Review: Riven is a masterful remake of the original sequel to Myst

Myst, which during the 1990s was the best-selling PC game of all-time, has been remastered, remade and re-released almost more times than I can remember. First off was Myst: Masterpiece Edition, released in 2000 as a nicer version of the original, with 24-bit colours and a remastered soundtrack. Next was RealMyst, also released in 2000, which was the first true real-time 3D remake of the game, where players could walk around the 3D world rather than look at static rendered images. It also added an additional Age to the game, called Rime. Unfortunately this version ran poorly on turn-of-the-millenium PCs, and so in 2014 Cyan released RealMyst: Masterpiece Edition, rebuilt in Unity with enhanced graphics. Various mobile ports were created until finally in 2020, it received a second complete remake (just called Myst) in Unreal Engine which was also playable in VR.

Throughout all this, Riven: The Sequel to Myst (to give it its full title), originally released in 1997 and despite being a markedly superior game to Myst, has never had a remake or remaster until now. Cyan have now given Riven the same treatment as Myst in 2020, remaking the game in Unreal Engine and also making it fully playable in VR. I’ve loved the Myst franchise since childhood, with Myst III: Exile being the instalment I’m most nostalgic about due in part to its incredible orchestral soundtrack from composer Jack Wall, who went on to do the soundtracks for Mass Effect and most of the recent Call of Duty games.

Riven’s wildlife looks weirder than ever.

Riven though, is where the Myst franchise really proved what it was all about. If Myst was the prototype, Riven took the idea and expanded it hugely. While each world (or Age as they’re called) in Myst was quite a small self-contained island, Riven featured a much larger interconnected series of islands within its principle Age, making the environment feel much larger and more complex. Many of these were explorable from the beginning and with puzzles able to be solved in any order the player desired, although finishing certain puzzles was needed to progress the story. The remake takes all of this but tweaks and plays with it slightly, moving things around and introducing some new puzzles while removing others.

If you’re very familiar with Riven, you’ll immediately spot the differences, but if you haven’t played since the 1990s, everything will feel essentially the same. For new players, you get the thrill of experiencing it for the very first time. For example, one of the first puzzles upon emerging into the Age of Riven is to get through a rotating room to access the huge golden temple. There’s a locked wooden gate blocking your access; in the original game, you could click to duck and wriggle under the gate, while in the remake, you can pull out the hinge pin on the door, causing it to fall open. These changes are widespread and include things like moving the location of certain rooms, altering some of the game’s more obtuse puzzles to be more understandable in a 3D world, or adding some new challenges where they might not have existed before.

Atrus and his linking book.

Naturally the visuals are where the most work has gone. The original game was presented through purely static, pre-rendered visualisations of the world from fixed perspectives, which were brought to life through sound effects, music and full motion videos (FMVs). Moving around was node based via clicking, and turning your view caused the image to slide off the screen to be replaced with the next one to fake the appearance of movement. It was only in Myst III: Exile that fully 360 degree, Google Street View-like nodes were created allowing for free head movement, although the environments remained static.

Riven has been remade in lush and beautiful detail in Unreal, making what were once slightly pixelated pre-rendered static shots into fully immersive environments. The forested Jungle Island is adorned with towering trees and gently swaying bioluminescent plants, a gigantic crowd of moths billowing around you while you walk through. The pre-rendered cutscenes which played whenever you were transported from one island to another are now real-time, the sense of speed as you hurtle along the track just as compelling. Everything feels more real and more alive than ever, and the remastered music also aids in that singular mysterious vibe which is the franchise’s calling card.

All of the islands and Ages are fantastical and beautiful.

The story which involves you helping rescue Atrus’ wife Catherine, was previously delivered via FMV videos of actors digitally composited into scenes. This has been replaced with fully animated characters, all of whom look great. Atrus, the main character of the franchise, is still voiced by Cyan CEO Rand Miller, although unsurprisingly he sounds older than he did in 1997. Previously he had to add grey dye to his hair and beard, but he has now aged to about the same in-world age of Atrus. The story isn’t particularly heavy and hasn’t been radically changed since the original but you can learn a lot more information and lore by reading the various in-world books such as Atrus’ journal and Gehn’s notes, some of which are necessary to deduce some puzzles.

The Myst games will always hold a special place in my heart, and although their spiritual successors like Obduction and The Talos Principle fill much of the same gap, there’s nothing which is quite like them. The complexity and challenge of the puzzles has long been a source of frustration for some players, as the game never holds your hand or offers hints. Riven and its sequel Myst III: Exile are the clear highlights of this formula in both style and content, with Exile still being my personal favourite. For this reason I do hope that Cyan feels comfortable giving Exile the same remake treatment next, even though they weren’t the original developers (that being the long defunct Presto Studios). The Riven remake is an expert modernization and expansion to the original, bringing its gorgeous worlds fully to life, and still packed full of fairly challenging puzzles.

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