Riven (Remake) Review — Found in Translation

8.1/10

Riven is still one of the best puzzle games of all time, with challenging puzzles, an intricate plot, and a gorgeous world that all fold into each other in great ways. It's a wonderful experience, except for how slow it can be at points. As a remake, the full 3d movement and stunning new graphics add a lot, though replacing the FMV cutscenes with in-game cutscenes does pull away some of the game's original charm.

I never played Riven. When it came out, I was 1, and by the time I had developed the ability to play video games, I was in it for a lot more bombastic action than Myst, Riven, or any of the other sequels provided. Even years later, now having a fondness for puzzle games (and another excuse to extoll the virtues of the Talos Principle 2), I never went back and played those classic point-and-click adventures that so many people swore by. So yes, I never played the original Riven.

But my dad did, and I watched. It was one of many games I watched him play, before he drifted away from the hobby. DOOM, Alone in the Dark, the original Baldur’s Gate. Even Myst. Others I’m surely forgetting. Most of those, I only remember because he told me later, or because I discovered his CD-ROM collection a few months back and asked. But not Riven: no, I remember Riven.

riven review 1 original gameplay
For a game from 1997, Riven still does look pretty great, and its world is just as enchanting.

Because watching him play that was like being transported to another world. More importantly, it was like going to another world with him. Because, unlike me, my dad was never a very patient player. He isn’t a very patient man. He wants things to happen, and he wants them to happen as soon as possible. But watching my dad play Riven is one of the only times I’ve ever seen the man slow down. Appreciate the nuance of something, without getting frustrated or deeply confused.

I remember him handing me some loose sheets of printer paper, and telling me to draw down the symbols I saw. Then, at a later point, he would wind up somewhere, and I remember him looking down at my notes, and up at the puzzle. I wasn’t old enough to piece it together myself, but watching him take his time, silent for minutes at a time, deep in thought, is one of my most cherished memories. To this day, the only other time I’ve ever seen him so introspective, so thoughtful, is when he is constructing a woodworking project. There was something about Riven, and only Riven, that brought him peace, and made him actually want to sit and think for a while.

I must now admit to some deception: this memory is not one I’ve carried with me for years and years. But rather, one reawakened in my time playing the new remake to Riven, which remakes 1997’s best-selling game with modern sensibilities: fully-explorable 3d worlds, gorgeous vistas showing off the best of modern graphical fidelity, in-game-rendered cutscenes that put the enigmatic characters of Riven in the same field as the game world.

And, while I was solving the first puzzle — a simple spinning-room puzzle, featuring murals that could be seen through beetle-shaped lenses — that all came back to me. And even now, fully an adult myself and with a lot more experience with puzzle games than my father, I still felt transported. Both back in time, and to another world.

riven review 2 world

And in this other age, this other world, there are many mysteries. Some of them are puzzles, requiring understanding much more than simple logic to fully grasp. But others? Other mysteries are of the world around you. Who the people you encounter, skittering in a village across a lake, are. Who the main villain, Gehn, is, and what he is doing. What the mysterious machines around the island are, and how they all interact.

Oh, and rest assured, they all interact. The puzzles are deeply woven into the mythology of the Moeity, to the ingenuity of Gehn, and to the astrological nature of the Ages and Linking Books, two core elements of Myst (and therefor Riven’s) universes. You cannot solve the puzzles without understanding everything from numbering systems to cultural beliefs to scientific procedures. And, in that way, you come to understand things around you. And as you do, you begin to see the solutions to puzzles that you didn’t even know were puzzles at first. Things that, had you known, you could’ve succeeded at your task in minutes.

It is that gaining of knowledge, that further understandings, that is truly Riven’s most impressive feat. The puzzles are not separate from the story, and neither are separate from the world. Rather, the world is full of puzzles, informed by its own logic. You cannot complete Riven without understanding it. All of it. And that is something I don’t remember ever feeling in a game before. That is the thing, I’m sure, that made my dad sit for hours at a time, traversing the islands of Riven with astute patience (as the game demands) instead of his usual curmudgeonly frustration.

That said, I am very thankful that Riven has a remake, because I don’t think I could have stood it the same hway he did, back then. And that is because, in characteristic fashion of a Myst-derived work, I have one more secret to mutter to you:

I actually did play the original Riven. A few years back, after completing Myst’s 2021 remake, I wanted to see what happened next in the strange universe of linking books and alternate “ages”. And so, I picked up Riven, the original. And, I must be honest, it sparked nothing. I stopped after about an hour, the glacial speed of the puzzles and the stilted movement of first-person point-and-clicking turning me off of it.

riven review 3 original cutscene
The one thing I liked more about the original were its FMV cutscenes.

I knew my father had played Riven, but I discounted it then. “Old games for old people,” I said to myself, ashmedly closing out of the game for what I thought was a final time. It didn’t trigger that wave of nostalgia, that cascade of wonder. It just felt like an old, outdated game, too slow and too dated to feel right to a modern gamer.

Perhaps I grew some myself, but I attribute my higher tolerance of the game this time around — despite having the same puzzles, the same plot, the same characters, and the same world — to the enhancements made to this edition. Some especially tedious puzzle systems have been simplified. The new game-rendered cutscenes, though I was at first apprehensive about them being less charming than the original FMV versions, felt better and more cinematic. The world is even more lovingly rendered, shining on modern hardware as though that was all it was waiting for. And, most of all, the freedom of movement, to be able to direct your character in first person instead of point-and-clicking all over the place, makes for an infinitely more enjoyable experience.

