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Written by  :  Dave Schenet (130)
Written on  :  Jan 30, 2003
Platform  :  Windows

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The most difficult game of the trilogy... But oh, so rewarding!

The Good

First, the generic graphics-and-sound review:

Riven, as is to be expected, featured stunning graphics and sound effects for its time. But even by today's standards, exploring the islands of Riven is still a very pleasant experience. For the most part, the video sequences integrate with the pre-rendered backgrounds nearly seamlessly, with only minimal choppiness. I have a few problems with the graphics, however, which I'll outline in the next section.

Alright. With that standard stuff out of the way, lemme tell you a story.

I first played Riven back in '97 or '98, around when it was released. The game world was a blast to explore, but I quickly became frustrated by all of the puzzles. Very few of them seemed to make any sense; they were even worse than Myst's arbitrary puzzles.

I solved a number of puzzles, but none of the "major" ones. I didn't even know where to begin figuring out the Fire Marble puzzle (which, in fact, I stumbled upon by accident long before I was supposed to), and I had no clue whatsoever about the wooden eyeballs.

I shelved the game in frustration. Many years passed, bringing us to present day.

A couple of weeks ago, I re-installed Riven. I wandered about exploring, as I did before, solving the occasional puzzle. Then I started finding things I must have overlooked before. A notebook here, some symbolic images there, and entire areas I've never explored before. Then, suddenly, everything clicked. Everything started to make sense!

So this time around, I took copious notes. If I saw something that looked like a symbolic image, I sketched it out, whereas before I just thought "Neat graphic!" and moved on. Being older and wiser now, I had realised that it probably took hours to painstakingly arrange and render each individual screen in the game; the developers wouldn't put more textured polygons in the camera's field of view if the object didn't mean something. Armed with this new perspective, I proceeded to look at my surroundings with a lot more care, and proceed to bulldoze my way through the game's puzzles, many of which I never grasped before. I then went on to complete the game in short order.

Lemme tell ya, as I walked up to the Fire Marble puzzle again, knowing precisely what to do this time, I had a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. BOOYAH!

The Bad

As you've gathered by now, the puzzles in this game are HARD, much more so than Myst, or Myst III. Single puzzles are sometimes spread out all over the landscape too, which makes things even more frustrating. Take the wooden-eyeball puzzle, for example: you'll see these things all over the place, but unless you look around them very, very carefully you'll never figure out what to do with them. I practically figured them out by accident, when I accidently turned around and saw... The Symbol. "Oh, hey, so that's how this works! Neat!"

Additionally, as I've mentioned earlier, while the video usually integrates well with the backgrounds, it fails spectacularly when there's any large animation going on. For example, a switch or a lever moving won't cause any noticeable display artifacts. But when you're riding around in the inter-island transport system, your screen will turn into a washed-out, pixellated mess. You can sortof tell where you're moving, but the quality goes way down. Still, this is a very minor part of the game, since you don't really see video sequences of that size very often.

And finally, puzzles and video aside, my biggest gripe with this game is:

Please insert disc 2. Please insert disc 1. Please insert disc 3. Please insert disc 2. Please insert disc 4. Please insert disc 3. Please insert disc 2.

The game ships on five CDs, one for each island in Riven. However, since you tend to move around from island to island, you end up swapping CDs fairly often. There is no way to install the entire game to your hard drive, either - it's explicitly designed to look for actual CDs. However, there is... or perhaps, there was a DVD-ROM version of this game. I'd recommend tracking it down instead of the CD version, if anyone wants to play this old game on a modern system.

The Bottom Line

This game requires an enormous amount of patience. The way the puzzles are structured, you don't just need to know how to put two and two together to get four -- you need the ability to put one and two and five and negative three and six together, and get eleven.

Along your journey, you'll need to learn an alien numbering system, an alien system of color representation, learn the meanings of sounds, and analytically observe everything you come across.

Now that I've completed this game, everything in it makes sense (in its own way). The workings of the world are explained through notebooks you find as you progress. But it certainly doesn't start out that way; nothing in Riven is readily explained until you find your first notebook, which doesn't happen until some time into the game.

To summarise: die-hard puzzle-lovers will undoubtedly love this game, but I wouldn't really recommend it for the casual gamer. It's a brain-breaker, to be sure.