Silent Hyrule

The culprit: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, GBA, Wii)

Did you know that Link was actually a pink bunny at heart? This is revealed due to the main mechanic of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, the third instalment of the Legend of Zelda series. The game sees Link travelling to an alternate dimension of Hyrule, in which all living things appear as their true selves. Ergo, the pink bunny. Which is meant to represent innocence. A bit ironic, considering a real bunny’s reproductive drive, but let’s not get into that.

So what do we have here? Well, ALttP is still one of the most popular and critically acclaimed entries in the series to this day, in the same category as Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild, and one which I’m personally very fond of. It also happens to be the first Zelda game I actually finished (the first game was far too difficult for me when it first came out on the NES). The graphics are detailed and cute, the gameplay is fun and makes good use of the various artefacts Link comes across, and many later staples of the series make their debut here. For instance, the concept of a parallel dimension to Hyrule ­– and not time travel, as the title seems to suggest – was a novel approach to the series at the time, but one that has been revisited since then (c.f. the two Oracle games, The Minish Cap or Twilight Princess). I was also very surprised to discover that this game is tied with OoT and A Link between Worlds for most dungeons in the series (12).

The chronology of the Zelda series is…complicated at best but suffice it to say that ALttP is actually a prequel to the first two games, and all three belong to one of the three alternate timelines that branch out of the events of OoT. Confused yet? Anyway, the story goes that, long ago, Ganon stole the Triforce from the Golden Land, turning it into the Dark World. Seven Wise Men managed to seal him away, but now an evil sorcerer called Agahnim is attempting to break the seal. He does this by kidnapping the Seven Maidens, descendants of the Seven Wise Men (Zelda is one of them) and sending them to the Dark World.

The game starts with Link waking up in the middle of a stormy night due to hearing Zelda’s voice in his dreams. Link’s uncle, whom he lives with, tells him to stay at home, while he goes to investigate Hyrule Castle (its first appearance in the series). You wouldn’t expect Link to listen, and he obviously doesn’t, finding a secret passage to the castle and following his uncle. He finds him mortally wounded shortly afterwards, takes up his sword and shield, and sets off to smite some evil. I.e. rescue Zelda, then the rest of the Seven Maidens before the seal is broken.

As mentioned previously, the main gameplay feature of ALttP is Link’s ability to travel between Hyrule and the Dark World. However, this doesn’t happen right away. Unlike the first two games, where Link was automatically understood to be the hero and just got on with the main quest from the start, in this game, he must first prove himself by collecting three pendants, each named after a piece of the Triforce. So the dimension-switching mechanic is only introduced about one third of the way into game. Nevertheless, it’s a clever gameplay feature. While living beings in the Dark World appear as their true selves (hence Bunny Link, at least until he finds an item that transforms him back), inanimate things appear as a twisted version of themselves. For example, Kakariko Village (also its first appearance in the series) is a den of thieves and monsters, the island in the middle of Lake Hylia is frozen over, and the Desert of Mystery becomes a swamp. Water is stagnant and green, trees have eerie faces, rocks become skulls, bushes become thorny thickets, and all enemies are upgraded. A bit like Silent Hill, but rather less gory.

Combat and exploration are back to the overhead view of the first game, making them feel more seamless. While a couple of bosses may prove to be annoying (looking at you, Moldorm), the overall difficulty is a lot less punishing than in the first two games, and you can now save properly. Link’s movement range has also been improved, and he can now walk diagonally and attack sideways. He can also charge up his sword to unleash a spin attack, which is twice as powerful as a regular attack and damages all enemies around him. There’s also a pair of boots which allows him to run. More importantly, ALttP marks the first appearance of the Master Sword, an Excalibur-esque blade stuck in a rock which can only be removed by the true hero of Hyrule, and which has since appeared in most subsequent Zelda games.

Another staple of the series which makes its debut in this game are heart pieces. While Link only collected whole extra hearts in the first two games, here, he can cobble together a new heart container every time he finds four heart pieces, which are hidden in various places throughout the game. Some even require you to make use of the dimension-switching mechanic, as terrain between the two dimensions is sometimes different in subtle ways. This is a nice way of adding some more optional – and sometimes challenging – content into the game.

