The latest in the beloved Myst series of graphical adventure games capably continues the traditions that started more than 10 years ago. Like its predecessors, Myst IV Revelation is a deliberately paced first-person-perspective adventure game whose controls are almost instantly intuitive--and yet its incredibly complex and challenging puzzles are about as far from instantly intuitive as possible. However, as with most great adventure games, there's a cohesive underlying logic to the Myst IV's lengthy series of complicated trials. Furthermore, this latest chapter in the Myst series features some dazzlingly beautiful sights and amazing sounds. Much of the game is truly a wonder to behold, and while unraveling the story will probably be an interesting incentive for longtime fans of Myst, it's the thrill of being able to fully and freely explore the game's imaginative and remarkably lifelike worlds that often proves to be the biggest incentive for pushing past Myst IV's near-impenetrable puzzle barriers. Then again, solving the game's puzzles can be very rewarding; just be sure to bring plenty of patience and a keen eye for detail.
Though your familiarity with previous Myst games is not necessarily assumed by Myst IV Revelation, its storyline is heavily intertwined with previous entries in the series. Longtime Myst fans will catch numerous references to earlier games, and they will most appreciate the ability to gain a lot of new insight into Myst's main characters, including the Da Vincian scientist Atrus and his scheming sons, Sirrus and Achenar. Even if you aren't already familiar with these characters, there's a good chance that they'll readily endear themselves to you, thanks to the game's use of live actors in its full-motion video plot sequences. The actors portraying these characters do a particularly fine job (some of the other performances aren't quite as strong, but they're OK), and they help give Myst IV a personal touch and a surprisingly distinctive personality, seeing as very few games feature live actors anymore. At any rate, though the story loosely ties together the events of Myst IV, it's mostly just there as a setup for you to explore a series of wondrous, otherworldly locales. If you've played a Myst game before, then you know not to expect a lot of dialogue or character interaction here. At the least, you can look forward to discovering and reading through the various main characters' journals during the course of the game and discovering their ambitions and their secrets along with some important clues. These journals are lengthy, but they are expressively narrated and packed with interesting detail.
As in previous Myst games, your character's persona is undefined, but it's evident that whoever it is you are, you're Atrus' friend and you're willing to help him. After all, Atrus is a remarkable individual--he has the power to write "ages," which take the form of completely different worlds that seem to spring forth from Atrus' books (he humbly explains that he merely links to these ages, rather than creates them). Your journey through Myst IV will see you through several unique ages: Tomahna, a beautiful cove in which Atrus and his remaining family reside; Spire, a gloomy and equal parts bizarre and awe-inspiring world of floating cliffs and perpetual storms; Haven, a lush prehistoric-looking land filled with strange creatures; and Serenia, a utopian society that's reminiscent of the legends of the lost city of Atlantis. Each of the game's settings is incredibly designed. The different ages are highly distinct from one another, not only in terms of the sights and sounds you'll experience while there, but also in the nature of the puzzles you'll be solving in the respective environments.
Unlike many other adventure games, Myst IV lets you go about some of your objectives--and visit some of the different ages--in no particular order. This free-form structure is both liberating and bewildering. Myst IV doesn't ever lead you by the nose from one location to another, it instead invites you (and challenges you) to find your own path. Navigating is as simple as can be. A context-sensitive cursor in the shape of a hand (you can even choose a right- or left-handed version) changes to indicate when you can move toward a distant area, examine an object, or use an object. Unlike last year's Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Myst IV is not a fully 3D game, which means you'll be moving from node to node--from one picturesque scene to another--as you click around. Transitions from node to node are occasionally animated, but mostly, Myst IV harkens back to its predecessors just by crossfading from one scene to the next. This effect works fine. You'll hear a few footsteps, and the crossfade generally takes about as long as it might take for your character to walk forward a few paces to the next scene, so your imagination will readily fill in the gaps between nodes. No imagination is necessary to take in all the splendor of what you actually will see, though.
