Beautiful. And lousy.
By now, Syberia has become one of the classics of an almost dead genre. Yet at its time, it was anything but that; it was a mad attempt to breathe life into a corpse. The problem, however, is that this breath of life was, in fact, terribly stale. While the game may be appealing to the newcomer, for seasoned adventure players, it's almost embarrassing. Consider this a rant on why Syberia is not a classic, or even a good game.
First things first, though: the game is gorgeous. The graphics have aged gracefully; the combination of 3D characters and prerendered backgrounds still looks very good (compared to Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey), while the backgrounds themselves are stunning. It's clear the prerendered images were meticulously touched up by hand, with a consistent art style, looking almost like a pencil drawing inked over. FMVs are a different kettle of fish, with wooden animations and a few ugly effects (oh, the explosions!), but the rest of it? Beautiful; and one of the best-looking games I have ever seen.
I also rather like the interface, which is a logical conclusion of the trend adventure games have been following for years: single button point and click. It's barebones, and gives an extremely limited control, but it is a clear, reasonable design decision and as such, I can get behind it.
Sadly, however, it is now time to move to the next section.
Unusually for video games, Benoît Sokal has something of an auteur thing going on in Syberia. He's the lead designer of the game, but also a comic book artist, which explains a lot. As I have said, he certainly can draw, and he has an artistic vision. But he can't really write, and, worst of all, can't design games.
The soul of any adventure game is the writing. None of the true classics became a classic because of its puzzles, or its graphics, or anything else: it was always writing. And this is where Syberia fails tragically; and comic books are perhaps to blame. First of all, the story is simple. The whole thing can be retold in one paragraph, with nothing significant being omitted. American lawyer tries to find a missing, eccentric old man, whose eccentricity is an excuse for populating the world with all sorts of mechanical contraptions. That's pretty much it. It's a story worthy of speech bubbles, but certainly not branching adventure game dialogue. It also doesn't end; and I mean at all. Imagine listening to a story where the narrator suddenly pulls out a watch, looks at it, and says "Alright, so she went outside and there he was, sitting on a bench. Now go home." The ending gives a clear "to be continued in the next issue" vibe; and suddenly we learn the rather large amounts of backstory were just window dressing. Just an excuse to show more pretty pictures.
And regarding dialogue - there's nothing to write home about. There are characters in the game, and they talk. Everything about them is completely forgettable. There is just one exception of a dialogue that stands out: an old sailor who is talking in a hodgepodge of about five languages, curiously interpreted into English by his wife. The more of the languages you recognise, the more hilarious the exchange is. That's all, though, really. The dialogue system is simplistic, with a handful of the same, universal topics for every character, which certainly doesn't add any spice to it. It does the job. Full stop.
This single-purpose writing is actually one of the tell-tale aspects that reveal the true nature of Syberia's game design: things were put in just because adventure games, a genre Sokal has chosen for Syberia, usually have them. Their implementation is entirely superficial and often plain wrong. They are there just because a pure comic book videogame, where you would just keep clicking Next, would be too boring.
Yet this half-hearted implementation of the staples of the genre makes Syberia exactly that: boring. The game world is almost entirely dead. As I have said, visuals triumph here, which means the game is full of gorgeous, yet absolutely empty screens. My conservative estimate is that in about 70% of the game's screens, perhaps even more, absolutely no "gaming" is going on. They are there just to walk through. Every once in a while, a minor character is inserted into such a screen for local colour (and I do mean once in a while; there are about half a dozen of them altogether) who repeats the same mechanical response over and over again. The whole game is incredibly, mind-numbingly static.
And this brings me to the other major point, this one caused by something else than comic book design mentality. It takes a while before the penny drops, but the secret is that while the game pretends to be a classic third-person title, it is, in fact, a Myst clone. Gorgeous, yet empty and dull, fascinated by mechanical contraptions and puzzles that are not a part of the game world, but that exist only to be solved. It's quite obvious, really.
To put it simply, the puzzle design in Syberia is atrocious. It's an almost completely linear sequence of events, some of which are not connected at all yet have to be performed in the prescribed order, with copious amounts of backtracking through dead scenery. The train won't start because you haven't retrieved the MacGuffin yet. The train won't start because you have the MacGuffin in your inventory, but haven't put it in its proper place on the train (and after the train stops again, you'd better pick it up again, because you'll need it). Follow the numbers. Of course it makes no sense for your heroine to waste time doing this or that, but the story can't continue if you don't. The puzzles are not a part of the plot, they are added in, as an afterthought. The consequence, naturally, is that Kate is sometimes forced, by the twisted "there ought to be a puzzle here" logic, to do things in a needlessly complicated manner. There's a puzzle arising from the fact that she isn't willing to jump over a small brook, and another, involving running all over the place and talking to everyone who will listen, just because shooing away three cuckoos is apparently too difficult. The logic of the puzzles is twisted, yet the over-convoluted solutions are usually very apparent, because the extremely linear nature of the game means there simply is nothing else to do. And if the solutions aren't apparent, it's probably because you overlooked a hotspot in one of the screens which there was a good reason to consider useless. It's maddening; and I often caught myself wishing there was actually a "next" button to turn the pages of the comic book, skip a puzzle or two and view some more pretty imagery.
And that, to sum it up, is the sole reason why I can't consider Syberia a classic, its most peculiar characteristic: gameplay for gameplay's sake. It shouldn't have been a video game in the first place, that's what's wrong with it.
The Bottom Line
If writing is the soul of an adventure game, and puzzles are its flesh and bones, the only thing Syberia has going for it is a beautiful skin. Thinking back, there is nothing memorable about the game at all, except that it is gorgeous. And that's not even remotely enough.