reviews

Review: Obduction.

Cyan, Inc., was started by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller in 1987.  Four years later they began working on the groundbreaking title Myst, which, together with its first sequel Riven, sold more than 12 million copies – making them the best-selling computer games of the 20th century.  It was a monumental achievement in gameplay and style, inspiring countless titles that followed in its footsteps, from The Journeyman Project to modern first-person puzzlers like The Talos Principle and The Witness.  The series fizzled out several years ago but has maintained a dedicated fan base – learn more about its history by reading this captivating history by AIR co-founder Shaun Jooste.  Even comedy favorite Neil Patrick Harris helped spread the word about Obduction‘s crowd funding, praising the Myst series and encouraging his Twitter followers to share and fund the project.  Now, 30 years after the Miller brothers launched their company, they’ve returned to the genre they pioneered and released a new title: Obduction.

So let’s get the Myst comparisons out of the way first.  Like its predecessor, Obduction brings the gamer a first-person puzzle-solving adventure set in multiple fantasy worlds, weaving a tale of conflict told by found handwritten notes and FMV-captured performances by both new and familiar faces.  Also returning are the types of odd vehicles and contraptions Myst is known for, including a very handy mine cart with a controllable laser-type tool, an upright coffin-like pod that carries you across a verdant landscape and more.  Finally, the landscapes and pathways are spacious, winding and beautiful.

Screenshot_04

If I ever had a hang-up about the Myst titles, it was that I wanted to look and move around in full-motion 360-degree freedom, but the technology of the day put horrendous limits on that.  Gamers today may laugh at the idea of a point-and-click movement system, but in the early ’90s it was the lay of the land.  Fortunately, game development tools and system processing power have come a very, very long way in 25 years and Obduction fulfills my wish.  No more tiny pre-rendered QuickTime video loops laid over still shots of environments to emulate movement, no more clicking and finding that you’ve turned 180 degrees when you want to see what was next to you.  Instead, the brothers Miller have delivered a fully real-time environment to explore.

And exploration is the name of the game.  Cyan have always provided lush and imaginative worlds for their audience to take in, and this is no exception.  From the American Southwest-style city of Hunrath (littered with buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries) to the jungles of Maray (futuristic alien architecture and devices appearing just seldom enough to enjoy its lush green forest), every inch of Obduction is a feast for the eyes.  Rivers and waterfalls flow, otherworldly bugs flutter past, enormous machines pump, floating bridges undulate.  The sound design in the game is as superb as the visuals, filling the environment with ambient sounds and weather effects during and between its intriguing and curious musical score (much of which is provided by Cyan co-founder Robyn Miller).

Of course to get there, you’ll have to use that gray matter and solve some major puzzles.  In typical Cyan fashion (in my experience), there are a few puzzles that are easy, a whole bunch that are challenging but fun, and one or two that are so difficult I had to look them up.  That’s not a knock against the game, though; I struggled with Myst’s maze-on-rails and Riven’s marble-placement map and most people I know told me it was just a matter of not putting in the time to figure them out.  In Obduction, there’s a part where you need to learn the base-4 numerical system and how to map it on an alien connect-the-dots graph.  Fantastic and rewarding stuff if you’re patient enough to do it, but I felt like I should use some help.  However, weird maths aside, Obduction is built so its puzzles are too fun to quit, and the end of each one is always in sight so as not to frustrate players.  Cyan excellently walks the line between excitement and difficulty in a way that only they can.

obduction screen

The other main mechanic in Obduction, which ends up serving to bridge the gap between exploration and puzzle-solving, is the “seed-swap” system.  A series of basketball-sized domes on pedestals are scattered throughout the worlds of Obduction and opening their simple metal casings reveals radiant glowing orbs of energy inside.  Activating these “seeds” will bring anything within its radius (of varying sizes from seed to seed) with it to another world and send whatever was there to begin with back to the first world in its place.  So if I’m in Hunrath next to some big desert rocks and I use a seed that takes me to Maray, a little piece of the jungle will take my place in Hunrath and I’ll bring myself and my dirt-covered rocks to Maray’s green landscape.  As I said, this not only helps you travel but ends up being an important component of puzzle-solving and story progression as well.

I did have the occasional framerate drop or momentary hang during my 15-hour experience with Obduction.  It’s clear that this is a high-performing and -demanding title, and I’ve heard other users express the same issues on ps4 and Mac.  However, it was never enough to ruin the experience for myself or anyone else with whom I spoke, so it’s a minor quibble.

So here’s the cheese:  You can pick up Obduction and see the complete realization of Cyan’s ambitions after all these long years, and wander through a gorgeous and striking set of environments, treating your eyes and ears and exercising your brain all along…or you can pass up on a lasting and truly unique adventure in a fleshed-out universe of juxtaposed cultures and races and wonder.  Your choice.

I’m giving Obduction a 9 out of 10.

AIR Entertainment was provided a review copy of Obduction by Cyan Inc.

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