Within each node, you're free to investigate all around you by moving the mouse in any direction to rotate your view. Some clues can and will be above or below eye level, and in general, there's a lot to take in at practically every location. Of course, not every single node in the game packs in some sort of mission-critical clue or puzzle. In fact, Myst IV goes so far as to throw some red herrings at you--aspects of the environment that seem interesting and with which you can interact--and yet these things are just there for curiosity's sake, if not to draw your attention away from the real puzzles. In turn, since Myst IV's scenery can be so dense with detail, it can be difficult to tell--especially when first starting out--exactly what you can and cannot interact with. You'll invariably end up searching for "hotspots" onscreen--places where your cursor changes to indicate that you can do something there. Even so, you're liable to miss some of these hotspots unless you're really on your toes--and sometimes this means overlooking a subtle but important clue. Of course, there's generally no sense of urgency while playing Myst IV, thanks partly to the serene landscapes and soothing ambient music. It's important to be patient and to take your time while playing.
The game has a couple of noteworthy twists beyond the simple point-and-click mechanics of its predecessors. For one thing, in Myst IV, you get to be a photojournalist of sorts. You begin the adventure with a camera and an image viewer. The camera may be used at any time, either to take snapshots of the pretty vistas or--better yet--for committing important clues to a permanent visual record. Symbols, patterns, and secret codes are hidden throughout Myst IV. You may not recognize their significance right away, but if you find something unusual looking you might as well take a picture of it in case you need to refer back to the information later. By giving you a camera with which you can take note of important clues, the creators of the game gave themselves license to build some meticulously complex puzzles that require you to decipher links between locations that may, at times, be quite far apart. However, it's usually pretty apparent when it's worth your while to snap a photo of something (these tend to be the things that you may zoom in on to investigate up close). Since you'll frequently be using the camera to keep track of potential clues, it's best not to clutter up your film reel with pointless pretty pictures.
Since Myst IV involves a lot of open-ended exploration and features some multipart puzzles whose solutions are spread throughout the ages, you'll be comforted to know that the game includes a rapid transportation option to cut down on some of the needlessly time-consuming backtracking that has negatively impacted other adventure games in the past. Here, after you visit a key area, you gain the ability to instantly teleport back to it at any time. This ability ("zip mode") isn't explained and is there just for convenience, and purists may choose to toggle it off if they wish. However, zip mode is a small blessing in Myst IV. It doesn't ruin the sense of exploration since you can't teleport to areas you've never visited, nor can you use zip mode to cross between ages. Instead, much like the camera, it's a gameplay device that's necessary to facilitate some of Myst IV's ambitious puzzles. Once you finally discover the hidden logic to one of Myst IV's complex, interweaving natural or mechanical networks, you'll want to be able to quickly manipulate these systems to see what happens rather than spend a lot of time trudging from point to point. Zip mode really doesn't seem like a big deal in the context of the game, but it does a lot to help mitigate any sense that you're wasting time going back and forth.
You only find one inventory item in Myst IV: an amulet that lets you hear, and sometimes even see, recent memories of what occurred in a particular location. The amulet will glow and chime when it can be used, and using it often reveals obscure clues or more bits of story. If nothing else, the amulet helps keep the world of Myst IV from feeling too lonesome for its own good. It's true that you'll see nary a soul during most of the game, but at least you'll be able to hear what once happened at the various places you'll visit. It's an interesting narrative technique, actually. Oftentimes, you'll be able to piece together parts of the story just by making inferences. For example, on Haven, you'll encounter the carcass of some huge aquatic beast, and the amulet reveals how the beast met its end at the hands of one of Atrus' sons. This turns out to be one of several similar clues for one of the game's most complicated puzzles.
