Ending the Ages With a Wimper
Like many people my age, my earliest memories of computer gaming are marked by some of the greatest adventure games to have ever been written. I remember vividly the long weekends spent at my father's house sitting in front of his Mac trying in vain to puzzle my way through classics like Day of The Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and, of course, Myst. Years later when I returned to my computer gaming roots after a prolonged love affair with consoles the first thing I thought of were those old adventure games I had never managed to crack. Even with my greater maturity I still found them to be trying of my patience and changeling for my intellect. That may not sound appealing to most, but it's only in true challenge that you can ever find the reward of satisfaction. The first time I found myself sitting in front of my computer screen holding a page covered in notes, front and back, as I watched the Myst credits role past I knew I was hooked on the genre for life.
What does ANY of that have to do with Myst V? For me, everything. Myst V is the closing chapter in a series that has defined the adventure genre since the first game was released in '93. It is a game that is meant to give closure to one of the most prestigious franchises in gaming. And yet, it fails to even live up to its predecessors.
One of the most striking and readily apparent differences that sets Myst V apart from the other games in the series is its use of full, real time 3D graphics. Even the characters are 3D models rather than live actors, as the previous games had used. I admit that I found this approach initially off setting. I thought it was an odd choice to so radically alter the fundamental aesthetic of a series in its final installment. I had enjoyed Uru though, and was ready to give this game a chance as well. Sadly, the graphics of this game didn't fair as well as in Uru. The world looked somehow less impressive. Many textures, even on the highest settings, looked bland. This wasn't universal, a few areas actually looked very nice, but such places were the exception rather than the rule. The worst part were the characters. The textures on their faces where a bit muddy, their eyes often looking in strange directions, but their body animations were very well done... perhaps too well done. The combination created a strange effect similar to the uncanny valley that left me feeling uncomfortable every time one of the two main characters appeared, which they did with astonishing frequency. Which leads me to my next point...
In every previous Myst game, you typically could count the number of encounters you had with other characters on one hand, maybe two. In Myst V you'd run out of fingers and toes almost within the first hour of play. This wouldn't be so bad, uncanny valley aside, had each encounter not been unskippable and full of stilted pauses during each monologue, characteristic to the series. The interruptions quickly became tiresome, and I began to get the feeling that the game was trying to lead me by the hand, constantly giving me hints and feedback to let me know I was going in the right direction. All of this utterly destroyed any sense of being a lone adventurer left to puzzle together the forgotten pieces of every riddle strew across the ages for yourself.
The story is also a big shortcoming for Myst V. When you begin you find Yeesha, the daughter of Atrus who is usually at the center of most Myst stories, trying to retrieve a tablet that holds incredible power. She is unable to complete this task and sends you in her stead. Soon another man appears and warns you about Yeesha's motives. He acts as your guide throughout the rest of the game, but this just creates more confusion. He clearly seems to know the answers to every challenge and has a vested interest in seeing you through successfully, so why doesn't he just GIVE YOU THE ANSWERS!? Sorry, a little pent up frustration. There are three endings, but two of them don't even let you know that the game is over, instead just leaving you to wonder aimlessly until you realize there is nothing left to do. The correct ending, you know it's correct because it gives you the end credits, is a bit bland relying on trumping up emotions the games seems think it’s instilled in you, but probably hasn't. There is no grand challenge to attain this ending over the other. The answer to the last puzzle is absurdly simple once you realize what to do. So simple, in fact, that you could very easily stumble upon it completely by accident The entire thing isn't very satisfying and doesn't tie in to the previous games very much, introducing an entire race of creatures who’s existence seems to be key to the entire history of D’ni, but have never made any appearance whatsoever in previous games. Perhaps if I'd read the books or played the short lived MMO I would have cared more.
ALL of this would easily have been forgivable had Myst V gotten the two key ingredients that define every Myst game, and frankly the entire adventure genre, right; its puzzles and exploration. This is where Myst V earns its two and a half stars, and no more. There are four 'adventure' ages to explore in Myst V plus a temple that you're told leads into the lost city of D'ni (which you never actually get to visit). Each of the four ages is incredibly short. Most only have one major puzzle with a few smaller ones on the side to help solve the larger one. None are especially challenging when compared to the previous installments' puzzles. There is very little 'connect the dots' style logic to be had hear. Almost no learning of new systems of logic or numerical systems is required at all. You probably won't find yourself looking at subtle hints and clues in the environment or strange images in discarded journals trying to figure out how its all related. The very few times anything like that happens it's so clearly spelled out as to be almost laughable. Most puzzles are as simple as flipping a few switches in the right order or spotting the out of the way place where the answer is clearly written. Trial and error seems to be king in Myst V as most puzzles, even those that might require some basic math skills, are easily solved just by making a handful of educated guesses. The game introduces a new game play mechanic involving drawing symbols on slates. The mechanic is rather buggy, often not recognizing the symbols you draw or, worse, confusing them for other symbols. In one age, half of the time I drew a symbol it mistook it for the final symbol of the age, hurtling me to the age's end prematurely. The mechanic isn't really ever used to much effect either. Most situations where it should be used are clearly marked by the fact that you just learned the symbol you need moments before encountering the scenario. Each age only has one 'power' symbol that works within it, so your options are rather limited anyways.
Myst V: End of Ages, is a sad farewell to the franchise in many ways. It never really manages to capture the magic that made the rest of the series so wonderful. The only real solace to be had here is the realization that perhaps Myst V itself is a sign that the series ended when it needed to, frail and a shadow of what it once was, much like an old and dying Atrus at the end of his days.