Firmament, video game, logo, title, featured

Firmament review: not reaching for the stars

I have fond memories of playing Myst for the first time.

I was introduced to it shortly after its release in September 1993 by someone I went to school with. They’d gotten stuck at a particular point early on in the game and asked if I could come over one evening to see if we could figure out what to do next, knowing I liked the adventure genre.

I was so impressed by what I saw that I visited our nearest GAME store the following weekend and purchased a copy for myself. Although I don’t remember how long it took me to complete, I do recall how travelling through these virtual worlds made me feel. On one hand, I was mesmerised by the magical islands within the Linking Books. On the other, there was something about Atrus’ sons which scared me.

When Cyan, Inc. announced its Kickstarter campaign for Obduction in November 2013, I didn’t waste any time in becoming a backer. It was pitched as an adventure which ‘harkened back to the spirit of Myst and Riven’. The developer’s aim was to ‘resurrect that incredible feeling of suddenly finding yourself in the middle of a new world to explore, discover, solve and become a part of.’

After releasing realMYST Masterpiece Edition in February 2014, the developer succeeded in its goal with the first part of Obduction when it was published in August 2016. Pete and I played it together once I’d received my key and we both enjoyed the initial challenge presented. The second half however came across as rushed and incomplete. Alongside a difficulty level which ramped up suddenly, the narrative felt as though it was missing important story elements and details needed to make sense.

Myst, 25th Anniversary, Kickstarter, video game, book, Linking Book

That experience didn’t stop me from backing the next Kickstarter campaign for the Myst 25th Anniversary Edition in April 2018 though. The physical reward from this is perhaps my favourite thing ever received as a crowdfunding project backer: a Linking Book containing a copy of each game in the series. Pete and I started to play through all of them in order until we encountered a problem with URU: Complete Chronicles. We had no save to return to after a crash a couple of hours in and so decided to call it quits.

Cyan then announced a third Kickstarter campaign for Firmament in March 2019. I expected them to have learnt from their time making Obduction and have the knowledge necessary to create a better adventure in terms of pacing, story design and complexity this time around. Intrigued by what was promised to be a ‘deeply narrative adventure game for both VR (virtual reality) and PC’, I became a cautious backer and made a pledge which would grant me a copy of the release when it was ready.

When I received an email asking me to confirm my details for my Steam key, I’d almost forgotten about the campaign. It felt like it had taken place so long ago (the period made to feel even longer due to the COVID-19 lockdowns). We’d had to wait over four years for its release in May 2023 while Cyan found the time to publish a VR version of Myst in August 2021. Despite this little niggle, it had been ages since Pete and I had both been excited about a game so we started looking forward to being able to play it.

Warning: the following paragraphs contain spoilers for Firmament’s narrative. If you haven’t played it yet and wish to do so, it might be better to navigate away now and come back later.

It’s sad then to write that it’s been a while since I’ve been so disappointed by a title. The opening section is everything fans could wish for from Cyan, and this makes the game’s shortcomings even more evident. You awaken in a strange new room, an unknown ghostly character in front of you revealing that they’re dead but here to mentor you just as their teacher taught them. A weird contraption then attaches to your arm and a nearby book explains how this ‘Adjunct’ can control items by using their sockets.

Firmament, video game, screenshot, forest, trees, mountain, sky clouds, heights

The image opposite is proof of how beautiful the environments are. Pete kept commenting on how good they looked every time we played – and that’s a serious compliment coming from him, considering how he’s usually more interested in explosions when it comes to video game visuals. Firmament’s worlds are known as ‘The Realms’ and each of the three you travel to, along with the central hub, has a unique look and atmosphere. It makes your first visit to them particularly exciting as you’re uncertain of what to expect.

However, there’s a kind of hollowness which pervades every location. There are plenty of machines dotted around but not many you can actually look at closer or use. There are very few books, notes and drawings, and even fewer you can actually read (not what you’d expect at all after Myst). Every place within each Realm is empty, and not in a ‘they were once full of life but something bad happened here’ kind of way. It’s more ‘only a couple of people were ever here’, which contradicts the game’s storyline.

As for the Adjunct, it’s occasionally janky to use and is the cause of some frustration. While playing the non-VR version, looking at a socket on an object and pressing RT on your controller is meant to attach the two and present several action options dependent on the specific item. You’d expect this to be optimised considering it’s the core puzzle mechanic. But the Adjunct doesn’t always stay connected, attaches to sockets you didn’t intend it to, or doesn’t display any options once you’ve used it.

