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Riven remake review - a 1997 classic reborn as this year’s top puzzler

Cyan Worlds has rebuilt Riven, the top-selling game of 1997 and one of the best PC puzzlers, but does this reimagining appeal to a new age?

Riven review: A screenshot of Survey Island from Riven.

Our Verdict

Riven's remake somehow achieves the impossible - all at once rewarding the nostalgia and support of long-time fans, embracing wild creativity, and fully realizing the needs of a modern audience. The 1997 classic is reborn as one of the year's best puzzle games.

Of the hundreds of games and years of gameplay we squeeze into our limited stay on Earth, some of us are lucky enough to find a game or series that just won’t let go. However many other adventures we take on, characters we build, or objectives we complete, the mere mention of this game is enough to get us misty-eyed, lore-dumping on the nearest passer-by, whether they like it or not. For me, it was the Myst series, with Riven being my favorite of the bunch.

Riven review: A screenshot of the rotating gate room from Riven.

For most of my life, this series has been there. My parents had a copy of Riven for the PS2 – I didn’t really understand any of what was going on, but it was immediately one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Too young (and stupid) to solve any of the puzzles, I’d boot it up semi-regularly simply to have a look around. As I grew to collect the other games in the series, and finally play them with an understanding of the story, what was originally a tentative fascination became a full-blown hysteria. I read the tie-in novels, I scoured the forums, I followed the Spyder Papers for pointless easter eggs. I even sat through the entirety of Pyst (a short and poorly aged satirical game of Myst starring John Goodman, for some reason). But by then we were deep into the 2010s and I had arrived too late. I had truly Myst the bus.

That was until the Starry Expanse Project came along, a fan effort to restore Riven in full 3D. Cyan Worlds, instead of running Nintendo-esque interference and shutting it down, joined forces with the team and eventually took over officially. As the project developed and footage of locations, news of VR support, and the promise of new and revised puzzles began to be released, it became clear that this wasn’t a half-hearted rehash – this was the real thing. After years of poor ports, endless Myst remasters, and clumsy SCUMMVM attempts, we were finally getting Riven back. And now it’s here.

Riven review: A screenshot of the Rivenese village from Riven against a blue sky.

For anyone who isn’t yet hopelessly Myst-pilled, the story is this: Atrus, a descendant of the D’ni (pronounced ‘dunny,’ like an Aussie toilet) and foremost wife-guy in videogames, needs your help to rescue said wife, Catherine, from his estranged and evil father, Gehn. The D’ni culture has a unique power that allows them to ‘write’ whole worlds, using the books they’ve written to travel between them. These worlds are called ‘Ages’ and you find out pretty quickly that Catherine is trapped on the Age of Riven with no way out. That’s where you’re headed: to trap Gehn, save Atrus’ wife, and liberate the oppressed peoples of this decaying, shattered Age before it all falls apart. Riven is a direct sequel to Myst, so some knowledge of the first game’s story will help you make sense of the various moving parts and characters, but you’ll get by okay with a quick synopsis skim.

For all the excitement felt by Rivenheads (not an official name), there was a sense of apprehension, too. One of the foremost dangers of a remake or reimagining is a terminal loss of charm, something the original game had in spades. But fans of the classic will be comforted to hear that Cyan has achieved something incredible with Riven – a game that serves the needs of both old and new fans in equal measure. Although there are many nods to veterans with good memories (remember the Moiety code? Or what happens to Cho?), they’re done in a way that keeps things fair for newcomers. You don’t need to be in the club already; we’re still taking new members.

Riven review: A screenshot of the altar at Gehn’s temple from Riven.

Back in the day, the characters were played by those involved in the making of the game, with Rand Miller, the game’s producer and co-founder of Cyan Worlds, playing Atrus in live-action clips. This being the brave new world of 2024, the characters are now animated and re-voiced. Likewise, the pre-rendered static backgrounds that you’d click through like the world’s least corporate PowerPoint presentation are replaced with a fully 3D environment that reacts to your presence and lets you explore at your own pace. Both of these are done incredibly well. Expressive characters with warm voices and intricately designed clothing replace the much-loved FMV, and the world is even more gorgeous than any of us will remember. They’ve also added a huge new element, The Starry Expanse, to make traversing the world easier and quicker. I won’t say much here for fear of plot spoilers, but keep an eye on those rotating domes and try to figure out what’s inside.

