Myst IV: Revelation Review

Avid fans of the Myst story have been waiting with great anticipation for the next offering in the most well-known adventure series of all time. After the failed experiment with online gaming (Uru), Myst IV: Revelation thankfully returns to the familiar story of Myst; the great writer of Ages, Atrus; and the fate of Atru's two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, who were condemned at the end of the original game.

Myst IV addresses the question that has remained unanswered since the end of the original Myst game, over 10 years ago: What happened to the evil brothers Sirrus and Achenar? Were they destroyed? Or did some other sinister fate await them? The story unravels bit by bit, as the player is once again exposed to the rich, lush, beautiful worlds that are so common to the Myst games. Incredible landscapes and breathtaking scenes mingle with a complex story line, and awesome music to provide a seamless environment that holds the player in its grip. All of the other common aspects of the former games -- travel to new Ages, encounters with mind-bending puzzles, and an overall integration with the story line -- not only abound, but exceed what has come before in previous games.

Before reviewing the game itself, it is only fair to mention that it comes with some fairly serious system requirements. The game is distributed only on DVD. The hard disk requirements are intimidating: a "minimal" install requires almost 3.5 GB, while a full install will guzzle 8GB of space. (And either install still requires a DVD to be in the drive, to play the game.) Other hardware and software requirements are definitely high-end, as well. Only a few video cards are supported, and only the very latest drivers will operate successfully. (My own drivers were not the latest, and I did experience a few minor problems with lighting and shading.) Also, the game will not run on anything earlier than Windows 98SE, or Mac OS X 10.2. So with those cavets out of the way, let's take a look at the game.

Even on a fairly fast system, Myst IV ran slowly. I did not have the 8GB needed to do a full install, so I played half the game from my hard drive, and half from the DVD. Yet moving from one scene to another typically took anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds. Thankfully, the game includes the familiar "Zip Mode" that allows quick travel to an already-visited location. However, the Zip Mode is now controlled by a ribbon of thumbnail scenes at the bottom of the screen, instead of the special cursor from earlier Myst games. These scenes are way too small to decipher most of the time, and available scenes are way too few and far between -- there may only be 4 or 5 scenes in one Age that can be "zipped" to.

Another thing that was very slow about the game was calling up the Main Menu, and then either saving or loading a game (which could take as much as a minute). Given the investment of almost 4GB of files stored on my hard drive, I would have expected the basic functions to be much quicker.

As I began playing the game, it's difficult to say what caught my attention more quickly: returning to the original Myst story, getting back with familiar characters and events, cogitating through the well-integrated puzzles, or just wandering and exploring through some of the most opulent scenes yet. Throughout the game, there are tie-ins back to the earlier games -- particularly Myst and Myst III: Exile. Yeesha -- the daughter of Atrus and Catherine (a baby, at the time of Exile) -- is 12 years old. It has been 20 years since the events of Myst, and Atrus has once again called on you, his trusted friend, to help him out. But almost before you can begin, Yeesha disappears, and you must make your way through several Ages, gathering clues, trying to find her and reunite her with her parents. But the most amazing discovery of all is when we find that both Sirrus and Achenar are alive and well -- although 20 years of exile (in two different Ages) has only resulted in a worsening of their already sinister characters.

The graphics in Myst IV are amazing, with a return to pre-rendered backgrounds. Every scene has full 360-degree panning (except in certain close-ups), and movement from one scene to another is through the familir Myst-like transitions. However, what is so very different in this game is the animation that takes place against those backgrounds. We are not limited to seeing a flag waving, or a bird circling overhead, on a still background. Everything moves. The leaves of a tree rustle independently. Animals scurry around continually. Not only do clouds continually move across the sky, but they cast shadows on everything as they do. There is seldom (if ever) a completely still scene.

The game is played through a fairly standard point-and-click interface (most of the time with a screen-centered cursor), yet even the implementation of the cursor was a "notch above". The cursor is a hand -- but that's only the beginning. Game options allow you to choose which hand (right or left) you would like to use; you can also select the hue of the hand. (Were the Uru avatar designers involved here?) Then, during game play, the hand is completely animated. When it changes from a pointing finger to a "grabbing hand", for example, it does so in an extremely realistic animation. Similarly, movement to the "examine" mode (a hand holding a magnifying glass) is almost eerily life-like.

One thing that was so amazing to me was how many things are interactive -- truly interactive. Opening a drawer doesn't consist of simply clicking on it, and watching a brief animation of the drawer opening. Using the on-screen cursor, you "grab" the drawer, and it now becomes totally respondent to your movements. I found I could take a drawer and open it halfway, then start to shut it, then pull it open again. The same applies to doors, levers, switches, controls, and virtually all other movable objects. Even more astounding, a similar response happened with various small animals encountered throughout the game. A frog, for instance, jumped into one scene, and sat on a log -- until I took my cursor and "stroked" him, at which point he jumped off the log and away from me. The interaction of all of these insignificant objects is astounding, and provides some of the greatest realism I have encountered in an adventure game.

