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Riven | Review 59

Riven | Review

Classic Puzzler Shines in VR

Riven | Review 61
Release Date
June 25, 2024
Developer
Cyan Worlds, Inc.
Style
Adventure, Puzzle
Locomotion
Sitting, Standing, Roomscale
Length
10-14 Hours
Price
$34.99
Our Score
9
Get it on the Meta Store

Twenty-six years ago, Riven captivated gamers with its intricate puzzles and stunning prerendered visuals. As a sequel to the iconic Myst, it set a high bar for narrative-driven games. Now, Riven has been resurrected for a new generation, remade for VR on the Meta Quest and Steam. This review explores whether this ambitious remake has preserved and enhanced the original’s magic.

For those of you who have seen our review of Myst on the Quest (caption: we gave it a 9) from a couple of years back, you already know that I’m a book-carrying member of the Cyan fan club. In that review, I mentioned that the only real problem with Myst was that it was utterly eclipsed by its sequel, Riven. Now, the unthinkable has happened: Riven has materialised on the Quest and Steam, remade and rethought for VR and modern systems. I’m almost impossibly excited about it, but I promise you, dear viewers, that I will do my best to objectively analyse whether Riven 2024 is worth your time, money, and emotional investment. We will avoid spoilers for the plot or puzzles to the best of our ability.

A Link to the Past

I believe that Riven is one of the most important and successful titles in the history of narrative gaming. It epitomises the principle of “show, don’t tell.” It traps you alone in a beautiful, forbidding world where exploration and understanding are the primary rewards. There are mysteries to be solved, and each machine, lever, and room is an organic part of the world-building, context building upon context in a satisfying, thrillingly non-linear way. The original game was beautiful, intriguing, and immersive despite being presented as a series of static prerendered images. This remains a wonder today. Now, in the age of VR, the promise of Riven should be fully realised.

Age of Wonders

I have seen the opening scenes of the original Riven hundreds of times. I can vouch that Cyan has not only beautifully updated the graphics and gracefully replaced the live actors with motion-captured models, but they have also stayed true to the original performances and body language. The slightly dodgy 3D models of what were once real (but also dodgy) performers were the main sticking point of Myst in VR, but this is thankfully not the case here. When the cutscenes have played out and the game finally opens the door to the world of Riven, you’re free to explore Riven in full 3D for the first time. For me, that is a very emotional moment. It’s the difference between obsessing over a place through photographs for a couple of decades and then finding yourself there for real. I will preempt the rest of my review here and state right now that Cyan has utterly, definitively nailed it.

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D’ni, The Champion of the World

The original Riven is a masterpiece. The remake surpasses it in every way, and VR is the definitive way to play it. It’s so much more than just a new way to explore the world; like Myst before it, it’s as if it has been waiting for VR to exist. To virtually stand in beautiful environments that have hitherto only existed as barely animated stills is a dream realised. It actually makes the puzzle-solving so much more rewarding and substantial. A very early puzzle involves working out the rotation of a pentagonal room to make progress. Being able to stand in the room and physically rotate makes the logic of the problem a lot easier to parse. Peering through lenses and gaps for clues is a physical act in VR rather than a button press, and the islands of Riven have been subtly retooled to take advantage of the new possibilities of vantage points and perspectives not available before. The physicality of VR—such as pulling levers, pressing buttons, or opening doors—feels completely fantastic. Reading a book requires physically holding the book and flipping through the pages, which is crucial to the lore and setting. The ability to use both hands on a machine or gadget while looking around, a natural act in real life but impossible in flat gaming, is a necessity in the VR version of Riven.

Cyan Pride

All of this is what one might cautiously and hopefully expect from a developer with a duty of care to its beloved back catalogue. What truly impresses me is that Cyan has been fearless in daring to improve on the original title. They have introduced new approaches to puzzles and new mechanics, altered the topography of islands here and there, and added subtle narrative tweaks and touches that enhance the classic version. All the changes are improvements; some were made not just to bolster gameplay but to make the narrative sing a little more. To new players, everything will seem well-wrought and satisfying. To returning players like me, there are a hundred little improvements and changes that delight, intrigue, and occasionally astonish. Cyan has served their fan base well and provided a wealth of riches for those taking their first steps in this brave new world.

