When it comes to puzzle-adventures I am utterly helpless. Their strange, convoluted logic and complete lack of direction often leave me dazed and confused, unable to figure out what the puzzle even is, let alone solve it! And yet I find myself always coming back to them, simply because the stories they tell are equally as strange and convoluted, a stark contrast to what you might encounter in most other games.
As you might expect, the same applies to Obduction - Cyan's spiritual successor to the long-lasting Myst series. The puzzles are deviously difficult, especially near the end game, and there is almost no indication of where you're supposed to go or what in the world you're supposed to do. While all of this gave me quite a headache by the end of it, I'm still incredibly happy I decided to play through Obduction as the slowly evolving story and bizarre, alien landscapes combine to create a truly irresistible adventure.
Whether this is something you'll enjoy or not, that's a difficult question to answer, but allow me to give you a glimpse at what Obduction really is and you can decide from there.
Video version of this review (10 minutes)
After a brief introduction that sets up the story and some of the characters I was abducted by an alien pine-cone and unleashed upon the town of Hunrath. From the very moment I took my first step outside I simply knew I had to finish Obduction, or else I'd never understand what in the blazing hells I was even looking at. Instead of seeing monolithic ruins of a civilization long past, or even the inside of an extraterrestrial ship, all I saw was a quaint little mining town nestled underneath an impossible landscape. The surprises didn't end there, however, as I soon discovered that the 1950s rural American architecture housed within it technology so advanced my feeble mind couldn't even begin to comprehend its purpose. And let's not talk about actually trying to operate the damned things!
Out of all the various curious I found, it was the red crystals littered throughout Hunrath that gave me the most pause. While their presence alone would usually be enough to send the speculation part of my brain into overdrive, things became even more intriguing when I took a closer look and realized that they aren't a single entity, but rather a strange fusion between human and alien technology!
Nothing out of the ordinary here!
Once my eyes finally adjusted to the wonderland I was currently in, I started noticing one rather ominous detail - Hunrath was completely deserted. There was plenty of evidence suggesting that a sizable number of people lived there, quite successfully might I add, but what exactly happened to make them abandon their homes, or where they even went given that Hunrath is completely enclosed in a force-field, that was the big question.
This is where Obduction's story comes in to play, and if you were worried I was setting you up for a fall, worry not as the story really is that captivating. While there is the occasional one-way conversation to get you acquainted with a certain part of the plot, most of it is told through a wast amount of letters, books, audio tapes, maps, and the like. This initially had me concerned as the only things I found within my first hour were scraps of paper with barely legible handwriting talking about some sort of gibberish I couldn't understand, but soon enough Obduction opened the flood gates and started allowing me to browse through entire encyclopedias of alien knowledge and weird experiments.
Its obviously a map... but of what?
Since I can't talk about the story itself, mostly because I don't want to ruin any of the revelations for you, allow me to just say that the writing does a rather outstanding job of immersing the player into the world. The reason I say this is because Obduction manages to slowly build up a compelling mystery with every letter and voice tape you find, always hinting at something more through tiny little details without ever explicitly telling you what's going on. This sort of a reveal is perfect for Obduction as it gives you that drive you need in order to push through some of the more heinous puzzles in order to uncover further secrets and hopefully a way back home.
There is unfortunately one problem... your character doesn't know how to properly hold a book! I've had to squint at nearly a third of the letters I've found because the character holds them too far away from his head, which combined with the occasional bout of terrible handwriting and atrocious lighting conditions means that you'll sooner get a migraine than any sort of a revelation. If you think I'm exaggerating, just have a look at this completely unedited letter below, its nigh unreadable!
You also have the advantage of this being zoomed in!
Now that we've gone over the story its time to bear down upon the biggest gameplay element in Obduction - the puzzles. As I've mentioned early in this review, I am by no means a fan of obtuse and complicated puzzles that revolve around massive leaps in logic, so you can't even begin to imagine how relieved I was when I realized that the majority of the challenges in Obduction are actually quite logical. It does take a while to get into the proper mindset, but once you're there all of the pieces tend to fall into place.
Some of the puzzles you will encounter are devilishly hard, make no mistake, but very rarely did I feel they were unfair. Most often I would get stuck on them, leave them for a while in order to pursue other objectives, only to return 30 minutes later and suddenly experience that priceless "AHA" moment! Nothing makes you feel more like a genius than solving a massively difficult challenge within a couple of minutes, simply because the whole thing just clicked with you.
If you don't get it at first, just come back later
There is unfortunately a dark side to the puzzles as well - its often impossible to tell what you're even trying to do! While Obduction has plenty of story that fleshes out the background lore and all of the various characters, there is very little time dedicated towards explaining your objectives and motivations. I spent my first hour aimlessly running around Hunrath, desperately hoping to find something, anything that would tell me what I'm supposed to do, but to no avail.
As it turns out, I missed a tiny green button set on a massive steel door that looked to be just as useless as the previous dozen doors I passed by. Pressing that teeny-weeny button resulted in a brief chat with one of the inhabitants of Hunrath through which I learned what I needed to do, and most importantly, why I needed to do it! Once I had this information on hand everything else was a series of logical deductions that slowly led me to my goal, and it is during these moments that I had the most fun with Obduction as everything just made perfect sense.
Even now the glow is easy to miss if you're looking at something else
My helpful companion eventually stopped giving me instructions and since I couldn't find another tiny green button to press I was once again left to aimlessly wonder a massive world in hopes of stumbling onto my next objective. While it might not sound like a big deal now, the feeling of hopelessness as you walk past the same area for the tenth time will slowly start eroding your sanity as there is no puzzle to challenge yourself against, no new lore to learn.
Nowhere is this issue more apparent than in the end game where puzzles can take upwards of an hour to complete! To top it all off, you will also encounter plenty of loading screens at this point, which means that your aimless wondering will now constantly be accompanied by loading screen upon loading screen. While I can confidently say I enjoyed Obduction up until this point, the end game nearly made me quit outright as it just stopped being fun and turned into pure mental torture instead. Quitting would've been a massive shame as the ending was quite certainly something, but I have to wonder if it was necessary for Obduction to completely disregard any notion of fun in order to give the players one last puzzle that will forever haunt their nightmares.
Much like Myst and Riven that came before it, Obduction is oozing with atmosphere. From the very moment you enter Hunrath you will be free to explore a wast and intriguing world, a world full of secrets to uncover and challenges to overcome. I just wish that I knew what in the world I was doing most of the time, or even where I was going, but alas Obduction likes to keep more things a secret than just the story itself.
While I do have some gripes with how Obduction treats the player, its still one of the most intriguing puzzle-adventures I've played in years, and most importantly, one that I've actually managed to finish! As such, I have no qualms with recommending Obduction to anyone that enjoys exploration, hellishly difficult puzzles, and a story that constantly keeps you guessing, all the way to the very end. It might not be perfect, but its a worthy successor to Myst and hopefully a beginning of a brand new adventure series.