Pros: + Beautiful environments and lighting + Excellent sound effects and voice acting + Great soundtrack + Compelling puzzles +Sense of reward upon completion or discovery of new pages and areas + Faithfully captures the essence of Myst in full 3D + Rich, mysterious story
Cons: – Awkward third-person controls – Poorly realized online content – Stiff, awkward character animation – Shallow character customization – Inability to pick up items makes some puzzles a chore – Not much replay value
Though its popularity has no doubt diminished with time, the Myst series is one of the most successful franchises in gaming, selling millions of copies over the years. Sometime around the turn of the century, Myst’s mainstream popularity began to dwindle. Uru: Ages Beyond Myst is a series reboot by Cyan Worlds, featuring an original story and a new 3D engine.
Despite taking place within the canon fans had come to know, Uru, like realMyst before it, uses real-time rendering in the place of the pre-rendered environments most of the other games have. This gives Uru a very different atmosphere from its predecessors and allows for much better use of sound and lighting. It’s also the first and only game in the series to take place in the third-person perspective. Myst’s fanbase remains divided on Uru, but the game’s earned a devoted following all the same.
Uru’s story begins under the premise that an ancient city of the lost D’ni civilization is discovered in New Mexico. The fate of the inhabitants is largely unknown, but details come to you over the course of the story via audio logs by the enigmatic Yeesha (the daughter of Atrus, whom many Myst fans will recognize) as well as detailed logs of D’ni history left by the D’ni Restoration Committee, an archaeological expedition dedicated to the city’s restoration and repopulation.
The rich history of D’ni is entirely optional for you to explore, but the good folks at Cyan Worlds, as always, have written a wealth of detailed folklore and history for the fallen civilization. You can skip reading all the journals, but the lore is fascinating and provides you with not only context to frame the story and give you a better sense of the civilization you’re working to rebuild, but also with hints for the game’s many complex puzzles.
Uru’s gameplay centers around the same basic principles as the rest of the series. You enter a strange, beautiful world (or Age, as the series calls them) and uncover clues to solve complex puzzles and advance toward your goal. Progression slowly reveals more details about the troubled past of the D’ni empire and the events surrounding its eventual collapse.
Exploration and puzzle-solving give you a great sense of reward. In one early Age, you’re tasked with exploring a defunct factory. Early on, the facility is totally silent, but as you reactivate machinery and open new areas, the silent complex comes alive with the screeches and groans of ancient equipment. Another Age starts you off inside what appears to be a stone temple. As you make your way higher into the structure, you discover that the entire building is rotating, eventually using this to provide power to an elevator that takes you to the roof and reveals the massive jungle in which the spinning fortress is located—and an even larger tower directly adjacent to the one you’re on. Little moments like this give you a great sense of scale and push you to explore more and more to find out what’s next.
As you press on, you’ll encounter puzzles that vary in complexity from simple logic to intricate mechanisms that test your problem-solving skills in increasingly obscure and fascinating ways. All these puzzles are integrated seamlessly into their environments, as are the hints you’ll need to solve them. Again, this is pretty standard Myst fare and really speaks to the creativity behind the development team. One example features an art gallery that serves as a companion to a vault Age containing a deceased noble’s riches; this gallery’s various works of art are all cryptic hints to the vault’s numerous puzzles, which serve as a security system.
Besides puzzles, your main objective is finding Journey Cloths, seven mysterious tapestries scattered throughout each Age. As you find the cloths, the glowing hand symbol on their face will glow to indicate how many you’ve yet to find. When you find a new cloth, it acts as a check point in the Age. If you fall into an inescapable pit or some kind of death trap, you’re immediately taken back to your hub world, a floating island called Relto, from which you can link back into the Age and (hopefully) not mess up again.
Unlike previous entries in the Myst franchise, you have virtually no inventory. Apart from a Linking Book, which you use to return to your Relto island, and the KI, which functions as a camera and GPS to save hints and find hidden items, your only “inventory” is your wardrobe, which features customizable clothing. While this bucks the often annoying trend in adventure games of having dozens of one-use-only items that are often only vaguely related to puzzles, it also works to your disadvantage in a couple of puzzles that require you to move objects into position or use them to form makeshift bridges. What this means is that you have to spend an unreasonable amount of time moving objects around by nudging them with your feet instead of the obvious solution of picking them up and placing them in the necessary locations.
