Myst III: Exile is a fine example of conceptual stagnation, an often mind-numbing exercise in tedium that despite grand intentions, feels more like a relic than a new and interesting concept. Like all Myst games, Exile is a game of exploration, puzzle solving and storytelling. In each aspect, the game never breaks its ties to outdated technology sufficiently to be compelling or entertaining.
In exploration, the world of Myst is certainly a beautifully realized artistic vision, but it is hampered by agonizingly tedious navigation from one pre-rendered frame to the next. Game graphics have evolved to the extent that such meandering seems completely unnecessary. There is simply no reason in this day and age why pre-rendered full-motion video should be used in lieu of real-time rendering, which would create a slightly less visually spectacular world but one that is much more alive. Rather than truly interacting with the worlds, the player simply moves the cursor around the screen during each freeze-frame render in the hopes of finding seemingly arbitrary items or objects that can be interacted with. It's then a matter of hunting for clues and solving bizarre, brain-teasing puzzles.
These puzzles are interesting at times, but I frequently found them to be so bizarre and abstract as to make solving them unrewarding. I was happy that the manual has a section of "soft hints," which I used for nearly every puzzle. Generally, I would look around, fiddle with a few objects, look at the clock and realize I'd been hacking at a puzzle for 20 minutes to no avail, and quickly open the manual. I suppose it could be that I'm just not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but many of these puzzles just didn't seem to make any sense. I would just have to fiddle with them until I figured out what various actions did, and then try to piece the actions together—that is, if I could figure out what I was trying to do in the first place. I felt little sense of reward in solving the puzzles, as they often seemed to reward my patience rather than my wits.
The game is enveloped in a story that, being unfamiliar with the previous two Myst games, I was at a loss to understand. Something about some nut case, who apparently knows Meat Loaf's hairdresser, trying to take over the fantasy world of Myst, which has magically come alive through the writings of an eccentric novelist. The game is simply centered on chasing this loon around in an attempt to put a stop to his dastardly acts. I have to admire the commitment of the actors who allowed themselves to be digitized for the game, because the material is undeniably hokey, but they certainly give unapologetic performances.
Myst III has so much going for it, in that clearly much effort was put into the plot, the acting, and the richly detailed pre-rendered graphics. But the whole experience never gels into an enjoyable game, and the world of Myst, while scenic, feels too static to be captivating. At the time of writing this review, the fourth installation in the series is now available for the PC. I can only hope that it gets away from the limitations the series has brought upon itself.