A Zelda game wouldn’t be complete without the now-customary array of gadgets at Link’s disposal, and ALttP broadens his options quite significantly by comparison with its two predecessors. Alongside the usual suspects such as the boomerang, bombs and bow (alliteration ahoy!), he can now use things like a hookshot (for grappling onto things or pulling items towards him), a bug-catching net (mostly used for catching fairies, but has at least one other surprising use), a whole plethora of magic wands and medallions with different effects, or even an invisibility cape. Many of these make use of Link’s Magic Meter, which makes a return from Zelda II and will become a mainstay of the series going forward.

Music is another area of many “firsts” in this game, as several of the series’ most iconic tunes make their debut here, such as Zelda’s Lullaby or Ganon’s Theme. The quality of the music is obviously still rather tinny, but the tunes themselves are good at inspiring a sense of adventure, discovery and/or menace, as necessary.

All in all, this is one of the milestone games in the Zelda series, as it brings it significantly closer to its modern-day formula, much more so than the rather bare-bones first game or the decidedly atypical second one. The fact that it’s a fun and well-crafted adventure is definitely a plus. So if you’re a Zelda fan but haven’t had a chance to explore the older entries, this is one you should absolutely check out.

Trailblazer lost

The culprit: Uru: Ages beyond Myst (PC, Mac)

Hut in the skyI don’t think I will ever understand what possessed the makers of Myst to think that a multiplayer entry in the series was a good idea. Maybe this is just my inherent dislike of multiplayer speaking, but I’ve always considered the Myst series as the epitome of a personal gaming experience. Most of your time is spent exploring, gawking at scenery and thinking, and a great part of the appeal, at least to me, is being alone in a strange, otherworldly place, with just your wits to help you. There’s no combat and nothing that would be facilitated by the presence of another player. I guess you could bounce ideas off another person to solve puzzles, but the chances of you meeting a random player who hasn’t figured the puzzles out yet and is willing to team up to do so are slim at best. So what’s left? Sightseeing together? Surely you don’t need to create a whole game for that.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who thought so, as Uru: Ages beyond Myst, the fourth entry in the Myst series released in 2003, also proved to be its eventual death toll. The sales were so poor that they started Cyan Worlds, the developer, on a downward slope: the company almost closed in 2005, upon release of the final game in the series, Myst V, appropriately subtitled End of Ages. One of the main criticisms was that the online part of Uru…didn’t actually ship with the single-player version. The multiplayer content got delayed and eventually cancelled in 2004 due to a lack of subscribers, with the result that only the beta testers were ever allowed to try it out and sample what additional storyline there was. This was a massive failure of judgement on the developers’ part, which the release of the available online content as expansion packs barely mitigated. Some of the beta testers kept up their unofficial servers going, but they were unstable and didn’t feature any new content. Cyan got back on its feet somewhat in 2006, at which point content was gradually added until 2008, when more financial problems forced the game to go offline yet again, leaving the storyline in limbo. Finally, in 2010, Cyan released the source files free of charge, so that fans would be able to create their own content, and is now relying on donations to maintain the servers. The previously online-exclusive ages can now be played offline as well, with some help from a fan-made program called Drizzle.

Pink and blueParadoxically enough, fan support is the only thing that has kept Uru afloat throughout this snafu; they may not have been numerous, but they certainly were dedicated. All I really wanted was access to the online-only ages, and, with the latest resurrection of the online version, my wishes were finally granted. But was it worth it? I’m not sure. The ages are fun to experience, some are beautifully designed and some feature genuine brain-teasers as puzzles, but, overall, Uru distinctly feels like a lame duck. It suffers greatly by comparison with the previous entries in the series, as well as with its immediate successor, Myst IV. First of all, pre-rendered environments are gone, which dramatically affects the quality of the graphics. It’s not that it’s bad, but when you’re used to photorealistic detail, things in Uru feel a bit…plasticky, for lack of a better word. Secondly, the fact that you get to design an avatar for yourself also changes the game’s perspective. You can play in first-person view, but some puzzles are much easier in third-person. Besides, what’s the point of spending time and effort designing an avatar if you don’t see it in action? Lastly, and most importantly, the storyline that Uru introduces – to be continued in Myst V – is heavy on bizarre mysticism and only very tangentially related to Atrus’ history, another pillar of the Myst series, even though it features his daughter, Yeesha. So even after jumping through all the hoops necessary to experience a semblance of a coherent story and gaming experience, you might be left with a bitter taste in your mouth.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Letters to the dead

