Riven: The Sequel to Myst (Second Opinion)

Developer:  Cyan
Publisher:  Red Orb Entertainment
Year Released:  1997

Review by Steve Metzler (October, 1997)

Prologue: Games Domain Review, of which I was co-editor of the adventure and RPG section from 1998 to ca. 2001, was one of the biggest on-line game review sites of its time. By today's standards we weren't exactly professional, but we were thorough and dedicated. It was the golden rule there that you weren't allowed to review a game unless you had completed it. Consequently, we weren't always the first to have a review up for a popular game, but our reviews were critical though fair; they weren't just glorified ads for the gaming industry like the reviews that some of our peers at the time were churning out.

Usually I purchased my own games for review, but on this occasion I was working off of gold masters given to us by the publisher the week before Riven was released. So I was able to write a walkthrough for it as I was playing the game and writing the review. In fact, I had the walkthrough ready to go just a day or two after the game was published, something I was never able to accomplish before. You'll find a link to it at the end of this review.

The text below is largely unaltered from the original review. But at the time of writing I had a propensity to over-use exclamation points(!), so I have edited quite a few of them out, and I feel the revised edition is somewhat the better for it.

The arrival
Good memories of Myst are etched into my brain. It was 1994, and I had just unboxed my brand new P100. 17-inch monitor rarin' to go; sub-woofer ready to rock the floorboards. Steve unwraps the beautiful glossy Myst package, plops the single CD into the drive, cranks up the sound and... holy cow! A book drops through a fissure and lands on the floor with a resounding thud. My other half comes running hysterically into the room. She thinks the ambient sounds are a helicopter attempting to land in the back garden.

It's been four long years since Myst first graced our computer screens in 1993. A lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges since then. My 1994 state-of-the-art machine now just barely meets the minimum requirements to run Riven. So, I'm expecting another very memorable cutting-edge gaming experience here. Did I get it?

Come on, hop into my little book. This won't hurt a bit

Technicalities, maybe... but
Riven does give much more of a feeling of being immersed than Myst managed to deliver. But I still have a gripe with the designers in this respect. Due to hardware limitations back in 1993 (Myst would run on a 386DX-33), the window into the world of Myst only occupied about half the screen. Well, it's 1997 folks. I just finished playing Realms of the Haunting. Real-time 3D in mind-blowing full screen SVGA! Minimum processor requirement: 486DX-66. So why can't Riven's beautiful (but static, remember) ray-traced images occupy the full screen? I have included one screen shot in this review that shows the full screen. Riven occupies precisely 77.6% of it. I've cropped the nasty black bits out of all the other shots to make them look better. The black gap at the top is where the menu appears when popped up. Part of the black at the bottom is for holding at most 3 objects in your 'inventory'. Presumably, the rest of the black bits are to maintain the aspect ratio. Having said all that, you do become immersed after a while. Just thought they could have done better.

No, black isn't my favourite colour either

And while we're talking about technicalities, let's get my other big peeve about this game out of the way. There's a point in the game where you have to pull on a specific object. Normally, when you move the cursor over an object that can be pushed or pulled, it changes into a 'grabbing hand'... but not in this one place! I was stuck for two whole evenings here, knowing I had to perform this operation on this object to progress any further. Talk about frustration; I wanted to break the 5 CDs this game is shipped on into tiny little bits and mail them back to Red Orb with a cryptic note attached. By the way, finding cryptic notes around the place is how you figure out the plot of this game, but we'll get to that later.

Anyway, I was convinced that the problem had to do with the fact that I was playing on a machine that just managed to meet all aspects of the minimum hardware requirements. Red Orb, I have to say, were very supportive. To be fair, I didn't go as far as trying the whole technical support route. I was playing from gold masters, and they got a proper boxed version to me the very next day. Uh oh. Problem still there (Note: this review is based on the final released product). But help eventually came my way via a colleague who had experienced the same problem on his P200. So, not a problem with minimum requirements then. The solution? While clicking on the object, simultaneously banging on the Alt key 'distracts' the program long enough for it to figure out what it's really supposed to do. Et voilà... unstuck! Oh, and one more thing. Up to this point, I was even more frustrated by the fact that every FMV sequence played exactly twice. For instance: pull a lever and something moves. Then, the clip plays again without me touching anything. Not too much of a bother for short sequences, but I was having to sit through the whole 5 minute opening sequence... twice. The space bar is supposed to skip over sequences, but this feature didn't work either. The solution? You guessed it. While pressing the space bar, bang on the Alt key. I think you may be getting an idea of how my impressions about this game were formed. I didn't find a work-around till I was nearly 90% through the game. If these problems occurred on every machine, there's no way it could have got past QA. So I'm willing to believe most of it is peculiar to my machine, for whatever reason. Enough said. Now we can discuss the game itself. (Author's note: Cyan developed on Macs back in the day. Still, IBM PCs and their clones were the dominant home machine even back then, so no excuse for not play-testing on them).

Come hither, you little bugger!

