Review: MYST (Nintendo DS)

MYST
Genre: Adventure
Developer: Cyan/Hoplite Research
Publisher: Empire Interactive
Release Date: 05/13/08


Back in the early 90’s, when adventure games were generally pretty popular on the PC and FMV cinematics were all the rage on CD-based games, a small, virtually unknown company named Cyan made history with a game known as MYST. It featured what were, at the time, cutting-edge visuals, an interesting story and some surprisingly well-designed puzzles, and managed to sell multiple millions of copies across the world at a time when that sort of thing was a pretty big deal. MYST has, since that point, become something of a massive franchise on its own, having spawned a whole mess of sequels (four numbered and the Uru series, plus an MMO of sorts), a series of novels, and a metric ton of re-releases of the first game for nearly every video game console on Earth.

Despite the MYST name brand and the reasonable amount of popularity it has, it’s entirely reasonable to believe that quite a lot of adventure game liking folks may well have never played the original game (or any of the sequels, come to that), so for those who never have, the popularity of the series probably bears some explanation. MYST and its later sequels play by a fairly odd sort of rules; there are generally all sorts of different worlds to venture to, each of which is thematically different from one another, and in which various puzzles exist for players to poke around with. The puzzles themselves are somewhere between logical and illogical, in that the puzzles themselves are often generally fairly reasonable to poke around with and figure out, but don’t really make a lot of sense in context; it’s not as bad as something like 7th Guest with the soup cans, but it’s not as logical as something like Indigo Prophecy. Basically I guess I’m trying to say that if you’ve played any of the various Resident Evil games you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about.

And now, MYST has found its way to the Nintendo DS, a console which has practically become the patron saint for non-PC adventure gaming in the past few years. The upshot of this, of course, is that this offers up a decidedly non-Japanese adventure game for gamers who can’t stand the big-eyes small-mouth design of Phoenix Wright and Touch Detective. The downside, however, is that, well… MYST is kind of old and, even so, kind of rests on its visuals in most respects. Even with the promise of a whole new age to play through, does MYST do enough to attract you to it if you’ve already played it a thousand times? And, more importantly, is this a good port in the first place?

And perhaps most of all, how does MYST hold up?

The basic story of MYST still holds up pretty well, at least; you wake up as the nameless protagonist on the isle of Myst, an island that’s full of devices and books of various sorts but seemingly devoid of people. Aside from several mechanical devices that seem to be quite puzzling in their designs, you eventually come across two books, one blue, one red, and in each a man claiming to be wrongly imprisoned for unspecific crimes. Both implore you to bring them pages to their books to save them, both implore you to ignore the other, and both seem, well, a little odd. As it goes, it’s up to you to solve the puzzles of Myst Island and the various ages that can be traveled to from there, to discover the truth about just what, exactly, is going on.

The story is generally pretty decent, even after all these years, though whether or not you’ve played the game prior (or experienced any of the sequels) may color your opinion of the story in MYST somewhat. If you’ve played MYST in the past, you of course know the plot of the game and know what’s going on and how to go about things, but if you’ve never played the game or its sequels, it can be kind of confusing swallowing the story of a guy who can write books that allow travel to other worlds if you’re not ready for it (though they do say that books can take you to another world, so…) without proper buildup. The few characters in the game are pretty genuine in their actions and reactions to things, at least, and are well written overall, and the ambience of the experience and how it’s presented make the story as strong as it ever was, all in all; if you’ve played the game before, you’re well aware of where things are going, but if this is a first time for you with MYST the story still holds up well and is enjoyable to run through.

The same, however, cannot be said about the visuals; while the FMV in the various sections of the game look decent (if grainy) overall, the locations in the game themselves look ATROCIOUS. Over fifty percent of the game visuals are grainy, pixelated images that are difficult to appropriately perceive detail in, and while the other almost half of the game looks decent, it’s a far cry from what the original game looked like and what the DS is capable of doing. On the plus side, the puzzles are often not impeded by the visuals and are often solvable; on the minus side, moving things in the game world often makes pixels glitch in the environment and look worse, so it’s something of a catch-22 there. Aurally, most of the music is ambient and only pops up here and there, but it’s nice when it does, and the voice tracks from the original game have been accurately reproduced. However, many of the sound effects sound flat and don’t mesh well with the game at all (and seem to, for some reason, have been replaced, as I distinctly don’t recall hearing the tinny beeps and dings this game offers in the original game), and the actual sound of the game is very low; even with the volume maxed out in a quiet room you’ll find yourself straining to hear what a character says on more than a few occasions. I don’t know why this is this way, but headphones are a plus here.

