzle comes into play: The sounds for the different doors don’t simply match the guiding audio cue or not, you have to work out the relationship between each cue and those in the maze in order to choose the right door. For myself, this took a couple of go-rounds before I recognized the pattern. Failing to get a correct door in the maze causes you to drop into a shaft that deposits you on the backside of the building containing the labyrinth. In order to attempt it again, you then have to walk around the entire outside of the maze (which is not a short distance), stop off to get a new guide sound (because it changes with each attempt), and then return to the very start of the maze. It is a very tedious loop to go through for getting just one step wrong.
You may be thinking at this point that you could just save your game to help you get through. However, the developers also thought of this and took drastic measures to prevent it, as when you’re inside the maze the save feature is unavailable. Not only that but the quit function is also disabled here. Short of tasking out and killing the game externally, you cannot exit Lisssn while attempting the maze or a few other similar puzzles throughout.
As a developer myself, I understand the thinking behind this. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. The idea is to make players solve the puzzle “properly” rather than gaming the system. And removing the quit option? Well, you wouldn’t want anyone to leave the game without being able to save, now would you? That said, it’s a fundamental software design principle that exits should be clearly marked. That includes being able to quit a game. This is definitely not an area where a designer should impose their will over the standard user experience. The kicker to all this is that there is no warning that the save and quit functions will be or even have been removed.
To be fair, the maze is not too long once you figure out how to properly use the guiding sound. Nevertheless, just in case you manage to pass through successfully once by random luck instead of actually solving it, the game insists that you repeat the process two more times. Nothing changes on these subsequent returns except for the audio cue you are given. Of course, to complete the maze these additional times, you again have to circle around the entire exterior to get your new sound. Once you’ve run the maze three times, finally a door to another area of the amusement park will open.
This maze puzzle is typical of what your overall experience will be like. You’ll spend a lot of time wading through filler as you retread the same ground and perform multiple iterations of the same puzzles whether you get them correct or not. It very much feels like the game is testing you to make absolutely sure you understand what you’re doing to solve things. Many of your efforts will involve trial-and-error to varying degrees, or require straight-up solutions like combinations that are hidden in odd places throughout the park.
Only rarely do you encounter obstacles where you feel like you have all the pieces you need and are able to think your way through their solutions. These generally tend to be the puzzles that involve short musical sequences or at least musical notes, such as one instance where you have to proceed down a corridor of locked doors that, when approached, play a combination of quarter note and half note sounds. Here you’re given a couple of quarter note and half note cards and have to use them appropriately together to open the doors.
Aside from the actual maze, the park itself is rather labyrinthine with a fair number of twisty little passages that are all alike. Fortunately, from the beginning of the game you are provided with a map of the entire park. The map displays the paths you can follow with very rudimentary thick white lines, while areas of interest are depicted with symbols drawn in varying degrees of detail, such as a basic image of a cello located in a cemetery or a rendered image of a train car by a railway line. It’s quite a jarring visual difference from the consistently detailed look of the environments and feels very much like a rough draft that was meant to be refined at some point.
The park is large enough that even the map doesn’t all fit on the screen at the same time. Instead, the game detects where you’re currently located and centers on that area, although an explicit “you are here” indicator is not presented. Depending on where you are, the map will automatically zoom in or out to give you an overview of the section that pertains to the puzzle you are closest to. You are free to click and drag the map around, but curiously you are not allowed to manually zoom in and out. Given that the pieces for a couple of puzzles are spread significantly far apart, this ability would have been nice in order to help navigate from one area to another and to act as a reminder of what puzzle elements haven’t been dealt with yet.
(Gameplay Tip #2: Stop and rotate. There are a few instances where key hotspots are hidden in alcoves on the left and right walls of corridors. These alcoves do not show up on the map and can only be seen when you turn left or right in the nodes the alcoves are actually in. Be sure to check your surroundings thoroughly as you proceed or you may be left wandering the park looking for an area that you didn’t even know existed.)
Beyond some of the odd design choices, Lisssn also has a few technical problems. Despite being a simple slideshow game with static scenes, periodically I found the mouse pointer becoming noticeably sluggish, lagging well behind my movements. These occasions were intermittent but seemed to occur more frequently when multiple sounds were playing in the environment at the same time.
Aside from the audio for specific puzzles, the soundscape consists solely of ambient noises like wind, bugs, lapping water and the like. For a game centered on sound, it’s odd that the actual recording quality is all over the place. There are perhaps half a dozen spoken lines of dialog in the entire game, most of which sound muffled or distorted. And while some sound effects and audio indicators play crystal clear, others have a noticeable hiss or buzz. These audio artifacts stand out most within puzzles that use short musical refrains. I’m no audiophile so when background hiss registers for me, I imagine it will be even worse for those who love good sound.
Although some of the sounds are of lesser quality, they are not a hindrance to completing the game. There are some puzzles where you need to be able to differentiate between high and low notes or between the pitch of three different notes, but I didn’t have any difficulty in discerning those differences and my musical abilities are basically nil. Almost all of the puzzles that rely on telling notes apart provide some manner of visual representation as well, whether it’s notes written out on a musical staff at different heights or actual C, D, and E letters displayed on a piece of parchment.
At almost eight hours, Lisssn does offer a decent amount of gameplay. Unfortunately, it’s not all worthwhile gameplay, with forced repetitions of certain puzzles and a lot of going back over familiar ground. For the most part, even with enough variety the audio-based puzzles feel gimmicky, and few of them can be solved purely with logical thought rather than experimentation and sheer persistence. If you enjoy pressing things just to see what will happen, then the game’s trial-and-error puzzles may appeal to you. Everyone else would do better to look – or perhaps listen – elsewhere.