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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Myst III Exile

Exile (Game release date: 2002)
A visually gorgeous game with an excellent storyline that unfortunately rarely involves the player.

Walkthrough page Buy This Game

Highlights: Compelling antagonist, interesting plot, logical puzzles, gorgeous visuals Lowlights: Contrived premise, artificial-feeling gameworld, distancing slideshow presentation

Ever since Myst, everyone and their brother has been scrambling to try to identify and recreate whatever it was that led to the puzzle-adventure classic's unprecedented popularity. We've seen a lot of forgettable clones, and learned a lot about what things weren't the key to Myst's success: first-person navigation around a 3D environment doesn't make a game special, an overtly mysterious mood doesn't make a game special, puzzles sticking out at every right angle don't make a game special. There was something intangible that helped make Myst a landmark game--a sense of wonder evoked by the combination of the detailed and atmospheric gameworld and a plot that unfolded only as you deliberately poked at it. None of the many games that followed in Myst's footsteps have actually succeeded at striking this same chord, but the most curious failures were the two sequels to the game itself. Riven brought the puzzles and gameworld detail to soaring new heights, but gave up on an innovative plot and gameplay. Exile, in contrast, offers up an interesting, provocative plot and a three-dimensional NPC, but gives up on the gameworld aspects. If you combined the integrated puzzles and breathtakingly detailed world of Riven with the compelling story and gorgeous graphics of Exile, you'd have one of the best games ever written. As it is, you have two good but unmistakeably flawed ones.

That's not to say Exile isn't a worthwhile game, because it is. But for all its big-screen sophistication, Myst III never achieves the same level of immersiveness that the original game, designed on a shoestring by two regular guys, attained so effortlessly. Nothing your character did in Myst was anything Everyman couldn't do, and so you could really feel like you were there. In Exile, your character is bounded--he's male, he has a backstory with Atrus, he has emotions and takes actions that the player has no input into and is unable to do things that occur to most gamers, like trying to converse with people. More troubling, it's hard to figure out why the player character he would ever be the protagonist of this story--which, though fascinating, involves the intertwined history of two men neither of whom is you. They should be challenging, talking to, and thwarting each other; the player's existence in this story at all makes no sense. The puzzles feel artificial and non-integral, too, and their rationales are contrived. After the wonderful ambience of the first two games--the sense of purpose behind every unusually shaped tool standing in every shed corner--this was a disappointment. Cyan Worlds did not produce this game, and creator Rand Miller was only minimally involved with its design. It shows.

And yet there are things this game did right that the original Myst didn't. The villain is complex and unpredictable, unlike the stereotypical psychopaths of the first game, and there is more than one path you can take in dealing with him. (He's also remarkably well-acted.) Exile's puzzles may not be integrated into the gameworld very well, but many of them are more logical and more challenging than the ones in Myst. The godawful navigation arrows, which sometimes turned you 90 degrees when you clicked on them and other times turned you 180, are gone in favor of a smoother interface. The graphics are amazing, the plot twists are interesting. Myst III: Exile is definitely a game worth playing, but unlike its renowned progenitor, you may have to manually suspend your disbelief to fully enjoy the experience.

Style: Myst III: Exile is a first-person puzzle-adventure game with a rudimentary point-and-click interface. The game is untimed and no appreciable manual dexterity is required. Combat and leveling are not elements.

Series: Exile is the third game in a trilogy (the other two being Myst and Riven). The 'plot' overarching the three is poorly done and of little importance, so it doesn't really matter which order you play them in, but the graphics and interface do improve slightly from game to game.

Finding Exile: You can still buy the original Exile CDs--for PC, Mac, Xbox, or PlayStation 2-- but a much better deal is the recently released DVD bundle for PC and Mac containing Myst, Riven, and Exile; not only does this allow you to buy all three games for a reasonable price, but it frees you of the additional time-consuming chore of CD-swapping.

Getting Exile to Work: I encountered no problems playing this game on Windows XP; reportedly it even works fairly well on Vista. You definitely want to play this on a machine with decent hardware, though (256MB of RAM and sound and video cards that can handle DirectX 9)--the "software rendering" option allows you to forego those requirements, but it's a very poor substitution and you won't be able to hear the characters' speeches.

Hints For Exile: I have a page of low-spoiler Exile hints up online, which makes some gameplay suggestions and helps point you towards any parts of the game you might otherwise have missed. If you're stuck on a puzzle, there is a really good hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on; you can also buy a Exile Hint Book.

Pitfalls In Exile: With the addition of closed captioning, this is the only Myst game that's really accessible to people with hearing problems or audio troubles. I encountered no critical problems during this game, but make sure you have a good savegame before entering the final "Narayan" Age, as there are several possibilities to die or lose the game there (even if you aren't deliberately trying to).

Game Length: 30 hours, about standard for a puzzle adventure.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated E (for everyone 6 and up), but there are several endings in the last Age that include scary and violent deaths, which I think the rating board must not have noticed. If you're playing with a young child, finish the "Narayan" Age without them first to make sure you know how to reach a non-violent ending before trying it with them on your lap.

