NOTE: For the sake of giving a rough outline of what to expect, and to express my opinions more fully, some of the content of this review contains what might be described by some as minor spoilers. These paragraphs are grouped together and clearly marked.
Uru: Path of the Shell is the second expansion pack for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. If you read my review of the first expansion pack, To D’ni, you’ll be able to read a little of the unfortunate history of the ambitious Uru project, and understand that Path of the Shell is a substitute way of releasing content that was developed for the online Uru Live after its cancellation.
Let me start by saying that, content-wise, I found PotS substantially more satisfying than To D’ni. That’s probably a good thing, because PotS costs money whereas To D’ni is free. (Note: For those of you who haven’t obtained and played To D’ni yet, it is apparently included with Path of the Shell, so installing PotS should enable you to play both expansions. You can also buy a boxed set called the ‘Complete Chronicles’ which contains both the original Uru plus the two XPs, although apparently nothing else so don’t feel you’re missing out if you’re a completist.)
In To D’ni, the major ‘new’ material was the city of D’ni itself. This was fun to explore but you very quickly found that there wasn’t a heck of a lot to do there besides admire the scenery. Puzzles were pretty thin on the ground, and a substantial part of the game consisted of nothing more than a high-tech treasure hunt as you ran round looking for markers randomly scattered through the city. In addition, frustration level was high as you needed to scour past ages in detail to find certain items necessary for completing the game. Even working out how to start the game and unlock the city involved discovering a couple of lines of text buried in one of the multitudinous journals scattered through the game.
MINOR CONTENT SPOILERS FOLLOW:
PotS gives us more what we’ve come to expect from Myst games. There are two completely new ages, Er’cana and Ahnonay, as well as a number of new locations around the city. You can advance substantially in the game without much effort before hitting any major obstacles, which is a welcome development from To D’ni. Er’cana is reminiscent of a cross between Voltaic and some of Gehn’s constructions in Riven – a derelict industrial desert landscape with lots of decaying machinery to figure out. Ahnonay is more nature-oriented, but contains a number of surprises. I won’t say too much, but if I say that it was a favourite haunt of Guildmaster Kadish you probably know to expect a certain degree of deviousness and frustration.
I was pleased that PotS plays almost as a completely new game. From memory, there is only one location from the previous games that you are required to visit to ‘solve’ the game, and even that location can be deduced logically rather than needing to be stumbled upon during a detailed search as was the case in To D’ni. The principal objective is reasonably easy to discern, although some more thought needs to go into getting to the actual end, which is a bit of a let-down and is anticlimactic. While there are pieces of information of assistance to you in solving the games scattered through the ages, the game is much less of a hunt for journey cloths and much more focused on navigating the new ages to their conclusion while obtaining clues to solve the final puzzles.
In Uru Prime and To D’ni, the place was littered with copious journals, most of which were of interest to those avid fans deeply into the history of D’ni but which many others (including myself) found frustrating as they combed the journals for relevant information to completing the game, only to find that 98% was irrelevant. In PotS, there are very few journals, and those that are there are there for good purpose. Not much for the history buffs but good news like myself whose fragile minds got overwhelmed by the sheer volumes of information.
One aspect of gameplay that I found frustrating is that there is a timed element to a number of puzzles in the game. Not only does this cause a significant hiatus in gameplay, but on my computer (which well exceeds the minimum specifications) it seemed to take substantially longer than it should have for certain events to occur (and it seems as if a number of other players are experiencing similar problems, which could throw people off in their puzzle solving). These waits could be frustrating for anyone who has completed the game wanting to go back and replay sections. In addition, in some places there is a bit of running back and forward between locations in an age that are spread out, or even repeated linking out and in. This may well be a legacy of the online multiplayer genesis of the game, where if there were two of you it would be easier for one person to operate controls in one area whilst someone else operated the other area. For this reason I felt the game lacked the conciseness of (say) Amateria in Exile, where the puzzles were discrete and self-contained within a relatively small area.