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Get the Book Out of Here

Riven is beautiful. The concern with any modern 3D remake would always be whether they could convey the same level of beauty as the original. For a 26-year-old game, Riven still stands up as astonishingly good-looking, the sheer quality of the prerendered world transcending its technical limitations. The folks at Cyan were kind enough to provide us with copies of both the Meta Quest and Steam versions of the game for comparison. Of course, the Quest will never compete with PCVR, and the nature of the game means it can’t draw from the same technical aspects as Red Matter 2. The PC version of Riven is utterly incredible to look at, bringing joyous new life to the game. Even with my gaming laptop running Riven at modest settings for VR’s sake, the graphics are wondrous.

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The Quest version is an eyebrow-raisingly decent attempt to convey the same content with some caveats. Firstly, of course, the textures take a hit, but some more so than others. It’s still a beautiful game, but some environments are a little fuzzy and muted. There’s occasionally a bit of glitching and pop-in, but nothing too aggravating. In some areas, the foveated rendering (the pixelation around areas towards the edge of the Quest lenses) is noticeable and a little distracting. But it’s the water that’s actually problematic, noticeably devoid of splashing effects at best and, in one area in particular, flat and glitchy, making the surrounding geometry appear off. The rest of the game is so lovely to look at, and these issues really stand out. They could be better realised. Overall, while the Quest version is never going to reach photorealism, it’s a beautiful thing.

The Cries of Strange Birds

The audio is my favourite part of Riven’s presentation. The sound design is peerless, from the atmospheric ambience of different locations to the creaking of boards and old metal and the clanking of ancient machinery. The fact that most of it remains unchanged from the original game is a testament to the effort and care lavished on every detail over a quarter of a century ago. Sound plays a possibly more significant role in the success of Riven than the visuals, and this becomes even more apparent in VR. Put on some headphones, and you can lose yourself entirely in this alien yet relatable and familiar world.

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Special mention must go to the music, a score that manages to be creepy, mysterious, and soothing all at once. Music is sparing and subtle but essential to the game’s fabric, underpinning everything with an unsettling, nagging sense of dread and wonder.

Familiar Patterns of Decay

There are a few things that could be improved in the current Quest version of the game. The glitches and pop-ins are a little concerning, detracting slightly from the game’s polish. While the use of VR is wonderful, and the additions to the game are completely welcome, the new inventory satchel could have been more organically realised. Many VR games use an over-the-shoulder motion to retrieve backpacks, which would be preferable to the button press here, making its absence a curious omission.

Loading times can be distracting and are the main thing that breaks immersion. While the lengthy initial loading process can be easily forgiven and forgotten, the long pause to take an in-game screenshot and bring up the menu is a drag. This might sound spoiled coming from someone who played through the original game multiple times and had to endure physically changing CD-ROMs between every island. However, the (short) loading screens during travel are unwelcome and jarring in VR. At least there’s a pleasant animation to watch while it loads.

My final gripe is that there needs to be a way to annotate the screenshots you take. A virtual pen to scribble on the screenshots and keep notes would have been a most welcome addition.

And So, I Close

Riven on the Meta Quest is, by far, the best puzzle and exploration game on the platform. It easily joins Resident Evil 4 on the winner’s podium for beloved older classics, given a new lease of life in VR. The care lavished upon Riven is considerable, presenting thoughtful armchair adventurers with a nourishing and immersive experience that will linger in the heart and mind long after leaving the headset. It’s been my favourite virtual world for half a century, and VR is the best and greatest way to experience it.

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Riven
TLDR : Summary
Cyan's VR remake of Riven is a stunning triumph, offering a fully explorable 3D world that enhances the original's intricate puzzles and immersive storytelling, making it the definitive way to experience this beloved classic and the best puzzle-exploration game on the Meta Quest platform.
Concept
9
Gameplay
8.5
Graphics
8
Audio
8.5
Longevity
8.5
User Rating0 Votes
0
Pros
Stunning VR adaptation of a classic game
Enhanced puzzle-solving experience
Thoughtful improvements to original design
Cons
Some visual glitches and pop-ins on Quest version
Loading times can break immersion
Inventory system could be more intuitive
9
Peerless
Get it on the Meta Store
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