The game of chess symbolically appears at several points in Myst IV, and it was apparently a great influence on many of the puzzles here, but not in the way you might expect. As mentioned, Myst IV's puzzles are often multipart affairs that require intense scrutiny, some leaps of logic, and the ability to think ahead through multiple steps. There are many cause-and-effect relationships to be found here, involving multiple important variables, which must first be identified and then connected. Be prepared to break out a pen and paper while playing this game, because aimlessly clicking around in the game's puzzles will get you nowhere fast, so you'll need to map out exactly what you're trying to accomplish. If this all sounds rather convoluted, it is. Some of the puzzles in Myst IV are so difficult, that even following exact step-by-step instructions for solving them can be something of a challenge.
Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Myst IV includes a "help map" as part of the game. Nestled in the game's options menus, the help map is available to give you clues for each of the game's puzzles, or even complete solutions if necessary or if you can't resist. The help map is not a walk-through; you'll still need to figure out what to do when. But at least the help map can usually allow you get your bearings if you're having trouble, and in the end, it can keep you from getting hopelessly stuck. The fact that the help map is buried a few layers into the game's menu system is actually a good thing, since it would threaten to ruin some of the pleasure of exploring the game "blind" if it were readily on hand at all times. If nothing else, the help map is there to prove that, sure enough, most every puzzle in Myst IV basically makes sense--at least in hindsight of its solution. The solution is almost never obvious, but it's arguably never arbitrary, either. These are some high-quality puzzles, but they're best suited for experienced adventure game players, or for those otherwise skilled at solving logic problems. If you don't fall into one of these categories, though, the puzzles here are liable to make you feel like you're in way over your head.
Even when you're completely baffled about how to proceed, chances are you'll still be dazzled by Myst IV's presentation. The prerendered scenery features some subtle special effects that help bring the world of the game to life. There's a lot of smooth, realistic animation in the environments. There's also a wonderful cinematic-style field-of-vision effect that causes the object near your cursor to sharply come into focus while the rest of the background blurs out a bit. Another great touch is that you may click on practically any object in the game, which causes the hand-shaped cursor to tap on the object gently, resulting in a noise that confirms whether the object is made of metal, or wood, or stone, or what have you. This truly helps make each scene in the game seem like more than just a panoramic picture, and instead it feels like a real place. Indeed, Myst IV's complicated machines and huge natural-looking rock formations manage to appear completely alien and yet highly plausible at the same time. Myst has always been known for its imaginative, high-quality graphics, and Myst IV carries on that tradition proudly. In turn, Myst has always been known for featuring some outstandingly good ambient sound, and this is also true of Myst IV. The little tapping noises are an excellent part of the experience, and so is the game's outstanding, mystifying ambient musical score, featuring chorus vocals in many cases. The different ages you'll explore manage to sound every bit as distinctive as they look.
For what it's worth, all this detail comes at a significant cost in hard disk space. In a rather progressive move, Myst IV ships on two DVD-ROMs (echoing how the original Myst game helped usher in the CD-ROM format for games), though it still requires a minimum or three gigs of disk space, or eight gigs for a full install. Fortunately, the other system requirements are modest, as the game runs beautifully. However, we did experience a few crashes to desktop later on in our adventures, which we presumed were issues tied to the order in which we progressed past the game's puzzles. The crashes were a bit frustrating, but ultimately they did not prevent our continued progress. Also of note, the limited edition of Myst IV comes with a third bonus disc--2001's Myst III: Exile.
Myst IV packs in a lengthy, memorable journey that's liable to last you for days, if not weeks, before you finally reach a climactic moment that's quite a payoff for all your effort. And it truly does feel like the end of a journey when it happens. Myst has always been an experience as much as a game. Though the series has spawned countless imitators in the adventure genre, it has continued to stand tall among them, thanks to its highly cohesive design and relentless attention to state-of-the-art production quality. Interestingly, Myst IV is the first game in the series that was developed at Ubisoft Montreal, a studio that's best known for making Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. Nevertheless, the developers at Ubisoft Montreal have produced in Myst IV a sequel that carries on the series' high standards.