Ongoing Uru Review: The Path of the Shell

(Uru Expansion #2)

Thus the end of Uru. I will continue to hope for further expansions, for they haven't been ruled out. But the compendium package of Uru, To D'ni, and The Path of the Shell is titled Uru: Complete Chronicles. I think we can take that as a strong hint.

I am regretful; I am annoyed; I am depressed; I am content. I could spend hours yet wandering through the caverns and Ages -- they're just that nice. But it's lonely in there, and I've done everything there is to do. Except write this review.

Like the previous expansion, The Path of the Shell is a fresh branch, not an extension of exploration you have already done. Whether you're starting a new game or continuing, The Path of the Shell gives you some new journals to read and a new linking book. The book takes you to a new Age, which has links to three more Ages, and the four form a complete set of puzzles. If you wanted, you could solve this new material without ever entering the previous Uru Ages. Although there are some interesting tie-ins. Which I will not spoil.

This is a big expansion, and it's full of good stuff. It's all new -- none of this appeared in the Uru Live beta. Two of the new Ages are smallish, but the other two are full-size; if anything, larger than the original four Uru Ages. And unlike the city areas in To D'ni, these Ages are pure puzzle. Cyan is back in full form: POTS has all the intricacy, coherence, and internal logic -- the integration -- that I've been expecting since Riven. Uru had some good scenes; POTS is all good scenes.

I treasure this experience:

I explored one Age. It seemed small. I couldn't find much to do. I tried something, because it seemed like it might have an effect. I tried something else. I sat back, staring at the screen and swearing, because everything changed. And now I had much more to explore. And I found more to do.

And then, after I had explored much, and experimented a great deal, I couldn't think of anything else to do. I had a bunch of rules, which got me to various areas. I thought I was done. But one clue led me to believe there was more.

And so I sat back, and I said: "What is really going on here? What is implied by the ad-hoc rules I've been making use of? I feel like my understanding of this world is incomplete." So I scribbled diagrams on paper, and tried to make sense of it.

And I stared at my diagrams, and said: "I see how to go somewhere new."

I tried it, and, of course, it worked.

This was not merely a puzzle-realization. It illuminated the character of the world, and its history, and the character of the person who lived there. It developed the theme of the game. It netted me new territory to explore, and some new clothing to wear. All these things (okay, except the clothing) were intertwined with the solving of the puzzle. Solving the puzzle led me to understand the inhabitant; but it was equally true that understanding him led me to solve the puzzle.

It was also, I should say, full of wonder and damnably gorgeous. When I was swearing at the screen, a few moments ago, it was as much from the beauty of the scenery as from the surprise.

Not everything in POTS is so perfectly balanced. I got stuck on two puzzles. One, I would say, was my fault: I observed a connection between two symbols, but I thought a part of one of them was decorative, when in fact it was a clue. The sort of mistake that even an experienced adventurer can make, even in a well-designed game. I might have figured it out eventually, but after several hours of looking around the game world, I gave up and read a hint.

The other place I got stuck, I assert, was dreadfully underclued. Again, I failed to understand part of a diagram; but I don't think there was enough information there to latch on to. And the associated area of the game -- while a good idea for a puzzle -- did not allow nearly enough experimentation. The effect you were supposed to use was just too hard to notice. Worse: too few clues led me to expect that there was an effect there. If casual fooling around had turned up odd results, or if there were more specific pointers in the game, I might have figured it out -- and been enormously pleased. Instead, I read a hint, and was vaguely grumpy.

But then the next puzzle made itself clear to me in a flash of insight. And I was off and running again. Getting stuck twice, in several days of steady gameplay, is an excellent average.

Really it's an illustration of how trust changes a game experience. I put a lot of time into The Path of the Shell: five evenings, several hours each night. (I play adventure games in the dark. It's a show.) Many of those hours were spent trudging back and forth, trying different combinations of actions in different states of the world: experimenting. Some of those actions were time-consuming. I could have gotten frustrated and given up and read hints. But, with the two exceptions above, I didn't. (And even in those two cases, I put in many hours before giving up.)

I had trust in Cyan; and that trust was rewarded, both in the long term and the short. I rarely went many hours without discovering something new. I had to try many experiments; but if I tried them, and then backed off and tried a new angle, and then thought about it, and then tried again -- I would make progress. Steadily. Just about always.

So, in the end, I solved nearly all of POTS by myself. And I had a heck of a good time, all the way through.

I want to talk about plot, but... POTS doesn't exactly have plot. None of the Uru games have. POTS does have a theme, more so than the previous Uru segments. The puzzles and the background revolve around a common element, in different ways. (Yes, I'm still avoiding spoilers.) I appreciated this... but it isn't the same as a story, and I do prefer story in my adventures.

Even Myst, with its weird gap-footed pacing, had a clear arc of "What happened here?" to discover. Question, answer, resolution. In POTS, you make discoveries about prior events, but there's no overriding question to be resolved at the end. Answers emerge, but not to questions you were asking. Similarly -- you yourself advance along some path, but the direction is unclear. Stuff happens at the end, but it doesn't fulfil a goal you were aware of. You are drawn through the game by curiosity -- but not by any other narrative momentum.

I had the same complaints about the first Uru. It felt like an introduction to a story, rather than a story. I was willing to accept this when I expected an ongoing Uru Live world. But if The Path of the Shell is the final Uru chapter, it shouldn't feel like an introduction! I know, I know: "Perhaps the ending has not yet been written." But even the middle of a story should have more drive than this.

Since this is Uru, I need to give a running-and-jumping report. Good news: no silly basket-kicking. A bit of jumping here and there, but nothing difficult. A few actions you must take in timed sequences, but again, they're simple -- easier than the bucket ride in Teledahn. The usual walking-on-narrow-ledges is only other navigational hazard. Cyan seems to have learned its lesson from the first Uru release.

One world has a fair amount of swimming (yes, you can swim now). The water has currents to swim against, which are a little tricky, but it's not really a matter of finger dexterity. More of planning, and figuring where to dive in, and what angle to swim at.

You will do a lot of running (and swimming) around. I'm not talking about tricky navigation -- just getting from point A to point B. Repeatedly. Solving POTS requires experimentation, and experimentation requires travel. I found it slightly dull, but not horribly tedious. After all, there's all this great scenery... and it's not like you could put a paperweight on the up-arrow key and read a magazine. You have to hop around and climb ladders and duck into pipes and stuff. It serves to exercise the fingers, and that's really all I need to get through travel sequences. If you're more easily bored, you may get frustrated (or look at hints more quickly), but it wasn't over my threshold.

And the rewards at the end of the game were satisfactory. Not all of them are well-tied to the body of the game -- as I said, POTS doesn't have much overall sense of resolution. But they were nice when I got there.

Summary: If you enjoyed the previous Uru chapters, even a little, you will enjoy The Path of the Shell. It's got more of the good and far less of the irritating.

If you haven't started Uru at all, then see my review of Uru: Complete Chronicles.

Download links

Uru: The Path of the Shell is available as a 470-megabyte download from The download is free, but once you install it, the game will demand $20 from you. (That's US players; I don't know how it works for overseas customers.) If the idea of sucking half a gig through your modem makes your sphincters pucker, you can purchase the same content on CD, either from retail stores or Ubi's web site. In either form, POTS is an expansion to the original Uru boxed set. So if you don't own Uru, get Complete Chronicles instead of POTS.

Last updated July 16, 2004.

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