Developer: Cyan Worlds
Release Date: September 23, 2005
Buy 'MYST V: End of Ages': PC/Mac
Well, here we are, folks. It's been one weird, wild ride and heaven knows it's spanned enough time. Do you remember the beginning of it all, way back in 1993? Over on the Macintosh, a game called Myst, which was basically a hypercard stack ("pile of slides"), raised quite a storm of interest. At the time, Cyan was known mostly as the developer of a little interactive world called The Manhole with no real plot or goal beyond exploration, but this was something different, surreal and strange, filled with mind-bending puzzles. Soon, this game was ported over to the PC, and they got to experience what Mac gamers had been toying with for two years, and the general consensus was positive. (The puzzles were a bit much for some.) Two years later, a sequel appeared, and that cemented it – this game was firmly on the forefront of graphical and audio technology. (The puzzles were still a bit much for some.)
A few sequels, a remake, a spin-off line of novels, and a company closing later, we're bidding the world of Myst goodbye. This is a hard review for me to write, because I find myself struggling to separate my own feelings from the ones the game evokes. I will say this, right up front: If you are a fan of the Myst series, then End of Ages will provoke a range of emotional reactions in you. Powerful nostalgia, mixed with a touch of sadness and hope for the future, occasionally made it hard for me to keep playing. The conflict of interests was incredible; I genuinely did not want to see how this game ended, and yet I couldn't stop myself from inching towards the end, puzzle by puzzle.
That's an endorsement, right there. Myst V draws the dedicated fan towards the end of it with careful homages and hints of what might be and what has been. It promises closure, and in some cases, it grants it. (A loose thread from the second novel was neatly snipped off, for example. I wasn't expecting that. I should have, from context.) However, and this is the great big however of doom, it also raises an awful lot of questions that will now not be answered. Don't you hate it when that happens?
All right, let's get down to business here. End of Ages opens with a letter from Atrus, the constant mainstay writer-character of the series. (As always, Atrus is played masterfully by Rand Miller. He's only getting better at this the more time goes by.) His daughter has forsaken him; his sons, well, that's a spoiler; and his only real comfort now lies in crafting his magical Ages, and even that has grown cold for him. He knows that soon, he will likely die as well. From this somber beginning, the game starts. The player begins in Atrus' old prison room (from the end of Myst), and it is quite clear that something is terribly wrong. Creatures scuttle in the shadows, the earth shakes and tears itself apart, and the finery outside his chamber has fallen into dust and crumbling stone. It almost seems that, while Atrus loses hope in his life, the worlds he crafted die with him.
Oh, and by the way, the old linking book to Myst Island is over in a corner. It's soundly padlocked. Damn.
In any event, wandering around outside the chamber will bring you to an oddly shifting dome and the first NPC encounter of Myst V. Yeesha, whom you may recall as the adorable young girl from Myst IV or the mystical nutbar from Uru, is now a rather brooding adult. She introduces you to the game's big gameplay gimmick, a chalky tablet you carry with you wherever you go. However, I wasn't paying attention to that at first, because there are a few other things she introduces you to as well.
Myst V is the first game of the series not to use human actors, choosing instead to go with rendered figures who pace in front of you and wave their arms about. The thing is that they did it well enough that it was halfway through the game before I realized these figures weren't human. Their facial expressions are perfectly natural-looking, the cloth of their outfits sway and move in the most realistic fashion I personally have ever seen, and it was only because I realized an actual human figure wouldn't show the lighting in an age so well or cast reflections in the nearby water with such clarity that I realized that these were rendered character models at all.
It's a good thing Cyan pulled off making the characters look so good, because End of Ages also introduces you to the concept that one of the NPCs (well, one specific NPC almost all of the time) can, at any time, simply walk in and start yammering at you. Sadly, the good writing of the journals in the series just doesn't extend to the monologues this character delivers. He's cryptic, rambling, and, frankly, boring.
