Myha: Return to the Lost Island review
Adventure Gamers Awards
“I realized the moment I fell into the fissure—”
<sound of abruptly-stopped record scratching>
Myha: Return to the Lost Island may not actually be a Myst game, but you would be forgiven for thinking so. Alone on a beautifully rendered deserted island, you are left entirely to your own devices to piece together disparate clues, fathom the workings of abandoned mechanical devices, and make the occasional leap of logic in order to escape back home. The puzzles are difficult, the production values are high, and the journey is very rewarding... providing you like this sort of experience.
The resemblance to Myst is certainly not unintentional. The free original version was created by Simon Mesnard (ASA, Catyph) for a game jam in 2016 whose theme was to “make a game inspired by Myst.” At that time, Myha was a node-based point-and-click adventure with 360-degree camera rotation. Even then, the game had history to draw upon, as it was another installment in Mesnard’s Black Cube series, wherein the mysterious cubes are discovered across space, a la the monoliths of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since that time, Mesnard teamed up with Denis Martin (himself an accomplished freeware developer of RoonSehv: NeTerra) to take the basic game jam iteration and reimagine it as a full-fledged commercial release. Developed with Unreal Engine 4, this updated version moves away from the node-based navigation of the earlier title to a fluid, fully realized 3D space with significantly expanded and enhanced gameplay.
Although the production history of Myha: Return to the Lost Island – which I’ll refer to simply as Myha from here on – is somewhat convoluted, the story within the game is not. You play a nameless, faceless cosmonaut being sent on a mission to the moon to look for a lost member from a previous expedition, Philip Forté. While conducting a moon walk on the lunar surface, you will encounter a featureless black cube that transports you across the galaxy to another planet and strands both you and your rocket ship on the lush titular island. It will be up to you to solve the various puzzles presented here in order to find a way back home again and hopefully locate the missing Forté.
I must confess, I wasn’t familiar with the Black Cube series prior to playing this game. I imagine there are various details and references that will be more meaningful to those who know the mythology, but I did not find my ignorance to be an obstacle. Perhaps that’s because, despite the presence of a few minor narrative elements, conveyed through notes and corrupted audio recordings left behind, Myha is a straight-up puzzler. It seems like almost every mark, drawing, and steampunk-esque device is part of some conundrum that must be solved. In typical Myst fashion, these pieces are scattered about the island and the first challenge is just getting oriented and discovering where everything is.
These types of free-roaming 3D environments can become easily disorienting, but I never felt lost wandering about. The island is not overly large and paths are well lit by small lampposts that serve as an effective way of preventing this from happening. Left shift, or another key of your choosing, can be used to run, which helps cut down on the time trekking from one place to another. I would have appreciated a toggle run button instead of a constant hold one, but if you don’t feel like backtracking the game does provide three save slots so it’s easy to record your progress in different locations and then reload to quickly hop around the island.
Many of the puzzles involve numbers, colours, and patterns. Typically some combination of the three is used to determine a numeric code to enter into keypads around the island. For instance, one such door has an engraving of several symbols nearby. These same symbols appear elsewhere on tiles that are mostly square but with various unique cut-outs that allow them to interlock; one tile may have a cross sticking off an edge, another may have a triangle, that sort of thing. Discerning the order in which these tiles connect helps to determine the numerical values assigned to them. Match those to the symbols and the key code is revealed. It may sound complicated, but this is actually one of the simpler puzzles encountered, with most requiring information from more diverse and distant sources.
Although the majority of puzzles ultimately involve the same types of elements, the game does a good job of dressing them up with unique embellishments. I quite enjoyed a sequence where I had to use a telescope with a rangefinder to determine the distance to, and angular diameter of, different planets in the stellar system where the alien planet is located. These measurements are all number-based, of course, and the planets themselves are different hues, which naturally plays into a colour matching puzzle. Based on the various measurements, an in-game calculator must be employed to…ah, but that would be telling. Suffice to say, just getting that far in this particular puzzle chain is an achievement in itself.
Myha is very old school in its gameplay, in that there is no hand-holding here. Given the tendency of most games nowadays to reduce puzzle difficulty, I found this quite refreshing and really enjoyed the challenge. All the elements needed to overcome the obstacles in your way are present, but you will have to keep careful and detailed notes and be very thorough investigating the environment to find everything. If you overlook something, there are no prompts or hint systems here. You will have to retrace your steps around the island and look all the harder for anything you may have missed the first time. In this way I found Myha to be on par in terms of difficulty with Riven, although the latter has a much larger game world than what’s on offer here. The island of Myha is comparable in size – perhaps a little larger – to Myst island itself from the first game in Cyan’s series.
During my eight-hour playthrough, I did have to resort to a walkthrough to locate a small coloured ball that I had overlooked earlier. While the bulk of the puzzles are tough but fair, there are a couple tasks like this one that feel like the 3D equivalent of pixel hunting for something that may or may not be there. Given the lack of direction in the game, getting stuck presents the age old quandary as to whether a known puzzle needs to be solved first to proceed versus perhaps discovering an unknown location or hotspot.