It's life, Jim... but not as we know it
About the only creatures that I remember from the Myst experience were a few birds that came whizzing towards you up a path in the forest. Well, Riven has a lot more creatures, and you get to interact with some of them. However, some of these creatures happen to be people, and you can't interact with them. No engaging conversations, just FMV clips. One way traffic. Like Myst, Riven is a stark, largely unpopulated world... albeit strange and beautiful. Of course, this is where Riven excels. The ray-traced images are superb; however, GTE Entertainment managed to produce images of nearly the same quality for TimeLapse using only 256 colours. So, I'm thinking that the designers may have shot themselves in the proverbial foot here by opting for a High Colour implementation. At least the FMV clips are nearly full screen, and not postage stamp sized ones as in Myst. But again, nothing extraordinary by today's standards.

Am I still playing TimeLapse?

Puzzle me this
The puzzles are almost exclusively mechanical in nature: pull a lever, throw a switch, run over yonder, push a button, run back, see what happened. If you enjoy solving this type of puzzle, you are going to be in Puzzle Heaven for a few weeks. Riven is chock full of them, and I have to say, they were devilishly clever. Not a dud in the whole bunch. And here's the kicker... a lot of the puzzles are interrelated. You have to solve groupings of related puzzles before you begin to get the Big Picture. Riven isn't linear, either. There are a number of islands to explore, and if you get absolutely stuck in one place, you can wander around and find something else to tackle while you apply some background lateral thinking to your original problem. The puzzles are very well integrated with the environment, and of a practical nature. No abstract stuff as in The 7th Guest.

One of the only complaints I had about Myst concerned its longevity. It was quite easy, and way too short. Riven is a lot bigger than Myst ; I would estimate at least by a factor of 3. It's also quite a bit tougher. You won't be polishing this one off over a long weekend!

Doomsday Book
Seeing as Riven picks up where Myst left off, you might argue that originality cannot be an issue. Perhaps... but the very idea of a small cadre of demigods who create entire worlds by taking pen to magical paper and writing them into existence... now, that's good! Riven is, of course, such a world. Its creator, Gehn, has been trapped there for 33 years. He rules its denizens with an unforgiving iron fist. Gehn is the father of Atrus, whom you may remember from Myst. Tragically, Gehn is holding Atrus' beloved Catherine prisoner, and you are sent in to rescue her. Gehn is going mad, and Riven is dying. Just to give you an idea of how far gone the man is... well, he smokes frogs in his pipe (I think). Don't know what brand.

You talkin' to me?

The problem here is how you're supposed to figure out this intriguing plot. Before Atrus packs you off to Riven, he gives you his Riven journal. You read it first chance you get. Hmm... a little bit the wiser after that exercise, but not sure if it was worth reserving 30-something lines worth of pixels for at the bottom of the screen. Much, much later on in the game, you find Gehn's journal. This one actually has the answer to a puzzle in it, but I found myself skimming over the rest of the material. It's very tedious to read hand-written stuff on a PC screen. And finally... let's just say Catherine's hand-writing is not the best, and leave it at that. At least there wasn't as much of this material to read as there was in Myst, and if you can manage to get stuck into it, you should piece it all together by the end.

The venerable Catherine

The ambient sounds are extremely well done. When you turn a steam valve, you are rewarded with a satisfying hiss. Doors creak open and shut. There are loads of animal and insect sounds. These, of course, all contribute to the feeling that you just might really be there. I was somewhat less enthused by the music, the quality of which is superb, yet no single piece really stood out from the rest. It was really just one continuous melody that went a bit up-tempo when you did something significant, and then calmed down again when you moved off to another area. Film soundtrack quality, though. Overall, the sounds that emanate from the world of Riven are some of the best that I've heard in a computer game.

Getting around
All you need is your left mouse button. The cursor is in the shape of a hand. When you move it to different hot spots on the screen, it will change shape to indicate various options, such as: you can look upwards here, you can turn around here, you can grab this object, etc. Game saving and restoring is file based via the standard Windows dialogue box, so you can have as many saved games as you like, rename them, delete them, and so on. Unfortunately, the presence of these very obvious Windows trappings around the place does occasionally suspend that feeling of being immersed in Riven. I felt that the menu system could have been better integrated with the game. If I want to see Windows 95 menus, I'll run my word processor, thank you.

'Zip mode' is a handy navigational feature. There are a lot of picturesque, but empty, frames in Riven. When you have visited someplace at least once, Riven remembers. A yellow lightning bolt will take the place of the hand cursor, allowing you to skip all the intermediate frames on the way to where the lightning bolt is positioned. The amount of CD swapping required (there are 5) was kept to a minimum, most swaps occurring only when you moved to a new island.

A control freak's dream, it is

Summing up
Riven is a worthy successor to Myst. Before I even started to play this game, I had a preconceived notion that I would recommend a Silver Award. Alas, but a number of technical flaws prevent me from doing so. The best thing I can say about it is this: if you liked Myst, you'll love Riven!

See the Riven walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 1997. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Windows 95: 100Mhz Pentium or faster, 16 MB RAM, Minimum 75 MB hard disk space, 4XCD-ROM drive or faster, 640 x 480 display, High Colour, Windows compatible sound device, Video and sound cards compatible with DirectX.
Macintosh: Mac OS required, System 7.5 or higher, 90Mhz PowerPC or faster, 9 MB RAM free, Minimum 65 MB hard disk space, 4XCD-ROM drive or faster, 640 x 480 display, thousands of colours.