Luckily, Myst V also introduces a free-looking camera; you can look in any direction at any time you like. Whenever Esher (the long-winded fellow) appeared, I'd stare fixedly at the scenery or at the flapping hem of his outfit, waiting patiently for him to take the hint and shut up. Unfortunately, much like real life boring people, he doesn't take the hint. Expect to kill large chunks of time playing End of Ages humming and tapping your foot through epic, vague-allusion-encrusted speeches. Esher's more than a little patronizing, more than a little fond of the sound of his own voice, and just happens to be voice acted quite well by David Ogden Stiers. You may also know him as Charles Winchester III, formerly of the MASH 4077th. When I think about it, that explains a lot about Esher's characterization.
Aside from Yeesha and Esher, there's another set of NPCs, but you won't directly see them. These are the Bahro, and they are the main reason you have the tablet. By drawing a particular sigil or series of symbols on the tablet, setting it down and walking away, you summon them to look at the slate and follow the meaning of whatever you've drawn on there. The tablet solves other problems for you as well; creative application of it will work out nicely. There are times, however, when you need to drop it to have both hands free, and since if you drop it in an unsafe place, a Bahro is going to come along and tote it back to its pedestal, the slate can cause more problems than it solves. Either way, you'd better get used to it, because this is going to be your major concern while wandering around the multiple ages present in Myst V.
Rather than focus on a single age, as many of the games before it have done, End of Ages attempts a broader feel by letting you roam willy-nilly through a decent number of ages. Each of those ages feels rather small and quite self-contained, however, so instead of the broad sprawling feel of Riven, I got a more disconnected sensation. Any time you like, you can essentially walk or link to somewhere utterly different from where you are. It can create a certain distance, a feeling of freedom from involvement in any one area.
Those areas are, of course, graphically brilliant. It's frickin' Myst, people, and the reputation precedes. I could go into detail about the dynamic lighting, reflections, the texturing ... but I don't need to. As it stands, Myst games are very much a benchmark for graphical captivation, and not a thing I can say would add to that. Audio is more than fine as well; the music and sound present is quite immersive.
As long as I'm on the subject of immersion, however, I'd like to mention that the technology I raved about in Myst IV (where your pointer can touch or tap on any object) is gone. I'm not sure why this got dropped, as I felt it added a sense of connection. Instead, your sense of connection must come from the ability to roam around freely. Since End of Ages is built on the Uru engine base, you can walk about easily in first-person mode. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of not being on rails, however, you can turn the node-based travel back on through the menu.
Basically, at this point I've covered everything except the puzzles and the general outline of the plot. There's a reason for that, and frankly, although it hurts me to say it, I feel that the series is going out on its lowest note. The puzzles are strongly tied into the tablet; in most cases, manipulating it is what you have to do to solve a problem. Otherwise, you'll be looking for some new ability for the tablet, or a new shape to draw on it. So much revolves around this new gameplay gimmick that I found myself sorely craving some old-style Myst puzzles to work on. Additionally, while this game tries to clear up all of the lingering questions, it raises more than a few new ones. There's enough new material presented and old material revisited, rapid-fire, that I wonder if maybe Cyan Worlds was saving some things for future games to dole out slowly, instead of packing it all in here.
In any event, that's what we have, and it looks like this is all there will be. If I may be permitted to wax philosophical for a moment, Yeesha herself brings up my main point in the game. She talks about her father Atrus constantly returning to Myst Island, his greatest work. He would add to it, refine it, tweak and twiddle and constantly add new ideas and areas. In the end, he works so hard at perfecting it that he ends up destroying it, huge areas left to rot and decay forgotten. All it takes to destroy a great work of art is leaving it alone with the artist long enough.
Myst V feels kind of like Adventurecus of Borg, so many ideas and parts and concepts all welded together into one great big clump of game that it's difficult to know where to even begin. In the end, the feeling of playing Myst V, much like the tone of the game itself, is rather bittersweet. This is an imperfect ending to the series, and yet imperfect Myst, I have to admit, is better than a lot of other games. I just wish I could look at this game and honestly feel satisfied with it, rather than feel kind of let down. It isn't the ultimate ending I'm unsatisfied with, mind you. It's just that getting there is only half the fun.
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