Review: Uru: Ages Beyond Myst

Official web page; Cyan Worlds (creators); UbiSoft (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Not really
Writing and dialogue
Fairly hard
Forgiveness rating
You cannot make a fatal mistake. You can "die", but that just sends you home, and you can easily return to where you were.

(This is a review only of the single-player part of Uru. As I write this, the multi-player Uru Live has begun accepting registrations from the general public -- but they're doing it in small batches, and my account hasn't been enabled yet. So I know nothing about the online part of the game. Which is good, I guess, because if I was playing that, I wouldn't be writing this.)

The first game released by Cyan since Riven. Could my expectations possibly have been any higher? No, they could not. I was ready to play Uru. I bought a new computer to play Uru. I installed a Microsoft operating system to play Uru.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have moderated my attitude a bit.

Let me come at this from another angle. I was eager to play the multi-player Uru game. I wanted to see what Cyan would add to the discourse of the massively-multi-player online game. When I heard that (apparently due to pressure from their publisher) Cyan was retargeting Uru as a single-player game with an optional multi-player extension, I worried. How do you reverse course in the last year of a five-year development effort? What gives?

The outcome, I would say, is both encouraging and unfortunate. Encouraging: Cyan has, I think, preserved their original vision for Uru. Unfortunate: Cyan's original vision was of a large online world, evolving in real time. And the single-player portion of Uru is not that vision. Their hearts, perhaps, were on the larger vision, and not on the single-player offering. It's not a truly complete experience. It has the feel of a teaser -- an introduction to a "real" game which (for me at least) is yet to come.

But now you have the wrong impression. I do not mean that the single-player Uru stops on a cliffhanger. It has an excellent ending, actually. Fine sense of resolution; satisfying. I felt good when I came to the end of the quest.

But, but.

The original Myst was an exploration of worlds, and the stories within those worlds. (Okay, the stories were pretty rudimentary. Not the point here.) The exploration was motivated by a frame story, which was your story. What you were doing. Okay, that was rudimentary too -- a classic plot-token quest, and for blank pieces of paper at that -- but it was the truly interactive aspect of the story; it was the part you were complicit in.

Riven was an exploration of a single world (and then more), and a single story. No question about your role there; your actions drive the whole plot.

Myst 3 (created by Presto Studios, not Cyan) was all exploration, almost no story. Yes, I regard that as inferior. It imitated the plot-token quest, without even the minimal integration of game and story that Myst had. On the other hand, it did cough up some plot at the end, and you wind up being chased around the room by an axe-wielding maniac. That can't be all bad, can it?

Uru has the worlds, oh yes. And the worlds have stories. Each Age of Uru has a logic to it, and background, and history. (Even the Age which is a blatant string of arbitrary puzzles!) As you explore, you gradually come to understand them. They're far richer and more subtle than the Ages of Myst. Not as complex and layered as Riven, but then Riven had an entire game dedicated to it solely.

But -- unlike in every previous Myst game -- what links the worlds of Uru is not your story. It's not a story at all... or, if it is, it's the story of the D'ni people. Which is history, not plot. It's something you explore, not something you do.

And I think I need something to do, in a game. There isn't enough history here -- not enough to be truly satisfying. The full multi-player Uru Live, I'm sure, will evolve a complete story arc for D'ni -- which (I hope) I will take part in discovering. But the single-player game is only the introduction to that story. And nothing else really holds the game together.

Okay, yes: you have stuff to do in Uru. You receive mysterious and elliptical instruction, which leads you to explore the worlds and find the things you are told to find, and these lead you to more mysterious and elliptical information, and then you realize you have to do other stuff, which gives you mysterious and elliptical praise and a complimentary t-shirt. And (despite my irony) this is all pretty well done. I rarely hear mystical fantasy dialogue which actually works; the writing in Uru works.

But are you part of a story? Only barely. And it's not a story you understand yet. Which is why, ultimately, I say this is not a satisfying game on its own.

In a way, I think that Cyan was forced into this position. (And I don't just mean by their publisher.) They're trying to create a single-player game which will join seamlessly with a multi-player world. And that means you can't single-handedly save the world! If you, as the protagonist of Uru, do something unique and history-changing, then how can you later encounter a server full of people who have all done the same thing?

The designers, to their credit, don't completely ignore this issue. There are indications that you are accomplishing one thing -- saving one soul -- in a large collective effort. But it's still sort of weak; it doesn't give me the sense of accomplishment I want out of an adventure game.

But so. Let me discuss presentation.

Uru, like RealMyst, runs in a full-featured 3D engine. Like RealMyst, it's damn-well gorgeous. It doesn't quite have the impact of the newest console games, with their distortion processing and dazzle effects, but it's a lovely piece of environment design.

Unlike RealMyst, Uru gives you a choice between first-person and third-person viewpoints. Third-person is the default. Indeed, the manual says: "Experiencing Uru from a third-person perspective gives the best cinematic look and feel; Uru was designed with this in mind." Which makes this the first Myst game in which you can see yourself walk around and do stuff. You can even customize your character avatar, thus making a weak pun of the game's title. (Not that I could get my dude to look much like me. I gave him a purple t-shirt and felt fashionable instead.)

There is a small drawback, however, and that is the control system. If you've seen a single review of the game, or read any of the Net foam, you've seen people complain about the controls. Everyone is complaining. Nearly everyone.