The culprit: Dear Esther (PC, Mac, via Steam)

Breaking the cloudsIt’s a little difficult to say what Dear Esther really is. On the one hand, it’s been presented and advertised as a game, from indie developer thechineseroom, but you’ll quickly realise that there’s not much actual gaming involved. I guess ‘semi-interactive art film’ would be a better definition. And I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t somewhat disappointing: I went in expecting some sort of Myst-like adventure, but ended up with something very different instead. However, I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t affected at all. Quite the contrary, actually, due to a mix of haunting music, lovely visuals and some heartbreaking writing, which all mesh together to form a peculiarly mesmerizing atmosphere.

Lone sentinelThe premise is simple, if somewhat mystifying, especially in hindsight. You are put in the shoes (read: first-person view) of an unknown character, appearing on a stone jetty in front of a lighthouse on a forlorn island in the Hebrides. The game greets you with a voiceover: a man reading a letter to the “Dear Esther” of the title. And from there, you’re essentially left to your own devices. Except that all you can do is walk. You can’t jump, you can’t run (that one can get especially aggravating at times, when you have long distances to cross), you can’t even interact with your environment. No picking things up or twiddling with buttons, levers or what have you. You do have a flashlight, but that automatically turns on whenever you enter a darkened environment. Player agency? Yeah, not the game’s strong point.

Not for the hydrophobicOne thing you can do besides walking is swim, but that only sees limited use in some specific situations. If you just try to swim off the island, there’s only so far you can go before the game–rather distressingly, I might add–forces you to go under and respawn on the shore. Which makes sense, I guess: that water must be awfully cold. That said, do try it out at least once. Trust me.

Within this framework, all that’s left for you to do is explore. Observe. Listen. And take in. The game is split into five main areas of uneven size (which are gradually unlocked for easy access from the main menu once you’ve reached them in the game), and while it Standing stonesdoes keep some autosaves, you can also save wherever you like. The voiced narrative is your guiding line, popping up at predetermined spots on the island. All excerpts of letters to Esther, explaining the backstory piece by piece. The developers did pull a neat little trick here, however, to add replayability. Several different texts may trigger at the same spot, and the game randomly chooses one. And no, you can’t walk away and come back to hear a different one: you’d have to reload a save or play the game again. This allows for a slightly different perspective on the story each time.

Lonely lightThe essentials are in place fairly quickly: Esther is the narrator’s wife, and she is dead. How she died, what surrounded and followed this event, and, ultimately, why you’re on this island (and exactly who the character you’re controlling is supposed to be), I will leave you to experience for yourself. Because this is the heart of the game. And it’s beautiful, if unrelentingly sad. If I had to criticize it, I would say that the language may seem a tad overblown at times, especially towards the end, where the cohesiveness of the narrative starts to–intentionally–fall apart, and the metaphors and images become rather extravagant. Some may say that this is the game trying to show off how artsy and poetic it is, just because it can. There’s also the fact that the ending offers very little in the way of answers, and you may end up more confused than when you started out. At this point, it all depends on how receptive you are to the game’s own brand of mystique: either you buy into it, or you think Eye in the skyit’s a load of hogwash. I’m in the first category: some passages moved me profoundly. In fact, I dare you to get as far as “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back…Come back…”, without experiencing at least a slight shiver.

Distant lightsAside from the emotional narrative, there’s the eye candy. The exterior of the island is bathed in an overcast, late afternoon light, with pinkish clouds slowly sailing across the sky, and the greyish tint of twilight beginning to settle on the forlorn landscape (it helps that this just so happens to be my favourite time of day). Besides the dilapidated lighthouse, there’s a beached cargo ship, the ramshackle remains of a hut and an aerial, blinking a red eye in the distance. Oh, and caves. Lots of caves. And, running like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout these surroundings, mysterious symbols–chemical formulas, electrical circuit diagrams, drawings–and a string of candles. Possibly ghostly figures, as well, if you’ve got a keen eye. And, accompanying all this, the music, all eerie violins and lonesome piano notes, never intrusive, occasionally goosebump-inducing, always poignant.