Visually the redesigned Myha is quite impressive. The island is rimmed with delightful sandy beaches dotted by fishing huts and water-worn rocks. Inland, wooden plank walkways wind their way through a dense green bog. A planetarium features large, coloured glass balls representing the planets in this system. Rocky cave tunnels worm beneath the surface, while looming over everything is a large lighthouse tower, the top of which offers some nice views of the isle. Although there’s not a lot of actual animation within these locales, there is always the hint of motion as a day/night cycle has been implemented. My first night on the island, I found myself pausing to look up into the violet, star-studded sky to watch the streaks of a meteorite shower flaring by. The island of Myha would make for a lovely holiday getaway.
For all its visual splendour, I did run into one related issue. The menu options feature many graphics settings for tweaking quality versus speed. In some of the more visually complex areas of the island, I experienced a slight drop in framerate while running at the topmost “ultra” setting. It wasn’t much, but it was noticeable, so I used the game’s auto-detect option to have it choose the best settings for my hardware. In my case, this nudged all the levels down one to “high”. Unfortunately, this reduced the graphic quality of certain objects significantly, including several that were key to solving puzzles. I was playing a pre-release version of the game, however, and the development team has been working diligently to correct these problems, but if you notice any unusually blocky/blurry textures while playing, it’s worth setting the “textures” option to any setting other than “high” in order to ensure that no crucial details are illegible in the game world.
Although the island of Myha has been deserted for some time, remnants of the past still remain in the form of audio recordings that your in-game PDA picks up at different points, which serve to underscore the air of desolation here. These recordings are intentionally garbled in a way similar to Cyan’s red and blue books, but in a welcome touch, subtitles are provided when listening to the messages. The rest of the audio also helps enhance the mood. Eerie instrumentals that would be right at home in a Myst adventure play throughout Myha. Unlike its inspiration, however, these musical pieces aren’t connected to specific locations or actions. Instead the game options allow for controlling the frequency with which they play, ranging between rare, normal and frequent. Sound effects are well-integrated into the environment, with appropriate natural ambience in the organic parts, such as the splash of a waterfall or the rustling of leaves, and more mechanical noises when dealing with the various machinery.
Another nice feature is the occasional use of visual indicators that can be turned on through the options. One puzzle involves finding a series of robotic birds in different parts of the island, each of which has its own distinctive call. With the indicators activated, not only are the sounds heard but musical notes are displayed above the birds – one for each call – at the same time. For those with hearing impairment or who just struggle with sound matching puzzles, as I frequently do, this is a real blessing and definitely something more games should emulate.
Myha makes use of the typical keyboard and mouse combination for movement and camera control. All keys can be remapped to your preference, however, which will be a boon to left-handed people. General navigation around the island is easy and fluid, though a bit more work could have gone into smoothing out the use of machines and keypads. When using a keypad, for instance, it’s necessary to fiddle around with the mouse to carefully line up the target located in the center of the screen with each button that needs to be pressed. This can be tricky, as the normal targeting circle changes to a hand cursor in these instances. I kept wanting to use the extended fingers of the hand to interact, but instead the palm is the actual click point. This resulted in my frequently clicking the wrong buttons and having to try again.
Also frustrating is the planetarium, where a control box is used to manipulate the planets into proper alignment. This panel has two buttons for rotating clockwise and counterclockwise, a switch with three settings and another with nine for determining which rings and discs are being controlled, respectively. Here the targeting reticle remains a circle, but it’s so faintly lit as to be almost invisible, making it much more fiddly and difficult to handle than it should be. I would have much preferred a fixed-perspective close-up option, where the mouse no longer affects movement but instead works very much like in a 2D point-and-click game. Such a system would have made a number of the more complex mechanical manipulation puzzles much less cumbersome. Despite these rough interface edges, however, I still had a blast working through the scenarios. The final planetarium configuration in particular is really nice to see, especially at night.
Myha: Return to the Lost Island proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. In another time and place, it could easily have been a linked destination in an actual Myst game. While not as long as entries in that series, it has the same level of depth and requires a similar amount of critical and creative thinking to puzzle through. This is proper old school, no hand-holding puzzle solving, which means that obstacles can be vexing to sort out but more rewarding to finally solve because of it, and for the most part the sense of satisfaction outweighs the frustration. The gorgeous revamped visuals and fluid movement through these scenic environments are just icing on the cake. If you played the original freeware version, it’s still very much worth playing through the upgraded version, as it’s effectively a much different (and better) game. And if you haven’t yet taken your first journey through a Black Cube adventure, worry not, as anyone looking for a solitary experience filled with stimulating intellectual challenges will find a nice getaway on the deserted island of Myha.
A loving homage to the Myst series, Myha: Return to the Lost Island has everything that characterized its iconic inspiration: lovely locales, a world of depth and complexity, and puzzles that will tax the little grey cells.