The third-person controls are just broken. You can't look behind you. I mean that literally. The right mouse button lets you look around, but only a few degrees each way -- it's like having your head clamped in a box. To look around, you have to turn your whole body, which is agonizingly slow if you just want a quick look-see. (Don't, for zog's sake, try the "smoother camera" preference -- it makes it slower.) The third-person perspective is tolerable if you're running through a familiar area, but it's unusable for exploration.

The first-person controls are approximately the same as in RealMyst. This is what I recommend. The right mouse button allows fast looking around and fast turning. On the down side, you can't see your feet -- which makes it hard to jump accurately.

Correct. "Jump." The good people at Cyan have elected to add a simple sort of environment puzzle to Uru. You have to jump some chasms, climb some ladders, balance on some narrow beams and ledges. Which makes this the first Myst game in which you need some actual dexterity to play.

Oh, not a lot. This isn't an action game; there are no tricky double-jumps or midair wall-bounces or any of the other crazy stunts which pepper Prince of Persia and that ilk. And it's not everywhere in Uru, just in a few spots. But you do have to take some wild jumps. And you will have to try some of them several times, because you will miss. And miss. Miss, and fall.

(You can fall any distance in Uru without harm, as long as there's flat ground to land on. If you fall into a bottomless pit, or the fiery lava, you die. Not die really -- you teleport back to your home base -- but it's what the kids are calling death nowadays. You missed your jump; you're going to have to return to the world and try it again. Heck, even falling safely off a ledge means you'll have to climb back up there.)

Really it's not the physical dexterity that bothers me. Some adventure gamers will be unable to handle it, but most will manage. It's the "you missed, try again" aspect of it. I expect that in action games. In adventure games, I have no patience for it -- none at all. If I'm stuck in a Myst game, I want it to be because I'm stupid or unobservant. Not because I missed the damn jump three times in a row.

Even the action games are only fun because I can be acrobatic in them. You can't be acrobatic with Uru's control set.

Oh, and there's That Puzzle. If you've finished the game, you know which one I mean. If not, you'll recognize it when you hit it. It's a physical-environment puzzle in which you have to line up some things to make a bridge, sort of, and then walk over it.

I once pleaded for this kind of puzzle. I found traces of it in Ico. The true 3D world puzzle, where objects can move anywhere, roll any which way. Where physical interactions are worked out, and you can arrange clever arrangements and interesting solutions.

I still want that kind of puzzle. But not, please zog, not That Puzzle in Uru. The objects roll -- out of control. They can be moved anywhere -- but no location really works well. They fall and bump and go where you don't want them. You get it right, take a step, and knock them hopelessly askew. And then, when you try to perform the solution, you slip, miss, and have to start over. Askew.

It's a damn physical manipulation puzzle in which you have no manus! No hands. You can't pick anything up in Uru. The only way to arrange objects is to bump into them. Then to bump into them from a different direction. And again. It's like Daleks playing soccer.

I should have thought of that, actually. Screaming "Exterminate! exterminate!" would have made me feel a lot better during That Puzzle.

It's a good puzzle, considered abstractly. But nobody will ever enjoy solving it. Even figuring out what you're supposed to do is hard, because experimenting in the appropriate ways is tedious and unpleasant. I didn't figure it out. I found a walkthrough, and followed it to the letter.

Well. I have complained about the story structure, and I have complained about the controls, and I have complained about one puzzle. Did I hate Uru?

No. I thought it was pretty good. I'm having trouble coming up with specific good things to say, but it's a pretty good game, really. I'm glad I played it.

I've focussed on these problems because they're severe, specific, and not likely to be patched. (Cyan might improve the controls, but they won't redesign an entire Age at this point.) You really should know about those issues before you play. But they're not the majority of the game. I got used to the controls (once I stuck the game in first-person view), and I was able to get through That Puzzle. The history of D'ni is evocative and I want to know more -- which is certainly their point.

I solved most of the game myself. It takes dedicated exploration -- more so than in most graphical adventures, because the tokens you have to find can be hidden in odd corners. I like dedicated exploration.

I enjoyed most of the puzzles. They're classic Myst fare: machines, creatures, living spaces, symbols, journals, notes. Interesting arrangements of stuff, in interesting places. They're pleasingly integrated with the worlds they inhabit; everything makes sense, as I said. If you look for sense. Yes, even the apparently arbitrary puzzle-locks. As I said.

A few puzzles I had trouble with; I wound up going to walkthroughs and hints for those. In most of those cases, I looked at the cheats, looked at the clues in the game, and realized I'd been unobservant. Or dumb. (Some of the puzzles in Kadish Tolesa are too obscurely clued for my taste... and I still don't understand the final one. But I'm not too upset about it. Going to a walkthrough after I've solved 32/35ths of a game does not make me feel bad about myself, or about the game.)

Besides, with a multi-player world available, there will be people around to help each other out. Could work out interestingly.

I really did like the final sequence of the game.

And it sure is pretty.

Summary: If you are a newcomer to the Myst universe, Uru is not a great place to start. If you don't want to get into the multi-player game, the single-player game may not be worthwhile. But if you are a Myst fan, the single-player Uru is an enjoyable new chapter, and a tempting invitation to Uru Live.

I hope Uru Live fulfils the promise.

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