UnderworldOverall, I have mixed feelings about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I hesitate to qualify it as a game and feel slightly…cheated in that respect? I did spend time scribbling things down, in the hopes that they would come in useful later, to no avail. On the other hand, I’m not sure that added interaction wouldn’t have spoiled the overall impact. Because the lack of player agency becomes an integral part of the experience as you progress. Would the ability to pick up stray pieces of paper or bits of rock have added anything to it? Most likely not. Would puzzles even have made sense within the framework of the narrative? Again, probably not. So, really, I’m not sure that Esther could have been anything else than what it is: a nugget of condensed beauty, loss and sadness, defying classification. And I shall leave you with the game’s own words:

Fragile armada“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”

Very bad trip

The culprit: Sanitarium (PC)

Wake in frightI knew it would be difficult–if not impossible–for any game to match Amnesia in my horror charts, but that didn’t prevent me from continuing my search for inventive representatives of the genre. I can’t remember now where I first heard of Sanitarium–a fairly obscure effort by the now-defunct DreamForge Intertainment (sic) published in 1998. But hear about it I did, and its premise of a delirious romp through a man’s disturbed psyche intrigued me enough to pick it up from

The ‘delirious romp’ element is certainly there. You are put in the shoes of Max Laughton, a medical researcher, whom you first see leaving a hospital in a hurry, taking his car and making an excited phonecall to his wife. However, it’s a rainy night, Max is driving hard on a winding road, and his brakes end up failing, sending him over a railing and into a ravine. Welcome to the loony binHe then awakens inside what appears to be a mental asylum, with bandages all over his face and a serious case of amnesia. How he got there and why–a car accident doesn’t equate to madness, after all–, that’s up to you to discover. It quickly becomes apparent that Max’s environment is not real, and he wanders from one nightmarish vision centred on a common horror trope (e.g. children, aliens, body horror, clowns, insects, hospitals, ghosts, divine curses) to another, sometimes even finding himself embodying different characters. During these travels, there are short bouts of lucidity, and ultimately, the visions do provide the key to what really happened to him.

In urgent need of plastic surgeryThis is a fairly solid premise, and discovering the various scenarios that Max goes through is the main attraction of the game. Some are more successful than others–especially the two opening episodes and the conclusion to the circus episode–and while I wouldn’t say any of them are downright frightening, some are seriously disturbing. There are many graphic scenes, images and descriptions–blood, slime, corpses and body parts–, and even though the dated graphics and isometric view dampen the impact, I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re especially sensitive or squeamish. That said, I should put a word in for one of the final scenarios, where Max is put in the shoes of what is probably the last character you’d expect. The problem is that, as the plot unravels, you Stephen King would have a field dayrealize that the underlying storyline just isn’t all that compelling, and that while Max’s nightmares feel symbolic and get under your skin, you’re sometimes not entirely sure what it is they’re symbolic of. And while they’re interesting in and of themselves (certainly more so than the actual plot…), there’s really not much to connect them together, thus resulting in a disjointed experience.

Still, the atmosphere is properly eerie and gruesome, and the ideas are there. However, a game lives and dies by the execution of its potential, and, in this case, if the execution isn’t outright fatal, it at least leaves Sanitarium moribund.

QuestionnaireThis is a point-and-click game, and progress is based on an uneven mix of puzzle-solving and combat. Max can converse with NPCs to gather clues about his surroundings via a system that feels like a hybrid between Mass Effect and Final Fantasy II. Every interlocutor has their own list of topics or questions they can address, sometimes sequentially, meaning that discussing one topic will grant you access to another one. Max can also pick up a variety of objects, stored via an inventory system, which he will then use to interact with his environment. As for the uneven distribution between puzzles and combat, there are only two battles in the game. It seems that more were originally planned, but never made the cut, for some reason or other. This has a strange consequence. On the one hand, it feels like a jarring imbalance, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t think that combat is a necessity in a game. On the other hand, however, it’s probably just as well that there isn’t more of it, considering how painfully clunky the Want some pumpkin pie?controls are. It’s very simple on paper: you automatically enter combat stance and simply need to click on the enemy to attack it. But compound that with a moving target which you can’t lock onto and you have yourself a recipe for frustration. To make matters worse, the way movement is designed in this game makes it near impossible for Max to dodge incoming attacks. Granted, this is a bit of a moot point, since you’re allowed to save wherever you like and, if Max dies, he’ll simply respawn prior to the combat sequence. But you must still win the fights to progress, and this is, therefore, distinctly aggravating.

