Game Room: Myst IV and Zuma

Sirrus and Achenar are alive and well, and living in a surreally beautiful world near you.

These names won't mean much to you unless you're a fan of Myst, the landmark adventure game that made its debut back in 1994 and remains for many the standard by which other titles in the genre are measured. While solving puzzles to unravel a story wasn't a brand-spanking-new concept, the eerie and surreal beauty of the game's worlds (there are several) was unprecedented and utterly engrossing. I can remember retreating into the game for hours on end (to the detriment of my work and social life), emerging only occasionally to beg a hint from a friend who had already played it.

For those who haven't had the pleasure (and I'd strongly urge checking out the original game before venturing further), the game casts you as a friend of a missing scholar, Atrus, who leaves behind a few clues suggesting that he's been somehow imprisoned by one of his two sons, the prissy Sirrus and the wild-looking Achenar. The two are at odds over Atrus's ability to create worlds via so-called linking books--magical tomes that also afford entry to said worlds. To find Atrus and figure out who's behind his capture, you must visit some of these worlds and solve various puzzles.

Several sequels followed (aficionados disagree on whether the first sequel Riven or the subsequent Myst III: Exile was better), dealing with other family matters. Since the first volume, though, we hadn't heard much about what happened to Sirrus and Achenar (without going into details, let's just say the original gives reason to presume them gone forever). Now, however, Myst IV: Revelation brings word that they do still exist--only not in the same world as Atrus, his wife, Catherine, and their charming young daughter, Yeesha.

Beauteous New Worlds

I'm not going to dwell on the details of what your mission is this time. Basically this installation of the series carries on the tradition set by the original: Exploring the varied and imaginative worlds is its own reward. Now you have Tomahna (home to Atrus, Catherine, and Yeesha), followed by the ages of Haven (think Lion Country Safari done Myst-style, with lots of wildlife), Spire (think Mount Everest as a starting point), and Serenia (a sort of fairy-tale world where memories are captured in floating bubbles).

You move through and check out these worlds via a hand that serves as your pointer. In addition to pointing and clicking to get from one place to another, you can virtually handle objects in your environment by clicking on them. For most objects, this is akin to tapping on them; the game produces impressive audio feedback (the sound you'd expect to hear when, for example, tapping on wood or on a glass).

The game also provides tools to help you in puzzle solving. I particularly liked the built-in camera: When you examine something that might provide a clue you'll need later on, you can access the camera and photograph the object (I did this a lot with written documents). A projector icon lets you retrieve your captured images and even take notes (a pleasant alternative to the scribbled pencil-and-paper reminders I often create for puzzle games).

The puzzles are varied and many, starting with figuring out how to restore the power to Atrus's home complex on Tomahna; I am not the world's most accomplished adventure gamer, so I frequently needed help. Fortunately the game supplies it in the form of maps with three levels of hints for specific puzzles.

But again, this is a game to play as much for its vividly imagined and beautifully rendered universes as for the puzzles you need to solve to explore them. If you want to rush through to follow the storyline, this may not be the game for you--but if you have the patience to savor a rich and complex adventure experience, Myst IV: Revelation is well worth the $40 price of admission.

It's available for both the PC and the Mac, but take careful note of the system requirements, which are too numerous to include here but are listed on Ubisoft's Myst IV site.

A Lighter Play

As much as I am enamored of Myst IV and the adventure genre in general, most days I just don't have time to spend on such heavy-duty games. But sometimes I like to take a break--and instead of coffee, I indulge in a casual game.

I started, like most people, with Windows's Solitaire and Minesweeper, but these days I've moved on to more sophisticated fare. And if you're willing to shell out a few bucks for what ends up being hours of fun, there's no better place to start than the PopCap Web site.

You may already know PopCap from its megahit Bejeweled, but my current fave is Zuma Deluxe. It's a pseudo-Mayan game in which you have to shoot wooden balls (well, they sound wooden when you fire them) at a stream of balls, eliminating them by creating groups of three or more like-colored balls. At each level the goal is to get rid of all of the balls before the stream reaches a gutter-like end-point that swallows everything up.

The game gets tougher as you move through different levels; the stream of balls gets faster and the track it moves in becomes more twisted. It's thoroughly addictive: I've been at it for months now, and I keep coming back for more. If you don't want to commit to the $20 cost of the downloadable version without having a better idea of what you're getting into, try out the free Web-based version (just click the 'Click to Play' button on the above Web site). I'll bet you can't play just once!

Yardena Arar can't do fast-reflex games, but welcomes recommendations for adventure and casual games.
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