Lora's Exile Review: (Good)

Plot and Quests: The storyline of Exile is excellent. This is the only one of the Myst trilogy of games that actually kept my interest with its plot. On the other hand, how the player character is dragged into this plot is terribly contrived--the story is obviously about Atrus and Saavedro, and you as player are shoehorned into playing Atrus' role for him in an awkward and implausible fashion that would make even the worst fanfic writers blush for shame.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Exile offers up some interesting, complex, and logically satisfying puzzles, but unlike in Riven, nearly all of them are obtrusive and illogical--math puzzles sticking up out of nowhere for no real reason, riddle solutions encoded into an unrelated diary from 20 years later, door-opening passwords revealed to any passersby with the wherewithal to solve a maze. Only twice in this game were there puzzles that evoked the sense of figuring out some kind of alien technology, as Riven did so successfully.
Characters: In previous Myst titles, the lack of a main character was innovative; removing a middleman, it let you play the game as yourself and added to the immersiveness of the experience. Unfortunately, in Exile, your actions and reactions are so defined and restricted that you feel like you're playing a 3rd-person character anyway, just one you are unable to see. There's also still no way to talk or interact with others in this game. The only saving grace is the villain Saavedro, whose character, while a bit over-the-top, is complex, unpredictable, and remarkably well-acted.
Gameworld: The genius of the first two Myst games, in my opinion, was actually the wonderfully detailed design of each environment. Every building, every object made part of an architectural and cultural whole on each new world we saw. Presto and UbiSoft, who picked up the Myst series from CyanWorlds, did their best to continue this legacy, but it's clear that the Miller brothers simply had a gift for this kind of artistry that couldn't be easily replaced. The five Ages of Exile are interesting, diverse, and certainly beautiful, but just don't convey the same sense of wonder that the worlds of previous Myst games have.
Gameplay: The gameplay of Exile can be repetitively simple. There is only one way to interact with any given object, and only one solution to any puzzle (with the notable exception of the interesting endgame sequence). Travelling across well-known terrain is slow and tedious, and the "zip" feature, which supposedly lets you skip some of these steps, is too rarely used.
Interface: Exile is a basic point-and-click game with 3D panning and tile-based motion. The interface is simple but serviceable, with one significant flaw: it's impossible to tell where any of the exits are onscreen, so you can waste a lot of time clicking around dozens of low, flat rocks in a river before you find the one the game meant for you to walk across. More tedious still, you may find yourself clicking on twelve different spots on the forest floor, winding up in front of the same tree each time, and backtracking twelve times, before finally clicking on a slightly different spot on the forest floor and winding up in a different part of the forest. This is the navigational equivalent of pixel-hunting, and all it does is slow the gameplay down and frustrate the player.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): This is one of the most beautiful games ever made; screenshots simply do not do Exile's graphics justice. On more than one occasion I found myself staring at the scenery in awe for a while before carrying on. The music is also good and very atmospheric. Despite the welcome shift to 3D, though, Exile is really still just a slideshow presentation. At one point in the game another character is running away from you, and as each new slide pops onto the screen, you have to sit and wait for the animation of the guy running across the scenery to finish before you can travel to the next slide. It's obvious you're never going to catch up with him simply from the limitations of the slideshow. This, as well as the non-interactiveness of the characters, frequently made me feel like I was watching a Powerpoint presentation rather than playing a game.

Lora's Recommendations: I recommend Exile to fans of the Myst series or the puzzle-adventure genre in general, but with a few reservations. Exile is a good game with an engaging plot and a memorable antagonist, but in contrast to the first two titles in this series, it often felt mass-produced rather than hand-crafted--and where it didn't, it often felt forced. At nearly every juncture I had the uncomfortable feeling that the authors wanted to be writing a movie about Atrus' redemptive journey to J'Nanin, and that I was just getting in their way and forcing them to write me into the plot somehow. If the game designers wanted me to play Atrus in the third game, then I really wish they'd just gone ahead and done that; it would have been more fun than this frustrating go-between thing. There's nothing less immersive than feeling like an unwelcome understudy. This game is not as good as Myst, and I'm not even sure its heart was in the right place. But it's well-written, well-acted, and easy to play; I had fun with it, and you might too.

If You Loved Exile: Then it's probably worth your while playing the rest of this series. Myst has worse graphics than Exile and there's no character in it even a tenth as interesting as Saavedro, but the gameworld has a real magic to it that none of its sequels have entirely recaptured. Riven has the best-integrated, cleverest puzzles of the series and a truly breathtaking set design, but its plot is intensely boring. The fourth Myst game, Revelation, is very much a retread, but it is worth playing if you really love the others. Unfortunately I don't recommend the fifth game, End of Ages, which was really awful; but you could try out Uru, a weird little spin-off of Myst that offers an interesting take on Myst from a different angle (3rd person graphic adventure). If you're really looking to recreate the sense of wonder the world of Myst originally inspired, though, my recommendation is actually the graphic adventure game The Longest Journey. The puzzles are much easier and less inspired than the ones in the Myst games, but this subtle, mystical epic moved me in ways it's hard to even articulate; there's little action, the gameworld is fascinating, and best of all, the characters truly make you care about them (the way only Saavedro really managed to in the Myst trilogy).

For a more detailed critique of the game involving spoilers, plot holes, and impacts Myst 3: Exile could have on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Enjoy the game!

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