It only looks straightforwardTo clarify the movement issues: you pick a direction and keep the right mouse button pressed while Max saunters over to where you need him to be; he can’t run. This is already awkward to achieve, but he also has an outright maddening tendency to get stuck on corners or simply not move quite where you directed him. Having delved into the issue, I found out that this is apparently due to the programmers skimping on movement angles. Be that as it may, there are instances where this may make you want to tear your hair out, particularly during the finale, where you’re presented with a ‘walking’ puzzle involving shifting patterns and a timer.

When a game has no fatal flaws, it’s easy to overlook and forgive minor ones, like graphics or voice acting. When there is a fatal flaw, however, these small aggravations suddenly become so much weight to drag the game down further, and this is exactly what You talkin' to me?happens here. Stilted movements, plasticky-looking cinematics, pseudo-humorous credits, shoddy voice acting, it all comes to the fore. Max himself is the greatest offender here, with many of his lines sounding forced, overemphatic or gratingly whiny. Mind you, we’re not talking Valkyrie Profile levels of quality (or lack thereof) here, but then Valkyrie Profile had a lot to redeem itself. This game…not so much.

It's right next to Crazyville via Bonkers RoadTo sum it all up, I’d call Sanitarium more of a curio than a must-have. It starts off with good intentions–or at least original ones–, and there are moments of genuine creepiness and unease, but the delivery is so uneven that it mars the overall product. Ultimately, it feels a bit like watching a bunch of B-movie excerpts: entertaining, perhaps even intriguing, but overall sloppy and inchoate.

Unforgotten, unforgiven

The culprit: Myst III: Exile (PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation 2)

After Riven, the Myst series changed hands, with both a different developer and a different publisher (Ubisoft), and Myst III: Exile went back to its roots. Instead of one very large age and two tiny ones, there is now a hub age and five smaller ones connected to it. Moreover, after the Gehn parenthesis, the story returns to its root villains, Sirrus and Achenar, or rather, the direct consequences of their actions in the first game.

Curious architectureThe problem is that changing developers is always risky. Some people were disappointed with the return to a Myst-like exploration scheme, after the evolution effected in Riven, but as this kind of hub-based exploration has since become the staple for the series, it’s Riven that now stands as an exception. Of course, this is largely what makes it the best game in the series, in my eyes, but no matter. The other controversial change is a more…‘gamey’ approach to things, for lack of a better term. Many felt that the puzzles were less integrated into their environment than they previously were, and that the game was overly intrusive in pointing certain things out. While that may be true in comparison to Riven, which has been criticised for being overly subtle, I don’t feel it’s accurate in comparison to, say, Myst. In fact, considering the in-game reason why the ages in Myst III were created, I feel that the puzzle presentation makes complete sense. I also feel that it justifies the ‘reward rides’ which conclude three of the ages. Another noticeable change lies in the soundtrack. Robyn Miller, who was responsible for the music in the first two games, left the team after Riven and was replaced by a certain Jack Wall, who has since achieved fame by working on the Mass Effect series, Call of Duty or Splinter CellMyst III was his breakthrough, and its soundtrack is therefore a lot more dramatic, elaborate and noticeable, which may have been jarring for some. I can certainly see where they’re coming from, but some of the tracks are very good.

