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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Riven

Riven (Game release date: 1997)
If you can stay awake through Riven's intensely boring gameplay, it will reward you with some of the best puzzles ever.

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Highlights: Challenging and incredibly well-integrated puzzles, remarkable set design Lowlights: Boring plot, slow and tedious gameplay, awkward slideshow interface

The first time I played Riven, in the late 90's, I never finished it. Now, I abandon computer games in the middle about as often as I walk out of movie theaters before the movie is done: practically never, in other words. A game has to be unplayably buggy or a real dog for me to bail on it--and Riven is neither. The puzzles are original and extremely well-integrated into the gameworld, which is incidentally the kind of well-designed alien planet you expect to see in a top-rate science fiction movie, complete with consistent architecture and a valid numerical system. The game is challenging. The attention to detail is high. The graphics are pretty. Certainly, Riven has some glaring flaws--a frustrating interface, lack of interactivity, characters you won't give a damn about--but all these flaws were shared by its predecessor, Myst. And Myst didn't sit on a shelf collecting dust for six years before I bothered to finish it.

So what's wrong with Riven? Well, only one thing, really, but it's a killer: Riven is boring. Myst evoked a sense of wonder by dropping you into the middle of a bizarre environment and giving you the unspoken assignment to figure out what you're doing there, who you can trust, and how to get home. There was something original about that, and it really encouraged explorative play. Riven simply hands you off to an expository old man with a beard who gives you a quest to capture a villain and rescue a damsel in distress. Ho-hum. There are no diverse worlds to explore, no information worth gathering, just a series of unlikely obstacles barring the way of your rescue mission. The gameplay is achingly slow (it doesn't help that the animations are so badly done that you have to wait for each one to finish before you get your movement cursor back again, either.) The puzzles are interesting and tough, but they also require lots of backtracking and brainless repetition to bring them to their conclusion. Never has the lack of an automap been so painfully apparent--how I longed for the old days of typing in "E,S,E,U,enter trolley,W,exit trolley,N,look," instead of wasting 15 minutes of my life executing this mundane maneuver!

If you like puzzles and have a healthy store of patience, Riven is a real diamond in the rough; few games today offer such clever and challenging puzzles, and Riven even has the grace to look really good while it's offering them up. I'm glad I found it and gave it another chance. There's more rough than diamond here, though, so be prepared to spend the bulk of your time playing Riven trudging mindlessly back and forth, swapping CDs in and out, and waiting with gritted teeth for your cursor to reappear so you can move on to the next screenful of well-drawn but empty beachfront.

Style: Riven 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: Riven is the second game in a trilogy (the other two being Myst and Exile). 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 Riven: You can still buy the original Riven CDs--for PC, Mac, or PlayStation-- 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 Riven to Work: Riven is more than twelve years old now, and like most games that age, it has its share of compatibility issues. 1) The original Riven CD does not work very well on XP, though you may be able to get around that by setting the program's properties to Windows 98 compatibility and reinstalling QuickTime from the game CD. If you can't get the sound working on your system you might as well not play; several puzzles and part of the plot rely on audio cues, and there are no subtitles, so it's impossible to even tell if you've won or lost the game at the end without hearing the voiceover. The DVD version works fine on XP so you shouldn't have to worry about any of this if you buy that. 2) Windows Vista cannot handle most games released before 2007, and the Myst games are no exception-- you'll need to run a Win98 simulator to run Myst or Riven on Vista. 3) If you're playing on a Mac, apparently Mac OS X has some problems running Riven-- there's an unofficial patch available here. 4) You may still encounter periodic game crashes, so save often.

Hints For Riven: I have a page of low-spoiler Riven 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 Riven Hint Book.

Pitfalls In Riven: There are no subtitles and several puzzles require audio to solve, including remembering and matching sequences of audio sounds and listening to critical spoken instructions on what to do next. Not a game for people with hearing problems, bad speakers, or noisy children in the house.

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

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated E (for everyone 6 and up) and has nothing objectionable in it, though the puzzles are much too difficult and frustrating for a kid to solve without adult help. Violence only occurs if you intentionally choose a bad ending (i.e. leave Riven without capturing the villain).

Lora's Riven Review: (Okay)

Plot and Quests: Riven's plot is dull as dishwater, there are no quests beyond the generic one you are assigned in the intro movie, and there is only one way to progress in the game (unless you count alternate endings triggered by doing something willfully stupid like seeing what happens if you trap yourself in your own prison book, which I don't.)
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: This is where Riven really shines, offering a plethora of complex and very challenging puzzles, most of which have fairly logical solutions and don't require too much suspension of disbelief. As a bonus, the puzzles are remarkably well-integrated into the gameworld. It's unfortunate that the interface hobbled so many of them by requiring long, boring circumnavigations between points to test predictions.
Characters: You don't have a character of your own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it lets you play the game as yourself and adds to the immersiveness of the experience. NPC's, on the other hand, are boring and non-interactive, at best issuing monologues at you that there's no way to respond to. It's hard to care what happens to any of them.
Gameworld: On the plus side, the Rivenese culture is presented as a believable whole, and the puzzles are well-integrated into the world around them (the gadgets actually seem like devices the locals were using for something practical before you came along to tinker with them). Unlike Myst, though, there's really only one world presented here (plus two add-on pocket dimensions that hardly count), and there's no way to lose yourself in it. You can't take a closer look at interesting features, can't do anything with useful-looking objects, and can't speak to any of the people. The gameworld is brilliantly designed, but it's not immersive at all.
Gameplay: The gameplay of Riven can be repetitively boring. There is only one way to interact with any given object, and only one solution to any puzzle; the intermediate time is spent wearily trudging back and forth between puzzle stages, which are inconveniently located dozens of screens apart. I found myself missing the kind of creative thinking required of me in Infocom games on a regular basis. 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: The interface is simplistic but ok. The biggest flaw is that clicking to the left or right will sometimes rotate you 90 degrees, and other times rotate you 180. This is very frustrating in a point-and-click game; the many unnecessary clicks slow gameplay down even further. There are no inventory issues since you have no inventory to speak of (you can only carry the linking book with you).
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): Riven's graphics are quite beautiful, particularly the water effects and the transportation animations; the slideshow presentation comes close to painful, though, particularly in combination with the non-interactiveness of the game. I felt like I was watching a PowerPoint presentation of somebody's island vacation on more than one occasion. The mood is satisfactory but falls short of the high mark set by Myst.

Lora's Recommendations: Riven has some of the best-thought-out puzzles I've ever seen in a computer game, but I can't honestly recommend a game that bored me so much I had to force myself to sit down and finish it. If you were really swept off your feet by Myst then you may be willing to overlook the tedious aspects of Riven's gameplay to admire its good parts, and if you're an avid puzzler you may want to give Riven a shot just for its challenging puzzles, but don't expect a repeat of Myst's absorbing gameworld.

If You Loved Riven: Then it's probably worth your while playing the rest of this series. Myst has worse graphics than Riven and its puzzles are nowhere near as clever, but the fun-to-tedium ratio is far superior and the gameworld has a real magic to it that none of its sequels have entirely recaptured. Exile has a much more interesting plot than Riven and wastes far less of your time as you progress through it, but the puzzles are disappointingly pointless and the gameworld isn't as well-designed as Riven's or Myst's. 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 was originally supposed to launch an online game or something like that. Uru remains as 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 Riven occasionally 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 Riven, 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 Riven could have on the adventure-game genre, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Enjoy the game!

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