Ambient sounds abound -- including your own footsteps (on a variety of surfaces) -- and another feature of the game takes this to a mind-boggling level. Whenever the cursor is just a simple hand (i.e., nothing active, nothing held in the hand), clicking the mouse causes the hand to "tap" wherever it is. And if it is tapping on any object, you will hear an appropriate sound -- wood, metal, glass, etc. But there's more -- because the sounds will not just reflect the material, but the precise environment. Three glasses in a row will "sound" differently, due to their size, content, or even their placement on the table. The attention that was given to this minute level of detail is impressive, to say the least.

Keeping in the Myst tradition, Myst IV is incredibly non-linear. But unlike some games that attempt to create non-linearity by allowing aimless wandering, Myst IV can truly be played in a variety of orders. Those who remember the original Myst, for example, will recall how players could travel back and forth between all of the Ages, in any order, as long as the final goal was accomplished. Myst IV plays out in a similar manner, although certain dependencies do inject a bit of "order" into the game in a few cases. Also in keeping with the rest of the series, there are multiple endings to the game -- with only one of them being considered a totally successful ending.

The music in Myst IV must also bear comment. Jack Wall has created an environment that ranges from pastoral to eerie to sinister to suspenseful to dreamy to triumphant. Frequent vocal backgrounds resembling Gregorian chants support the rest of the instrumental music. And the collaboration with Peter Gabriel raises the bar even further. One haunting song within the game was written and performed by Gabriel himself (who was also responsible for one of the character voice-overs).

There is no inventory in Myst IV -- and, hence, no inventory puzzles. There are, though, quite a few "logical flow" puzzles (pull this lever here, then go over there and throw that switch, then travel to this other place to do something that is now enabled). And there are outright mind-benders, as well. While some do not initially seem intuitive, when all is said and done, everything "fits" and it all makes sense.

Another nice feature is a camera that can be used to take pictures at any time, anywhere in the game. These pictures can then be recalled later, which circumvents the need to travel back to a location to look at a particular document or object. However, one note should be mentioned in regard to system requirements. Initially, a brand new saved game might take only 1MB of space. As the player progressed and takes pictures with the camera, that quickly grows, until a single saved game can easily exceed 10MB of disk space. I tend to save a lot of games, and it was not difficult to run up 300MB of saved games, which added to the already-demanding requirements of the game itself.

A new feature to Myst players is a built-in hint system. Although not a complete walkthrough, by any means, the hint system allows players to get three levels of hints for the most common puzzles in the game. It can serve to overcome most "What-do-I-do-now?" hurdles in the game. To take advantage of the hint system, though, requires returning to the Main Menu (already mentioned as being slow to access), thereby leaving the game; thus, hints are not available in situ.

For the most part, the puzzles in Myst IV are outstanding. But I have to admit that there were several puzzles in the game -- almost one-per-Age, as if by design -- that were the most annoying, the most frustrating, the most aggrevating puzzles I ever want to encounter. In the very worst cases, two features contributed to this assessment. One is that nemesis of so many adventurers -- the timed puzzle. In fact, in one particular case, the puzzle itself was fairly simple, but the amount of time given to accomplish it was so extremely small, that it took dozens and dozens of attempts, just to "beat the clock". The second contributing factor, though -- and one which made the timed puzzles even worse -- was the fact that there were many instances where the "hand" cursor was difficult to control. The "hot spot" that turned it from a normal cursor to a "grabbing hand", for instance, was too small, resulting in frequent "pixel hunts" just to find where to grab something -- all the time with the "clock" running. I think I could have handled the most annoying puzzles with either of those characteristics, but the combination was almost unbearable.

The game is huge -- it should easily offer 40-50 hours of gameplay, without using the hint system. Each of the Ages has an extremely complex set of locations, paths, and layouts, making it quite difficult to remember what is where, or how to get from one place to another. Keeping track of the layouts of the various Ages is almost impossible. And there is a lot to do -- much of which contributes greatly to the intricacy of the unfolding story. In addition to Atrus (played once again by Rand Miller), Sirrus, Achenar, and Yeesha, there are several other characters to meet -- mostly for the purpose of listening to more details of the story, or obtaining more information about what needs to be done. There is no dialogue with the characters, however.

Overall, my experience with Myst IV was even more fascinating than I had anticipated. The few minor quirks, and high hardware demands, can almost be expected in an endeavor of this scope. And while there were times that I wanted to tear my hair out over a few of the more annoying puzzles, I have to say that I finished the game with a greater deal of emotion and satisfaction than in any other game I've played.

-- Frank Nicodem