Riven remake brings back a classic – Review – WGB

Riven is a remake of the classic 1997 puzzle game from Cyan Studios. This new version began life as a fan-made project that aimed to turn the original Riven into a full 3D game. Cyan caught wind of the idea but instead of going all Nintendo and telling Starry Expanse to shut the project down, they took over development, turning it into an official Riven remake. It was a somewhat divisive move as Cyan took over while the Starry Expanse team who worked so hard had to move on to other things. Cynically, I can’t help but think Starry Expanse was given an ultimatum: hand over the project to Cyan, or Cyan would get it shut down.

That’s speculation though, and perhaps Starry Expanse were happy to have their hard work made official. Whatever the story, this new version of Riven aims to bring the beloved game to a modern audience, but in doing so doesn’t sacrifice its reputation for being brain-meltingly hard at times. Changes have been, of course, mostly for the better, though a couple of them don’t hit the mark. Perhaps the biggest indicator of whether Riven (2024) is worth playing is whether you want a 1:1 remake because while it does stick reasonably close to the original, there are several big tweaks, a couple of removed pieces and some new puzzles.

Riven throws a lot at you in its opening scenes, immediately shoving you into a strange land at the behest of an equally odd man who doesn’t bother to introduce himself. Those who have played either the original Myst or its 2020 remake will know his name, but if you come into Riven without that past experience its dense intro will make even less sense. Here, says the game, are some baffling tools to help you rescue your wife from some evil (?) dude. Oh, and don’t forget that you’re witness to a murder and are now locked up in a small cell. Only for a few seconds though, because here comes a mysterious stranger to rescue you and then bugger off, also without bothering to introduce themselves. Okay Riven, seriously, what the ever-living fuck-a-doodle-do is going on!?

Review code provided by the publisher

That last bit is happening in my head because I haven’t played Myst in several decades. With the benefit of hindsight, jumping straight into Riven without refreshing my memory was probably a terrible idea. However, I can’t help but think it’s exactly what a bunch of other people will do because this new iteration of Riven has erased a chunk of its name. Riven: A Sequel to Myst was the original title in 1997/ But this newly minted version of Riven doesn’t mention anywhere on its Steam page that it’s actually a sequel. It’s a bewildering decision. I can only assume the developers want to avoid the trappings of it being a sequel for fear people won’t bother with it, but by doing so any newcomer risks feeling like they’ve jumped into the second season of a TV show. Perhaps some sort of recap would have been useful?

In Riven’s defense though, playing Myst will only slightly help with the sense of confusion. Your bewilderment is at least tonally cohesive with the game since the main character is also puzzled by the alien world he finds himself in. And what a world it is! Gone are the original game’s admittedly beautiful static images that you clumsily moved between like a picture book Now, Riven has been recreated in full 3D, allowing you to walk around freely, just like in any other game. This change alone is dramatic because Riven’s old system was slow and awkward. Now though, you can even gently jog around the multiple islands, soaking up the luscious scenery and strong texture work. This is a terrific-looking game, although sadly the old FMV sequences starring the original developers have been replaced by far less charming 3D models.

The gorgeous visuals and rich atmosphere are important because Riven wants to suck you into its world and its alien culture. It’s a puzzle game at heart, an often ruthless one, but what makes Riven special is how those puzzles are built into the world in an organic way so that you have to immerse yourself in the unique world. To solve the puzzle you need to first understand how Riven’s world works, even going so far as to learn its numbering system.

Instead of just remaking the game, the developers opted to change some aspects of the original design with the goal being to make Riven a tad friendlier to players. For example, some areas are now locked off until later on, whereas originally you could venture across almost the entire world which also meant getting involved in puzzles you couldn’t actually solve at the time. Now, you’re forced almost immediately into a puzzle, whereas before the entire first half of the game was devoted to a slow exploration of the world and information gathering. There are some entirely new puzzles to tackle, while others have been tweaked or had solutions randomised. A few changes are small – like pulling out a hinge to get through a door instead of crawling under it – while others are much larger and potentially controversial.

While it’s certainly easier in some regards than the original Riven ever was, this remake is still challenging. Solutions are not always apparent and will often involve doing things that have no immediate effect. Riven did that a lot in 1997, leaving you pondering whether a flicked switch actually did anything. It has a reputation as one of the most challenging puzzle games ever and for good reason. Unlike classic point-and-click puzzlers like Monkey Island however, the challenge came purely from smartly designed puzzles rather than massive illogical leaps of reasoning. The answer might not always be in plain sight, but when you eventually figure it out it’ll feel immensely satisfying.

There’s even a handy in-game screenshot system, letting you quickly review things and even add notes to the pictures you’ve snapped. This is the kind of game where you need to pay attention to everything, learn as you go and have a good memory because quite often moving forward means going back first. A pen and a notepad are invaluable tools on this journey which is a really cool feeling – I can’t remember the last time I felt like I had to take notes. These days, puzzle games will push you toward the answers which are usually nearby, but Riven has no problem with making you explore multiple islands to find an answer.

Could they have made this Riven remake easier and more accessible? Yeah, there are arguably a few features that could have been added to make solving the difficult puzzles easier while retaining Riven’s reputation as being a brain-buster. An optional hint system, for example, could have helped quite a few folk get their bearings rather than running headfirst into a puzzle, bouncing straight off and quitting the game entirely.

Another major change is the inclusion of VR support for anyone who fancies experiencing Riven in the most immersive way possible. I didn’t get a chance to test that though, so I can’t comment on how well it works. The community consensus seems to be that it works quite well, but it also takes a powerful rig to handle it.

In Conclusion…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If you just wanted a visually updated version of Riven that can run on modern hardware, this remake might not be for you because of how many changes have been made. Purists be warned. Personally though, while I played Riven waaaay back in my teenage years (and had to use a guide to do it) I don’t have enough attachment to the original to be concerned about the remake’s purity, nor is my memory good enough to spot every single new addition, alteration and detraction.

This is a great rendition of a classic game. The changes are so seamless as to be mostly unnoticeable, the new puzzles woven organically into the world just like the original ones. It’s gorgeous and still mentally challenging. It’s the tiniest bit easier in places but remains a puzzle game that will make you feel stupid until everything finally starts to come together. And who doesn’t like feeling stupid?

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