Now, adventure games generally tend to translate fairly well to the DS due in large part to the stylus control replacing the standard mouse controls old PC gamers have grown up with, and so too is it with MYST. Moving around in the game environment is a simple matter of tapping in a direction to go that way, tapping the sides of the screen to turn around, and tapping on things in the environment to interact with them. There’s little to no loading of any sort across the many ages of the game, which is certainly positive and makes the experience seamless in its execution. Generally, you’ll be poking around in the game world looking for various and sundry puzzles to solve, and its very easy to move from place to place to do so, which makes the game simple for anyone to play all in all.

Of course, the aforementioned puzzles come into play as you move around, and they run the gamut in difficulty. Oddly, the puzzles in MYST are all over the place in terms of context; many of the puzzles make sense in the game world (lighting a furnace to raise a tower to allow you to jump into the elevator inside of it), many others do not (the piano puzzle, which has frustrated more than a few players in its day). The puzzles that require pure logic to solve are often quite simple to work out on their own, but many of the puzzles often require backtracking and moving about taking notes to accomplish, which can be quite complex after a while, especially if you’re more used to the standard DS adventure motif of “go here use this go there talk to someone etc”. On the plus side, the various puzzles are generally simple enough to solve insofar as the interface goes, as simply tapping the various puzzle points as needed works as you would respect, and only in a few instances was it difficult to know where to tap or did the tap not produce the desired effect.

The DS version of MYST actually comes with a few novelties that make it a bit more user-friendly insofar as puzzle solving is concerned, however. First and foremost, you’re provided with a little soft keyboard that can be used to tap out notes in case you want to note certain things while playing. You can also take a snapshot of something you’re looking at, which can then be toted around (say, to avoid having to make a note of certain symbols or notes) and pulled up at your leisure. There’s also a zoom function, which is mostly used to allow you to read the various books and notes you find; you can move the magnifying glass around across the notes to read the various sections, which works well enough. There’s also a function called “Zip Mode”, which apparently allows you to zip to a location if you tap on it in the distance (that’s what I derived from it in any case, since having it enabled such travel) which is useful for moving forward quickly if you know where you’re going.

So, yes, ugly transition aside, this version of MYST is more or less functional and does what needs to be done, and if you’re the sort of person who likes to follow a guide, you’ll be pleased to note that yes, the strategy guides for the PC version work identically here. The game is certainly playable and I was able to complete it without a problem, so it’s certainly workable if you want to play through it.

That said, it’s fundamentally flawed in a few areas, some of which are flaws with the product, others are flaws with the actual game MYST itself.

First, the much touted “new age” in the game? It’s Rime, which means if you’ve played realMyst, you’ve seen it already, and really, if you’re a big enough fan to have played the original who still wants to play more of MYST, you’ll probably have played realMyst anyway. More importantly, Rime isn’t anything terribly exciting in any case; aside from a couple of logic puzzles, there’s a book that explains Rime itself in the age, and a puzzle involving colored crystals that, even with an explanation of how to solve it, I could not, because if there is a way to change the shape of the crystals, the game doesn’t feel the need to point it out. In other words: if you’re a MYST fan, you’ve probably already played the new age in this port, and if you’re not, well, you won’t care that there’s a new age anyway, will you?

Which brings up a second major problem: if you’ve played through MYST already, this version is utterly unnecessary to you; it’s visually unappealing, all of the puzzle solutions are identical, and the entire product can be completed in only a few hours (or a few minutes if you know the fireplace code off the bat). Unless you want to play through the puzzles again, there’s no reason to play the game a second (or third or fourth or whatever) time, especially with a version of the game that’s $30 and not as good as the PC versions you probably have lying around.