The end result is that Myst III wasn’t as commercially successful as its predecessors, which I don’t feel is entirely fair. I genuinely enjoyed the game: it’s my second favourite in the series, and I would even rate it above the original Myst. It notably features my favourite age of all, Amateria. Graphical improvements are apparent, which, in a game so heavily dependent on outstanding visuals to create its worlds, can only be a good thing. While the point-and-click movement scheme of the preceding games is retained, the ‘slideshow’ look isn’t. Instead, you now have a 360° (or almost) camera, which allows for unbroken perspective at every in-game node; some people have termed this ‘bubblevision’. And last, but not least, the game benefits from a solid storyline and a fantastic, ambivalent villain. In short, I can only recommend it.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

State of grace

The culprit: Journey (PlayStation 3, via PlayStation Network)

The beginningIt’s seldom that I’m blindsided, swept away and awestruck by a game. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Journey, the latest offering from indie developer Thatgamecompany. Having downloaded it upon a friend’s recommendation, I started out with little more than idle curiosity, only to be promptly and thoroughly spellbound. It’s not a stretch to say that this is one of the most stunningly beautiful games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play and a uniquely emotional experience in its own right, made all the more powerful by the fact that it doesn’t contain a single spoken word. Simply put: it goes straight for the heart.

The game opens on a sweeping vista of a desert; glittering sand as far as the eye can see, inexplicably dotted with a multitude of gravestones, while a lonely cello spins out a thread of melody (“Nascence”). Then what looks like a shooting star goes streaming across the sky, Sandy munchkinlanding beyond one of the dunes. The next thing you know, the camera pans down to reveal your character, sitting cross-legged in the sand, as if meditating. This queer little figure in a long red cloak is immediately sympathetic in and of itself, with its glowing white eyes, shadowy face and what appear to be small pointy ears peeking at the top of its hood. As you pan the camera around, a dune with two gravestones on top comes into view, and climbing it reveals your goal: the silhouette of a mountain with a cloven summit looming ominously in the distance. As for the purpose and meaning of this journey, that’s for you to determine. The game doesn’t give any definite answers.

First stepsThe gameplay is very straightforward, yet elegant. The first notable thing you come across after descending the initial dune is a shining white symbol on top of a small ruin. Approaching it has the effect of creating a short strip of cloth with glowing embroidery at the back of your character’s hood, like a short scarf. You’ll also notice more strips of cloth fluttering above the symbol. The scarf enables your character to fly (by flapping their cloak like wings), as long as there is embroidery remaining. When it runs And whee!out, approaching the aforementioned fluttering strips of cloth will recharge it, and you’ll notice several clumps of them dotted around the landscape. Moreover, finding more white symbols will gradually extend the scarf, thus allowing for longer bursts of flight, which is an infinitely more graceful means of locomotion than running around on spindly little legs.

Strips of cloth come in a lot of varieties, from small patches like the ones you encounter at the beginning, which resemble schools of fish, to long, seaweed-like bands and other living creatures which appear to be entirely made of cloth. They all Encounterhave aquatic characteristics, and, indeed, after a while, it seems more like your character is swimming rather than flying. Anything made of cloth will also recharge your character’s scarf. The most common type of creature vaguely resembles a dolphin. They emit soft chirping noises, tend to travel in packs and will occasionally carry your character on their backs, if asked.

Singing in the sandAsked? Why, yes. I did say there wasn’t a single spoken word in the game, but that doesn’t mean your character is mute. Pressing O will make them sing a note. The longer you keep O pressed before releasing it, the louder and stronger the note. This has various effects: it will call any nearby cloth creature for assistance, and, more generally, serves to interact with any cloth construct you encounter. Moreover, if you’re an inquisitive explorer, you’ll come across several murals which appear blank at first glance, but will reveal carvings or glyphs when ‘sung’ to. These might not make much sense at first (not the first one you find, at least), but they help to establish the game’s backstory.

Lady in whiteSpeaking of backstory, there’s another, more straightforward means of filling it in. The game is subdivided into several stages or levels, punctuated by platforms with a statue of a robed figure which looks a lot like your character. Interacting with these will trigger visions describing how the desert and the ruins came to be, as well as allowing you to progress to the next stage of the journey. It’s a simple, but all-too-sad tale of paradise lost, and every vision is steeped in a regretful, nostalgic aura.

