The Myst franchise that began back in 1993, during the early days of multimedia computing, will come to a close later this year with the final chapter in the series, fittingly named Myst V: End of Ages. Long known for cutting-edge visuals, wickedly devious puzzles, and intriguing (not to mention nonviolent) gameplay, Myst has been the benchmark for adventure gaming this past decade. It's also evolved quite a bit from the static, though beautiful, screens of the original game to a fully three-dimensional virtual world that you can walk around and explore at your own pace and leisure. We've had an opportunity recently to explore Myst V ourselves, to see how this final chapter is shaping up.
Unlike the previous game in the series, Myst IV: Revelation, Cyan Worlds, the creator of Myst, is handling development duties on End of Ages itself. Ubisoft's Montreal studios did an admirable job with Revelation, but as End of Ages is the final piece in the puzzle, it seems fitting for Cyan to do the honors. Just keep in mind that you will not have to be a Myst veteran in order to play and understand Myst V, though you'll certainly be at an advantage in terms of being familiar with the setting and concepts of the game.
You'll begin Myst V like every other Myst game, mysteriously materializing in a strange locale--this time, in a large, circular room. There is no prologue or introductory sequence, so, once again, you have to piece together everything from scratch. Your first clue that something is not quite right is the fact that strange, humanoid creatures scatter at your appearance, and then disappear into thin air. On a nearby table is the Book of Myst, and as Myst veterans know, books are the "gateway" to different worlds. However, you cannot open the book, due to the thick leather straps that bind it closed. Here's a bit of warning, as you're sure to become exasperated otherwise: don't even bother with trying to open the book, because it's a red herring at this point. Instead, you have to carefully examine the many doors leading out of the room, because it's easy to miss the door handle you must turn in order to exit.
Once you're out of the room, you'll find yourself in a strange, deserted, dilapidated palace of sorts, and you'll wander around crumbling hallways and empty rooms until you come across a tablet with a glowing sphere of energy around it. But before you can get on, a mysterious figure materializes in front of you. It is Yeesha, daughter of Atrus (both are from earlier Myst games), and she tells you, in her cryptic way (get used to this, by the way), that her father is imprisoned on Myst Island. She adds that the tablet responds to you, and that you will have a choice to make before she materializes out of sight. We should note that Yeesha, as well as the other characters that you encounter, are rendered in full 3D. Previous Myst games used live action cutscenes filmed with actors. This new approach feels much better, as the 3D characters blend seamlessly with the environment, and the virtual characters are more than capable of realistic movement and impressive facial expressions that convey emotions.
Go through the gateway and you find yourself in an outdoor wilderness, where you meet Escher, a new character who appears quite a bit in the early portion of the game. Escher is voiced by David Odgen Stiers (best known as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from M.A.S.H.), and he's really helpful--perhaps a bit too helpful. However, Escher is a major source of information, and he introduces you to the major new feature in the game, slates. A slate is a stone tablet of sorts that you hold in your hands. You can draw symbols on the slate, and you can use this to communicate with the strange creatures that you encounter throughout the game. Of course, actually trying to figure out what the symbols mean is up to you. In addition to Escher, you will also glean hints and clues by finding the many journals scattered about the game.
The devious puzzles are still in place, and before long we encountered our first show stopper, which involves some sort of giant observatory in which you have to align the symbols on the machine with four different sets of gears. Needless to say, there's a lot of trial and error that goes into solving puzzles such as these, which is the appeal of Myst, in general. Since there's no way to really die, and there is no time limit, you can tinker to your heart's content.
Myst V offers three different control schemes that you can take advantage of. Veterans of the original Myst will probably feel at home with the classic mouse-click mode, which is an updated version of the point-and-click interface in all Myst games. A variation of this control scheme, called classic plus, locks your view to the mouse, and you have to right-click to bring up the cursor to interact with objects. Meanwhile, veterans of first-person shooters will probably like the free mode, which basically maps movement to the keyboard, including the WASD setup seen in action games.
Immersive has always been a good word to use to describe Myst, and Myst V raises the bar to a new level. It's not just the ability to roam around the 3D environments at will, but there are plenty of nice little touches, like the way everything shakes when a frequent quake hits, or the tiny critters that flit about. Visually, we've gotten to the point where the static 2D worlds of the first game can now be rendered in full 3D without loss of image quality. You'll definitely want to pay attention to the sound, as well. Sound played a huge role in Myst IV, and the sound in Myst V helps make the game come alive, from the ambient background noise to the atmospheric sound effects.
Myst V is a cryptic game to figure out, which is a huge part of the series' appeal. Still, it's amazing how far the franchise, and technology, have come over the past 12 years. Judging from what we've seen thus far, fans of the series can definitely look forward to spending a lot of time jumping between worlds this fall, which is when End of Ages is scheduled to ship.