And while we’re on the subject, $30 for a game that’s older than some of the people reading this is a bit much, seriously. You can buy the PC version along with the two follow-up sequels for a little more than half this price from most retailers, and that version looks and plays better than this one. I understand that it’s a DS port of the game and all, but it’s a bit pricey for what is, in essence, an inferior game, and, say, $15-20 for the game would have been much more reasonable all in all.

Now, if you haven’t ever played MYST, you’re most likely unaware of the changes to the product, and in that regard, assuming you can overlook the pixelated visuals and odd sound issues, you can still have plenty of fun with this version… mostly. See, here’s the thing: when MYST came out, some fifteen years ago, it was absolutely amazing to a whole lot of people. Hate the game for what it is if you must, but understand this: a whole lot of people love the game for what it did, and people continue to purchase it and its sequels, largely because the games (regardless of design issues) are really, really well crafted. Part of that craftsmanship, of course, comes from the visual and aural design of the games (which is something of a strike against this game) and part of it comes from the story and atmosphere, which this version retains, at least.

Unfortunately, it also retains the at times obtuse puzzles, which ultimately makes this something of a pain in the ass, because adventure games have, in most cases, progressed beyond what MYST did insofar as puzzles go. Now, some of the puzzles are simple enough to work with, whether you “get” them or not; if one can believe that Mr. Layton could go to a village full of puzzle-obsessed folks, one can buy into this simply enough by simply assuming that Atrus was a paranoid who feared for his life and works every single day of his life and hid everything behind ever more deceptive puzzles, that’s fine all in all. That said, several of the puzzles are either incredibly obscure (the piano keyboard) or are designed with the idea that you have to traverse all across the countryside of the age looking for the solution (the entirety of the Selenetic age is essentially designed this way). Further, the game is really designed with exploration in mind, because you not only have to solve the various puzzles in the ages, but you also have to pick up the red and/or blue pages to bring back to Myst Island, which means there is a lot of poking around to do. This poses two problems, you understand: first, when one hits a puzzle like the underground maze in the Selenetic age (which is simultaneously boring and frustrating) or the piano keyboard to GET to the Selenetic age (unless one is quick enough to realize that simply counting will solve that puzzle well enough) that confounds in frustrating and disagreeable ways, one will find oneself diving for a strategy guide or, worse, giving up because the puzzles are unfriendly and not easily defeated by the average player… and second, well, part of the fun of traipsing about MYST was looking at the pretty layouts of the ages whilst solving the puzzles, so something like the aforementioned Selenetic age, which was about you traveling across the topside of the age listening to sounds to solve a puzzle was tolerable because the visuals were pretty to look at. Here? Not so much, which makes solving the puzzle less a wonderful experience and more of a slog to move on.

All told, MYST on the DS is a port of a game that, either because of a bad port itself or because of some sort of technological issues, should never have been ported to the system. If you’re a diehard fan of MYST in all forms, it’s playable and you can certainly make your way through it, and if you don’t have a PC (in which case, how are you reading this?), you can at least experience the story if nothing else. However, this isn’t a very good representation of MYST; the visuals are ugly, the audio is off, and the gameplay becomes purely about solving the puzzles to progress the story, meaning that the sense of exploration and wonder one could derive from the original is stripped away from this version of the game, leaving it as something of an uninteresting slog through a series of puzzles to a generally unsatisfying end. If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, you could find better versions of MYST for lower prices, but if you can’t play the PC or MAC versions, this is a tolerable, if not accurate, version of the game, and if you’re dying for more DS adventure gaming, this is playable enough to get you by, if not terribly satisfying.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: POOR
Sound: MEDIOCRE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: DREADFUL
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: WORTHLESS
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: DREADFUL

Final Score: POOR.

Short Attention Span Summary:
MYST for the DS is a generally below average representation of a classic gaming experience. It’s playable, and if all you care about is the story or solving puzzles it’s an okay enough time, by and large. That said, poor visuals, poorly ported audio, and some less than intuitive design elements and puzzles make this a less than exciting game for those who have never played MYST, and a complete lack of new content and poor porting in general make this impossible to recommend to fans of the series. There are better adventure games and better version of MYST that are available for the same price or cheaper, which ultimately leaves MYST for the DS as something that’s generally just not really worth recommending to anyone.

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