Initially, it felt a little bright and breezy for my liking, the ominous and inexplicably creepy atmosphere created by the grainy limitations of 1997 technology was replaced with a clean and crisp environment, baked in sunshine. I worried that it wouldn’t work, that it would be far too easy to miss puzzles or switches when you can look anywhere you want, that the tension would fall out the bottom and the world would lose all its… Riven-ness. But this, really, is as close as you can get to a true reimagining. The world and its lore remain fundamentally the same, but every puzzle has been tweaked and honed, every location lovingly pieced together for a new audience. For all the nostalgia many of us have for the original, it isn’t a very approachable game. There are puzzles that even guide writers have had to admit to fudging, pixel hunts, or elements so hidden they had us stuck for months, beyond the point of fun. 2024’s Riven is skillfully remodeled and restructured, a game that makes perfect sense.

Riven review: screenshot of a giant sword in a forest in Riven.

Riven is not a puzzle game in the sense that you see a puzzle and solve it; rather, you must figure out the world you’re in and how its people function. Basic color matching or pattern recognition won’t get you anywhere here. Each puzzle intertwines, many will have you coming back hours later with a new idea, some require learning a new number system or looking at the world in a different way. You won’t get a lore dump or a tutorial. You’re not even the main character. You’re a stranger in a world that has gone on without you for hundreds of years – it won’t bend to your will; you have to learn to adapt. And it really is genius. I had to refer to the reviewers’ guide just once during my playthrough, got a small hint, and immediately got back on track. You’ll feel genuinely challenged and stretched, but you’ll always be making progress and turning things over in your mind. Riven makes you feel smart in ways other games could only dream of.

It’s hard to talk in-depth without spoiling the experience. Riven is a game you need to be thrown into. You’ll learn fragments of languages and cultural references, twist endless steam valves, and feel tactile plates and buttons have far-off consequences. You can read hand-written journals, catch glimpses of local residents, come face-to-face with otherworldly wildlife, and – if you’re as tragic as I am – try to translate some of the D’ni script lying around the place. As perhaps a hangover from a need to maximize limited disc space in the ‘90s, every part of Riven links back to its story. You can’t ignore or discard anything here, as the whole Age is an extended puzzle box with unfolding layers.

The game is not without issues, however. I experienced a few cosmetic glitches in accessing my inventory, occasionally having to open and reopen it. I also found the built-in ‘notebook’ feature was only useful in conjunction with my own hand-written notes, although it was nice to have easy access to screenshots. There was a certain area with multiple NPCs where they were so still it felt like walking through a waxwork museum. But as criticisms go, each of these is fairly tame. The only major gripe I have is that the game doesn’t support custom key mapping, which presents an accessibility issue. Still, I’m hopeful this can be rectified in a future update.

Riven review: A screenshot of the rebel base at Tay from Riven.

Accessibility was more than an afterthought on the whole. The puzzles have clearly been designed to make playing as comfortable as possible while still providing a real challenge. Players in VR won’t have to clamber under that pesky gate anymore, and color context and sound cue subtitles are optionally integrated to aid with sight or hearing impairment.

This masterful retelling of a beloved story should allay any reservations about Riven’s remake from veteran players. Rebuilt from the ground up, it’s a true testament to what unfettered creativity and space to experiment can do for a game and its culture. None of what it achieves could have happened without the decade-spanning love of its fans, the support of its community, and the genius minds at Cyan that were allowed to paint worlds – unburdened by the shackles of a modern game industry obsessed with performance and profit. I have no doubt Riven will succeed once again, drawing in crowds of new players eager for a rich world to disappear into, and welcoming back existing fans like old friends.