These aren’t the only bugs either. Thankfully the game didn’t crash on us, but a restart was required when I found myself trapped under a teleporter’s door while it was opening (fortunately we had a recent save to return to this time). There were also several visual glitches which hadn’t yet been removed, such as a giant ice-cube from one Realm floating in the sky of another. At first, we weren’t sure whether this was an intentional part of the story as it’s so vague (more about that later) – but no, it was fixed in a following patch.

The puzzles are uninspired. Most involve figuring out either how to unlock doors or turn on power using the Adjunct and connecting to multiple sockets. Myst fans shouldn’t expect any cerebral challenges involving drawings, symbols, or unfamiliar machines with numerous buttons to press. A maze-like puzzle in a Realm had us turning to a walkthrough because we were so frustrated. You can therefore understand why we were annoyed when a certain element from this appeared in another Realm and had to be repeated.

After completing Firmament a week ago, we had a conversation with friend-of-the-blog Darkshoxx about his thoughts on the game. He had a very good point when it said it may be better when played in VR, but my response was that ‘the story is still the story’. It’s probably the most disappointing thing about the release. I’d imagine some readers are surprised to hear that knowing this is a project from Cyan, especially if they’ve played Myst, as the developer is often praised for narrative skills and world-building.

But here, the story is almost non-existent apart from the first five and last 15-minutes of the game. Occasionally your ghostly mentor will pop up in the bottom-left corner of the screen with a sentence of two, but they rarely provide any useful information or background knowledge. The only detail you’re able to hit on is that some guy called Turner arrived one day and messed everything up in some way. As a result, everyone who used to inhabit the Realms is no longer around.

The problem is that throughout most of Firmament, there’s hardly any information shared about who Turner was, what he actually did, and what his motives were other than ‘control’. There’s nothing here to inspire intrigue or make the player want to figure out the mystery. This negatively affects the title’s pacing and it frequently feels as though there’s nothing driving you forward. There were even several occasions when we were left questioning what our objective was because we had no clue.

On top of this, the plot twist is revealed through an exposition dump right at the of the game. You get the impression that Cyan wanted it to be this grand moment which left players amazed or even startled – but everyone I’ve spoken to so far hasn’t really felt anything at all. You aren’t provided with enough detail about Turner or the other inhabitants to encourage even a small connection to them. The result is that it’s difficult to work up enough motivation to care when their fate is eventually revealed.

I usually don’t publish negative reviews because I don’t enjoy writing them, but I guess I needed to get my Firmament frustrations off my chest. Although I’ve been a backer for Cyan’s three Kickstarter campaigns, it’s unlikely I’ll be making a pledge to another in a long time.

4 thoughts on “Firmament review: not reaching for the stars

  1. Yup, I remember a similar experience. I was looking forward to Firmament as well, and then things just fell flat. A particular section had me all but screaming at the game for its horrible design. It feels cruel to say, but I think the people at Cyan just don’t understand good game design. The studio got lucky early on in a few ways. They just want to make interesting worlds and tell stories in them, and aren’t sure how to connect that to a fun gaming experience.

    • Cyan definitely know how to make amazing worlds. The way each of the Realms feels so different encourages you to explore them and uncover their secrets… it’s just a shame there isn’t much to interact with and that they feel so empty. This makes me agree with your point about them not understanding game design here! I’ll be interested to see where the developers go next after the response to Firmament, but I’ll be watching from the sidelines rather than as a backer.

  2. I feel like in most Cyan games you only start with a vague notion of what to do and you get to explore for the sake of exploration. But I think in all other games, slowly but surely the gaps are filled. I’ll try to make this spoiler-free: When you make a choice at the end of Myst, you know what you’re doing. At the end of Exile, you understand Saavedro. In firmament, I feel like, throughout the game, they instead create more gaps, and then only fill the last one.
    That being said, I’m here for the puzzles. While I can definitely give credit for some of them that I found enjoyable, to me at least, one of them sticks out like a sore thumb, and I’ve had that confirmed from many other players.

    But, as a die-hard Cyan fan, I will still back their next projects . “Starry Expanse” is their Riven remake that I’m looking forward to. Next week is Mysterium, the annual Myst convention, in Spokane WA. I’m interested in what they’re gonna say about it.

    • What you say here about gaps is spot on. I can deal with a game not giving me all the information upfront; it’s what we expect from Cyan and I like being able to piece together a mystery for myself. But Firmament felt like it introduced more questions rather than filling in those holes by the end of the story. The biggest one for me is still the ‘why’ behind Turner’s actions. Power being the reason just feels a little too simplistic, considering some of the other characters we’ve encountered during Cyan’s other releases.

      I can totally appreciate backing future campaigns due to being a fan though! There are certain developers I’d do the same for. Hope you have fun at Mysterium!

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.