Deep blueBoth of these feelings permeate the game, which isn’t to say that they’re the only ones. Every stage of the journey has its own look, dynamic and prevalent emotion associated with it: wonder, awe, empathy, exhilaration, fear, enchantment, determination, as well as both hope and despair. And all this is achieved exclusively through exquisite visuals and sound. Austin Wintory’s music meshes in seamlessly with the environment and events, the prevalence of strings creating a poignant general atmosphere. Graphically, colours are vibrant, movement is fluid, and the omnipresent sand ends up becoming an entity of its own, more akin to water. You may notice that your character ‘surfs’ down steep dunes, and there is an absolutely breathtaking episode involving what can only be described as Stream of golda rushing river of sand, turning to liquid gold in the sunlight. This is immediately followed by a trek through some menacing, dark tunnels with a decidedly aquatic atmosphere, even though there isn’t a drop of water involved, culminating in a luminous swim through the air. And the final sequence…well, I’ll just leave you with the word ‘transcendental’.

Once you’ve finished the game, the first level becomes a hub: you can access any stage from the circular arena right before the first vision statue. Moreover, a group of stones on the lower right of this arena keeps track of all the white symbols Ghostlyyou’ve found across all playthroughs. Should you find all 21, a clump of seaweed-like cloth will appear nearby, enabling you to turn your character’s cloak white (like the figures in the end-of-stage visions). This white cloak has a longer default scarf, which also regenerates automatically, thus making your character more autonomous and more mobile. What’s more, every time you finish the game (up to three), more embroidery is added to the regular red cloak.

Journey has another peculiarity: you can play it offline or online, and depending on which you choose, it will be a vastly different experience. If you play offline, you’ll obviously be on your own. If you play online, you will run across other characters during your explorations. Outwardly, they look exactly like your own, give or take some embroidery or a white cloak. Other than that, you have no clue of who they are and no Travelling companionsmeans to interact with them except by ‘singing’. While this may appear awkward and restrictive at first, you’ll quickly find that a wordless camaraderie tends to develop on its own, based on that most primal of sensations: the feeling of another living creature keeping you company. There’s even a physical manifestation of this, as walking close together will enable your characters to recharge each other’s scarves. If you manage to make it all the way through the game with one person, that companionship will definitely be both valuable and welcome in the final stages. I was even surprised at how distressed I was to lose my first companion at that point, although this may have also been due to the circumstances in which it happened. A list of the usernames of every person you bumped into during your journey is displayed after the credits roll, but there’s no indication of who was which. Overall, this upholds the impression that you’ve just shared something universally human with a stranger. That is, of course, provided the people you encounter do travel with you; some will just run by on their own merry way. As a side-note, if you are with a companion for the final end-of-stage vision, it will reflect that fact, which I found to be a thoughtful little detail.

GloryAll in all, I have no real criticism about Journey. Of course, your mileage may vary, and you may find it too short, too cryptic, too contemplative, too simple, too restrictive in terms of online options or even lacking long-term replay value. I, however, was left with nothing but a warm, bemused melancholy after the credits finished rolling…and after the wave of goosebumps I got from the song which accompanied them (“I Was Born for This”) subsided. And if only for that, I’m happy to have had this experience. A truly unforgettable game.

Fulfilling great expectations

The culprit: Riven (PC, Mac, PlayStation)

Riven had some pretty big shoes to fill, as the sequel to one of the most famous games ever made. And I’m happy to say that, not only did it successfully match its predecessor, but actually trumped it in every respect, resulting in my favourite game in the Myst series, an opinion shared by a large portion of the fanbase. And this despite the fact that it adopts a mostly linear structure which would not be reused in subsequent games, thus making it something of a standalone in the series. Be that as it may, between its release in 1997 and the release of Myst III in 2001, Riven sold over 4,5 million units. Doesn’t quite match Myst’s 6 million, but it’s close enough to indicate a successful sequel.