END OF MINOR CONTENT SPOILERS
The collection of puzzles, to my mind, is pretty good, although there is one which I needed a hint on and I still can’t understand the logic behind it. I’ve asked on a discussion forum and different people seem to have different explanations, none of which I find satisfying. Unlike (say) Riven, where every aspect of the construction of the game appears extremely logical once viewed in hindsight, there are a few aspects of PotS that I find lacking a good explanation. This was a disappointment for me because as opposed to many adventure games, the puzzle solutions in Myst games generally seemed to me not to suffer from being contrived. Some of the puzzles here seem very contrived.
Many people didn’t like the ‘physical’ aspects of Uru, with lots of running and jumping and co-ordination required. This is toned down in PotS, which is good to see, but it is still all too easy to accidentally fall off the edge of something, or miss a jump, and end up having to link back to an inconvenient location some way back.
As with To D’ni, the game contains a number of additional clothing items for your avatar scattered through the ages, and some new Relto customisations to discover. For me, these are nice, but don’t add much to the game. You also get an electronic journal to carry round with you to jot down notes, which in this game could be very helpful. You can also use your Ki to take photographs of significant items, although I still had to resort to handwritten notes at two points, and may want to take notes by hand anyway so that they aren’t lost if you deinstall the game.
The graphics and sound are, as you would probably expect, stunning, particularly in Er’cana. As with the rest of Uru, and indeed Myst games in general, we’ve been provided with a set of superbly realised environments to wander round and enjoy, even when we’ve finished the game. Just because I’ve taken a few words to say this shouldn’t be taken as an undervaluing of this element. What many people love about the Myst games is the sense of discovering beautiful, strange and sometimes even foreboding new worlds. As you’d expect, you get that in spades here.
Technically, there seemed to be a couple of small glitches. I’ve already mentioned one in the ‘minor spoiler’ section. In another location, my avatar consistently disappears when climbing a ladder at one point. Since I’m playing the game with a computer that well exceeds the minimum specifications, you’d hope this wouldn’t happen.
I haven’t experimented with how the game plays if you install all three parts to the game and start from scratch. I previously recommended not playing To D’ni until after completing Uru Prime so that players didn’t get confused between the two storylines. Confusion is less likely with PotS given that the locations for this part of the game are distinctly different from the earlier games. All the same, my recommendation would still be to play each component separately through to its conclusion if possible.
As well as being purchasable on CD, the game is available via a download version (about 450MB). Purchasing the game this way saved me about 30% on the list price in Australia. However, users beware: the activation code you get with the downloaded version is only good for five installs of the files, then you have to pay again. There was no warning of this on the site I downloaded from until after I’d downloaded the file and paid my money. If you’re the sort of person who is likely to install and remove the game several times, you should buy the CD version.
All in all, I found PotS significantly more satisfying than To D’ni. The gameplay is much more in the vein of what we’ve come to expect from a Myst game (and yes, Uru IS a Myst game – not only does the word Myst appear prominently on the box, but the startup menu of the game is modified by PotS to refer to the game as “MYST URU”, hopefully ending all those debates out there). The sound and vision are, as usual, astounding. The puzzles are devious, although a little too contrived for my liking in one or two places. This contrivance, plus some impediments to repeat playability, cause me to mark the game down a bit. In addition, at least where I come from (Australia), the list price seems a touch high for what you get, compared to some other games. However, I think it’s a marked improvement over To D’ni.
The overall Uru Live project may have been a failure, but PotS (in particular) represents a good effort to pull something of value out of the smouldering ruins, and I’m glad to have it. Cyan suggested some months ago that while the release of this XP would exhaust the pre-prepared content for Uru, whether there would be any further XPs would depend in part on sale of this XP. More recently, however, it was announced that there were no plans to continue beyond this XP. Many fans have expressed disappointment at this. Personally, given some of the flaws of Uru (single save slot, constant linking back and forth between ages taking a long time) I’d prefer to see efforts put into creating new Myst games and new worlds to explore that don’t suffer these problems. But maybe that’s just me.
Score: 3.75 out of 5