Better than the first one in some ways. Still not good.
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This is the second part of my lengthy rant that started with the first Syberia; as the games belong next to each other back-to-back, and are, in fact, one game split in two, this review probably won't make sense without the first one. Syberia II doesn't, in any case.
The good, then. It's still jaw-droppingly beautiful. Perhaps even more so than the first game. This time, Kate's journey finally takes her to Siberia, and the freezing, snowbound environments are stunning. It's a 5/5 for graphics again.
I was also very pleased to see some of the most obviously broken aspects of Syberia were corrected in the sequel: the number of empty screens was cut to a bare minimum (for most of the game, anyway; sadly, a major location in the final act brings the issue back with a vengeance and considerable amount of pixel hunting ensues) and population was added to the backgrounds, making towns at the outskirts of civilization surprisingly much more alive than all of the European locations of Syberia combined. These people can't be talked to, yet help tremendously in making the setting much more lively. The result is that the game world is much easier and friendlier to navigate. The dialogue system was also reworked, now giving different dialogue options for different characters, as it should be.
Unfortunately, the rest of it is the same as before, if not worse; and the changes themselves are flawed.
The story continues directly where Syberia left off and is just as bland as before. This time, a new plot element was added: cuts to the New York office of Kate's employers who are trying to track her down in the frozen wastes. In a perfect illustration of how misguided the storyline is, they have absolutely no reason whatsoever for doing that. It's a replacement for Kate's (also ultimately purposeless, but at least realistic) calls from home in the first game, but it doesn't work at all. Two villains were also added to the storyline, but they are so incongruous with the rest of it the less said about them the better (not to mention the sequence where Kate, usually unwilling to perform any physically demanding task such as jumping, suddenly turns into Spider-Man). At least there is a better ending this time, though not a satisfactory one by a long shot.
And talking about writing - I have said the dialogue system has been reworked, but somehow, it apparently hasn't occurred to anyone that it might be a good idea to keep track of what has already been said or done. Kate is perfectly willing to ask how to perform something she has already done, and people will keep offering exactly the same information in several conversation topics, not remembering anything at all; even more than in Syberia, they all sound like broken robots. Ugly and artificial.
There is, however, one aspect of Syberia II that takes all that was wrong with the first game and just runs with it. I have called the puzzle design of Syberia atrocious; in Syberia II, it's well beyond that. More often than not, the things Kate does in this game are completely arbitrary, and done just because that's what adventurers do, apparently; strangely enough, when combined with the already mentioned removal of empty screens, these arbitrary puzzles are all the more obvious and I often felt like I were playing with a walkthrough at hand - it's perfectly clear what you are supposed to do, it just takes a lot of time. But still, if you put yourselves in Kate's shoes, and think within the game world, it makes no sense whatsoever. There's a puzzle where your heroine defaces a church mural, with absolutely no indication, literally none, that there is something hidden beneath it; in the end, there is, of course - church murals just always seem to work that way, don't they? There's also a bear who will only eat a certain kind of salmon, and a ton of other examples that are actually hilarious, when you think about them. There's also a lot of mechanical, Myst-like puzzles, way more than in Syberia, but a notable percentage of them don't seem to follow any sort of internal logic; just clicking madly usually solves them. However, there is also one devious puzzle, quite different from the rest, which can't be solved unless you happen to remember a certain fact your eccentric old companion had murmured once or twice in his sleep. If you paid little attention to his ramblings, tough luck. Bad, bad design.
To stress my point, let me quote an example of what has to be one of the most horrible "do as the designer says" puzzles ever conceived: there's a pilot hanging by a parachute from a tall tree in the snowbound Siberia, just out of reach, he's asleep and wearing headphones, so he can't hear the shouts trying to wake him up. Kate, being an Adventure Game Heroine, promptly searches the wreckage of his plane and starts randomly flipping switches in the cockpit (and I swear there is absolutely no method to this) to find out the frequency the pilot is tuned to; luckily, there is a radio tower nearby (the chances of that, eh?) she can then use to transmit a wakeup call. And throughout the whole effort, it apparently never occurs to her to throw a bloody snowball at him. Too simple, I suppose. And all this is done to find a faster method of transportation than going on foot to a train that is some 2 kilometres away; the method the awakened pilot suggests has all the advantages of being dramatic, really fast, impractical and seriously life-threatening. Oh well.
And there are penguins at the North Pole. Which is, admittedly, petty criticism for a game where huge herds of mammoths roam, but it's still pretty weird.
The Bottom Line
All in all, Benoît Sokal (by now, his name is the very first thing one sees in the game after the company logo fades away; subtle) should stick to what he does best: drawing. When the tedium of Syberia is removed, as is the case in most of Syberia II, the faults are all the more apparent. As the first one, it's a horribly designed, poorly written game.
But it still is gorgeous.