The “tank controls” don’t help that strange design choice, as they’re not suited for precision movement or manipulation of objects. Because of this, some of the object-manipulation puzzles can quickly become frustrating. While there are only two of this particular type of puzzle and neither is particularly challenging, the control scheme was dated in games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and time hasn’t sweetened it.
If Uru’s graphics were its sole selling point, it would still be worth it. This game is very, very pretty, due in large part to incredibly detailed textures and outstanding art design. Particularly surprising about the impressive visuals of this game is the fact that it’s only the second title in the series to be rendered fully in 3D, after the “director’s cut” realtime remake of the original game. Some of the Ages are small and limited to a single “room,” while others are positively massive and make great efforts to give you a sense of scale. Even in the huge environments, the framerate stays smooth.
The surreal environments are varied nicely and all have their own unique visual style. The industrial Teledahn is perpetually in twilight on a vast sea. Misty crags and skyscraper-sized trees conceal Kadish Tolesa’s ruins. The fortress of Gahreesen is nestled in a lush valley amidst a dense jungle. All of these Ages have their own identity and color palette that make them easily distinguishable from one another, but there are minor consistencies in things like architecture that tie them together.
The graphics aren’t without their drawbacks, however. Some Ages can take a long time to load and occasionally suffer from textural pop-in on higher settings. You’ll also encounter some occasional bizarre physics glitches, such as objects continually moving as if being nudged back and forth.
The biggest chink in the armor of Uru’s otherwise outstanding visuals is third-person avatar (the first and only instance of this in the series) you create at the beginning of the game. Though you’re given a decent amount of options for customizing his or her appearance, some of the physical attributes you can alter look very awkward, such as an overweight character’s body mass going entirely to his or her stomach, giving them a ridiculous beer gut. The facial options are a little better, but no matter how you tinker with your avatar, they always have a not-quite-human appearance. Avatars also don’t animate very well, and their running animations look stiff and clumsy. They also have a way of sidling up to objects with which you can interact in a very unnatural way.
Even better than Uru’s visual design is its incredibly lifelike sound. Heavy machinery grinds to life as you progress, sounding totally realistic as it fades in and out as you approach or leave. Sounds of wildlife and wind echo and distort realistically as you round corners or walk in and out of rooms. Water sloshes and gurgles as you trudge through it.
The voice acting, though it’s heard only so often due to the lack of characters to interact with, is very good. Series staple Atrus narrates the beginning with a warning to his missing daughter, Yeesha. Yeesha’s audio and holographic logs you encounter ominously detail and deride the history of the D’ni, coldly condemning their actions while hopefully imploring you to continue your journey of discovery. Her first message to you begins in another language, whereupon she interrupts herself and starts over in English. Another recorded informal speech by a DRC member convincingly has the speaker pause to say, “Um,” going off on a brief tangent and coughing here and there, which adds a subtle touch of realism.
You don’t hear much of the soundtrack, and that’s a shame. The brief soundtrack contains some of the most gorgeous and original music in recent memory, blending traditional African music with country and European classical elements. The result is unlike any other soundtrack out there, so it’s unfortunate that it was so understated.
The main story is a fairly short 10 hours (give or take), making the game feel a bit incomplete, but there are two expansions that add 2- to-4 hours of gameplay each. Beyond that, there are a lot of hidden areas that contain new clothing items and additions to your Relto hub world (like a waterfall, trees and a music player). That’ll only hold you for so long, but the extended story and two additional Ages make for another fun outing that extends the value.
Uru featured an online component, but it was unfortunately realized pretty poorly. There wasn’t much interaction and it seems like the online was only added as an afterthought or for the novelty factor. You could explore Ages with friends and visit each other’s customized Relto islands, but there was really nothing in it for you if you didn’t. A nice idea in theory, but in practice it just didn’t do anything for the game. The game really could have benefitted from complex cooperative Ages built from the ground up for two or more players, but no such effort was made.
Despite a few minor visual blemishes and some bizarre gameplay choices, Uru is a fascinating entry in the venerated series. High production values and a compelling narrative help to alleviate some of the pains of dated controls and a couple of annoying puzzles. Uru is well-made and you can tell a lot of thought went into its design, but a couple control issues and a feeling of incompleteness hold it back.