In terms of gameplay and presentation, Riven is very similar to its older brother, but its scope is much greater, despite mostly taking place in a single age. Sounds paradoxical, but this titular age, on its own, is four to five times as large as a single Myst age, which, in a series so heavily based on creating immersive worlds, is something I can only applaud. The graphics have greatly improved, which also helps with immersion and creates a deceptively peaceful atmosphere with a disquieting undercurrent. If you get the feeling that you’re being watched…well, that’s probably because you are. Overall, the storyline is darker than its predecessor and has greater urgency to it, but also a significantly stronger backbone, culminating in a momentous, satisfying conclusion. With Sirrus and Achenar out of commission, the Stranger now has to deal with the fact that they lured their mother away to Riven to make trapping Atrus easier. Needless to say, it has resulted in a pretty big mess. Puzzles abound, just as they did in Myst, but they are more complex, more numerous and probably the most organically integrated in the entire series. This also fits the theme of the game, conveying the feeling of a cohesive structure attempting to hold a disintegrating world together (there’s a reason it’s called Riven).

Riven has never been remade, which I find to be a distinct shame. None of its successors have been remade either, but they either have free roaming or a 360° camera, none of which Riven has. Which means that, since the release of RealMyst, it’s the only game in the series which is still restricted to its original slideshow presentation. There is, however, an ongoing, fanmade project called The Starry Expanse which intends to remedy that. I hope it comes to fruition, but even in its original form Riven a wonderful, beautiful game, and if you enjoyed Myst, you are pretty much certain to love this one too.

Detailed review available! Read more here.

Saving Neverland

The culprit: Myst (PC, Mac, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS)

Myst was a surprise to everyone when it saw the light of day in 1993: to the public, who didn’t expect such a unique experience, to the industry and critics, who were baffled at how what was essentially an “image slideshow” could garner such success, and to its developers, who certainly didn’t expect their offering to become the best-selling PC game for almost 10 years, up until 2002.

To this day, the Myst saga remains one of the most famous and iconic game series, despite having seen its last instalment in 2005. With its characteristic style and atmosphere, which has since been widely copied, its intelligent, inventive and organically integrated puzzles, its trademark gameplay feature of books literally whisking the player off to different worlds (or ages, as the game calls them)–a smart and rather poetic metaphor for imagination–, and its storyline, bolstered by three books published in parallel to the games, which uses the fate of one family as a stepping-stone to explore the history and heritage of an entire civilisation, it stands tall among other adventure games. I’ll even take it one step further: this is my favourite game series, full stop. The name of this website should be ample evidence of that. So unless you’re 120% certain that the premise will not work for you, I’d urge you to give it a try.

If there was one word to define the entire saga, it would be ‘immersive’. No other game has given me the impression of ‘being there’ quite like this, made me wonder whether it would be warm or cold, how the breeze would feel, what the texture of the stone would be or what the plants would smell like. It’s a rare occurrence when the environment is so beautifully crafted that you’d simply be happy to walk around and take in the sights for a while. Everything conspires to engage your senses, pique your curiosity, encourage you to explore every nook and cranny to try to ferret out clues, and stimulate both your intellect and imagination. Obviously, if you’re expecting action, shootouts, acrobatics…or even lots of dialogue, you will be disappointed. This is an eminently solitary, contemplative, atmospheric and slow-paced experience, designed to make you think, feel and piece things together at your own rhythm. But then, the human mind is a wonderful tool, and when that is being put to work, beautiful things can happen. This is clearly what the developers were banking on, and, in my opinion, they’ve definitely succeeded.

Still, objectively speaking, the first game is far from being perfect, especially in its original form. In comparison to its successors, the graphics are dated, the scope feels fairly limited, the puzzles are rather simple, the age names are throwaway, and the ending is comparable to a wet firecracker. This is all a first-comer’s prerogative, however, as the subsequent entries in the series clearly try to address these issues (and mostly succeed). A remake titled realMyst was released in 2000, and while it only addressed graphical and interface issues, it did so remarkably well. The updated graphics are beautiful, and if that wasn’t enough, a day-and-night cycle and free roaming have both been introduced. It was a bit of a chore for most computers to run, back in the day, and nowadays, will probably not run on newer PCs without some tweaking. Another remake called realMyst Masterpiece Edition was released in 2014, and that one does run on newer machines. It was designed as the definitive version of the game, and while it does come really close, it still has some issues. Nevertheless, it’s the most accessible and easily available version of the game, so probably the one you want to go for.

Detailed review available! Read more here.