Once you get past the opening cinematic for Myst 3: Exile, the very first thing you'll see is a desert landscape. A character standing behind you will comment that the view is “breathtaking”, but I didn't agree. In fact, I was puzzled. The opening location could have been set anywhere and it could have shown anything, and yet developer Presto Studios decided to use a desert. Why? It wasn't until after playing the game that the decision made sense, because much like a desert, Myst 3 tends to be lifeless and sterile -- and sometimes unfriendly -- and it only stays worthwhile through the oasis-like quality of its puzzles.
Myst 3: Exile is the third installment in a series of graphic adventure games about a strange, dysfunctional family that is able to create Ages (worlds) through the writing of special books. The first game (Myst) saw the sons exiled after they tried to imprison the father. The second game (Riven) saw the grandfather exiled after he tried to imprison the mother. Now, in this third game, a man named Saavedro has decided to take revenge on the family because of something the sons once did to his family and his Age. But since the sons are out of his grasp, Saavedro has no problem going after the father, Atrus, and stealing one of his prized books. It's your job in the game (as a friend to the family) to track down Saavedro and get the book back.
Unfortunately, the background story for Myst 3 is all the story it gets. Every so often you'll find some journal notes or a taped message from Saavedro, but they'll just hint at things. You'll never find out what happened to Saavedro or his family, or what might have motivated the sons to do whatever they did, or how Saavedro escaped (assuming he had to escape), or even really what Saavedro's plan for revenge was (as far as I could tell it involved forcing Atrus to solve puzzles and then hitting him on the head with a hammer). And the lack of a story really hurts the game because there isn't anything to encourage you to keep playing. Part of the reason the original Myst was so good was because you didn't have any idea what was going on, and it was just as interesting to unravel the secrets of the family and the books and the Ages as it was to solve the puzzles. But there isn't anything like that in Myst 3. You'll just solve puzzles to solve puzzles, and your only ``reward'' will be the occasional (relatively good) cinematic.
Fortunately, the puzzles are pretty good, and they're just what you'd expect from a Myst game. Contraptions abound, and you'll get to push buttons, pull levers, and otherwise fix, fiddle, and manipulate objects to your heart's content. Presto Studios also tried to make the puzzles friendly, and so all the objects required for a puzzle will usually be near the puzzle, and if you operate some piece of machinery, you'll get to see the result nearby (usually in the same room). That's not to say the puzzles are easy, because they're not. Presto Studios made up for the friendliness of the puzzles by not giving much in the way of hints for how they should be solved, and so most will require quite a bit of trial and error before you can complete them. In all, there are about 20 puzzles in the game, and I'd guess they'll take 30 or more hours to solve.
The place where Myst 3 differs the most from the earlier two games in the series is in its graphics engine. Myst and Riven were both 2D games, but Myst 3 makes to jump to 3D. Myst 3 still has discrete “rooms” as in Myst and Riven, so you won't have complete freedom of movement when you play, but instead of having a static view of each room, you'll be given a camera that can rotate its view to any direction, allowing you to examine the floor or the ceiling or anything else around you. (If you've played any DreamCatcher adventures lately, then you might recognize the Myst 3 engine as being similar to the ones used by The Messenger and Dracula: the Last Sanctuary.) The engine works well, and it helps to make you feel like you're actually in the game.
Continuing with the graphics, the artistry of the Ages is excellent. They're all distinctive, exotic, and memorable, and they range in style from the tree world of Edanna to the industrial world of Voltaic to the “pinball” world of Amateria. Presto Studios also did a good job of integrating the full motion video sequences into the world, so that sometimes you can even move the camera around while the sequences are playing out. Less good is the fact that Myst 3 only runs in 640x480 mode, so some of the locations can be a little blurry, and that there are very few ambient animations. Water is animated, but that's about it. Other things like clouds and plants are completely static.
The sound of Myst 3 is also reasonably good. There is very little acting in the game (probably less than 15 minutes total) but the actors say their lines convincingly. And while the ambient sounds and background music aren't particularly memorable, they do get the job done and help to immerse you in the game.
As for the interface, I suppose there are two ways of looking at it. On one hand you could say, “Hey, the interface for Myst 3 is almost identical to Myst's. It's cool that Presto Studios is keeping with tradition.” On the other hand, you might say instead, “Oh, my God! The interface is eight years old!” My vote goes with the oh-my-god group. Really, Presto Studios dropped the ball with the interface. Inventory usage is clunky, about a quarter of the screen is wasted for no good reason, the cursor icons are too similar, and -- the most glaring problem of all -- there isn't a cursor icon at all for moving, so you'll have to click randomly all over the place to figure out where you can go. For some of the Ages it's not a problem, but for others, like the tree world of Edanna, moving around can be more difficult than the puzzles.
On a technical level, Myst 3 ran pretty well for me. I glanced through a couple Myst 3 forums and saw that other people were having some problems (including not being able to run the game at all) but I only encountered two minor bugs: the game always crashes after displaying the ending credits, and using alt-tab always causes the mouse to stop working (making alt-tab pretty useless). Usually I wouldn't even mention an alt-tab issue, figuring that whoever uses it deserves what they get, but alt-tab is listed with the hotkeys in the Myst 3 manual, and as long as Presto Studios is going to encourage people use it, they might as well make sure it works. Otherwise, the game never crashed and it never suffered any performance slowdowns or anything to detract from the gameplay.
The documentation for Myst 3 was hit and miss. It did a good enough job in describing how to play the game, but it completely failed to give any background information. Since Myst 3 is the third game in a series, and since there are also some books based on the Myst universe, it would have been nice for Presto Studios to include short synopses of the first two games plus any other relevant information for the places and characters appearing in this game. For example, if you don't know who the D'Ni are, what happened to them, and why Atrus cares about them then you're not going to find out by playing the game, and you're going to miss out on some of the motivation for Saavedro's revenge. I think if you're a developer and you want players to immerse themselves in a world, then you not only have to create the world, you also have to give a sense of the world's history, and that was sadly lacking here.
Overall, Myst 3: Exile is a pretty average adventure. I think if Presto Studios made a mistake, it's that they tried to make the game too much like the original Myst. They got the look and feel right, and they created a good set of puzzles, but, like Myst, they completely ignored story elements and character interaction. The Myst universe has potential, and I think there's another good Myst game out there somewhere, but for that to happen the series is going to have to evolve a little -- and in more ways than just the graphics engine.