Now, rest assured: this is still Riven. You still need to understand the world to understand the puzzles. You still need to practice patience (perhaps too much patience still, more on that in a second). You still need to make your way through the gorgeous Age of Riven one step at a time. It just all feels better to do. Smoother. More immersive, honestly. This is what a remake should be.

In the same way that translation is a vital tool of the game, something that makes so many of the puzzles work so well, translation from the past to the present is also what makes Riven work for me now, today, in 2024.

That isn’t to say that the game is perfect, of course. The most pointed gripe that I have is that — and I may be sacrificed in the village gallows for saying this — the puzzles can be frustrating at times because of the slowness and patience they do require. I don’t mind that they are difficult — in fact, I loved just how hard they were, and it was a joy to finally crack them after hours of trying — but I do mind that some of that difficulty lies in just how long it takes to complete some of them.

riven review 4 puzzles

For instance, there are multiple points in the game where I encountered a puzzle, and — usually after mulling it over for a long while — realized what the solution was. But, because of the nature of information-based solutions in Riven, that meant I’d need to trek to almost every other island in the game to obtain the solution. This process required finding the local golden globe, stopping it at the perfect time, waiting for it to slowly open, entering it, waiting for it to slowly close, entering the void, manipulating the aparatus at the center of the void to slowly spin it so that it pointed at a different island, going into its golden globe, waiting for it to close, waiting for it to spin, waiting for it to open, and then making my way to the artifact that I found 6 hours ago but didn’t know what to do with at the time. Then, after grabbing a screenshot of what I need (now understanding it), heading back the other direction, repeating all those steps several more times to gather other information, until I made it back to the puzzle, solution finally in hand (after a bit of translation, at least).

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how my dad did that (probably more times than I did; puzzles were never his forte) without losing his mind. It’s not that the puzzle solution isn’t brilliant, and that it doesn’t feel great to finally open that gate or hear that sound you’ve been waiting for. But, even with that, it does mean tolerating tens of minutes of slowly traversing the (albeit stunningly beautiful) world, back and forth, until you find the specific answers right where you already knew to look for them. I hesitate to call it padding — not when they are so lovingly crafted and when traversal is so beautiful — but I would be okay with calling it lethargic.

riven review 5 void
This is one of the most surreal places in the entire surreal game. Unfortunately, it’ll feel quite mundane by the time you finish.

Doing anything in Riven takes time, and oftentimes it takes a lot more time than it needs to, most of it filled with walking instead of thinking. And, as amazing and wonderful as the Age of Riven is, there are only so many times I can pass through the same cave or inhabit the gravity-defying void before it, too, grows a bit tiresome.

The other minor issue I had with Riven is the cutscenes. I know, I’ve been extolling the virtues of the in-game-rendered cutscenes since the start of this review, but the truth is… I kinda miss the FMVs.

Not that they were a perfect solution back then — in fact, they were done only out of necessity, in order to have real and nuanced human actors portray characters who, otherwise, would’ve been polygonal messed without discernable features. But, they undeniably added charm to the game. They might’ve been a bit dorky, and certainly didn’t fit in with the rest of the world with perfect verisimilitude, but they were well-acted, well-written, and oozing with charisma.

riven review 6 cutscene
At least the developers did use the voicework from the original, including the standout performance of the late John Keston.

Now, the 3d models that have taken their place — despite having the same lines performed with the same gusto — just lack that special something that only real actors can provide. They certainly feel like they exist in the world more, yes, and they also make sure that players don’t feel like they are too trapped in the 1990s. But, at the same time, something has been lost, especially in Gehn’s monologue when you do finally encounter him, and Atrus’s monologue at the begining of the game.

Thankfully, though I might’ve prefered 1990s-style FMVs, the new versions are still just as capable of holding up the plot, and connecting the dots to form a cohesive and surprisingly moving story. I’ve gone on too long to dive deeply into the story as well, but rest assured: all that knowledge and interconnectedness isn’t just useful for puzzles, but also for weaving together a touching, psuedo-mythological tale that players owe themselves to experience.

In fact, that is how we will end this, like Riven: with the satisfaction of something complete, but the allusion of something more.

There is a reason Riven was the best-selling game the year it came out. A reason why it has been held in the hearts of its players for all those years (and of a few not-quite-players, sitting next to their father’s computer chair). A reason why, 25 years later, it deserves a remake. Because Riven is something special, something magical. Something that can only be appreciated by those of us gamers who are patient and thoughtful, but which is so worth that appreciation that I’d advocate most gamers give it a shot.

And, as a remake, this new version of Riven only improves on the original. It retains the challenge, beauty, and craft of the original, while giving players all the tools to enjoy it in the modern age. The new first-person control system and heightened graphics let the Age of Riven shine in new ways, and help polish off the rust that once kept me from enjoying the original. While the game is not perfect — due to some issues inherent to the original and some introduced by the new era — it is a magical experience. That said, the game’s inherent slowness combined with some puzzles that do really stretch the game in ways that do feel artificial do hold it back from perfection, and will be a hard-stopper for gamers who don’t have the time or patience to endure its sluggish pace.

Overall, though, it just feels good to continue the story of Myst, and venture into the Age of Riven. While there may be some tedium in its gorgeous isles, thought and wonder combine to more than make up for its few frustrations. You can (and likely should, if you have the patience to have read through this entire review) pick up Riven on Steam here or on GOG here.

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Graves
Graves

Graves is an avid writer, web designer, and gamer, with more ideas than he could hope to achieve in a lifetime. But, armed with a mug of coffee and an overactive imagination, he'll try. When he isn't working on a creative project, he is painting miniatures, reading cheesy sci-fi novels, or making music.

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