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SummaryA transitional moment for adventure games
The Good* Unique story, characters, and setting not usually seen in games
* Good visual presentation
* No illogical or unfair puzzles
The Bad* Puzzles are too easy
* Script issues, including pacing
* Hit-or-miss voice acting
The Bottom LineUpon its release in 2002, Syberia was hailed as an instantly classic adventure game. Some even referred to it at the genre’s savior. Written and directed by Belgian comics artist Benoit Sokal, the game is a followup to his 1999 adventure Amerzone and is set in the same universe. With a low, accessible difficulty and focus on narrative, Syberia is best viewed as a transitional game between the puzzle-driven adventures of old and the modern breed of adventure games from developers such as Telltale Games and Dontnod Entertainment, which are purely narrative driven.
Syberia follows the story of an American lawyer named Kate Walker. Walker is trying to close a deal between the conglomerate Universal Toys Company and the Voralberg company in France which for centuries has been manufacturing mechanical wind-up toys and automata. In the age of computers and cell phones, Voralberg’s toys have become increasingly irrelevant. When Kate arrives in France, she is surprised to discover that Anna Voralberg, the factory’s owner, and the person whose signature is needed to complete the deal, has just died. After doing some investigation, Kate discovers that the company has a secret heir - Anna’s long-lost brother Hans Voralberg. Making use of a clockwork train and driver automaton named Oscar that Hans designed, Kate undertakes a journey across Europe and Russia, through significant places in Hans’ past, to hopefully track him down. All the while, Kate’s relationship with her boyfriend Dan becomes increasingly strained as she moves farther and farther east.
Unlike most video games, Syberia’s plot is very relaxed, while still retaining an epic scope. There are conflicts to solve, but nothing particularly menacing or dangerous happens to Kate for most of the game. Everything is resolved without violence or even much conflict.The only exception to this comes during the game’s climax, which features an obvious villain trying to kill Kate. This actually comes across as quite jarring given the tone of the rest of the game, which up until that point has been focused on intimate conversation and world building, rather than action.
The visuals and settings of Syberia are one of its main selling points. Drawing from art nouveau and clockpunk designs, Syberia presents a very original setting, with technology that is primarily powered by purely mechanical, rather than electrical means. The train that Kate rides throughout the journey is entirely spring-powered and must be rewound at every stop. Even the automaton characters are implied to be using incredibly advanced mechanisms rather than electricity. Of course, technology still hasn’t advanced to the point where even an electrical automaton like what is presented here is possible, but the rest of the setting helps you buy into it. Indeed, the conflict between the past (mechanical) and present (electrical) is one of the plot’s main themes. Most of the early environments are very mechanical and retro, but as you get farther along Kate’s journey and further into Hans’ history, the designs start to be come a bit more computerized, while retaining a mechanical feel. It’s a neat trick. Technically, the game uses the popular style of the era: 3D characters superimposed over pre rendered 2D backdrops. Many backgrounds have moving FMV elements, though there are a few times when details that should be moving are static (such as flowing water) that can make some scenes look a bit odd. Animations are fine, though there are times when characters are speaking that they can sometimes appear choppy.
Mechanically, Syberia is as basic as inventory-based adventures get. Most objects can only be interacted with in one way, and nearly everything you pick up is either used to solve a puzzle or provide background information on the story. When talking to characters, Kate can choose several one-word options from a notepad which changes depending on the situation. This can make it tricky at times to figure out what Kate will actually say, as there are times where the option has the same name but the resulting dialog is different depending on the situation. I just ended up clicking on every response to see what Kate would say. Thankfully, this isn’t a choice-and-consequence game, so I could click on dialog options without fear of messing up.
Syberia is primarily a narrative driven game. It’s easy to lose yourself in the game’s characters and lore, which showcases the broad and beautiful imagination of Benoit Sokal. The game is more about simply taking in the sights, sounds, and history of the world. As a result, the puzzles of Syberia are surely among the easiest to ever appear in an adventure game. I never even looked at a walkthrough one time, and only very rarely was I even close to being stumped as to what I was actually supposed to do. The vast majority of puzzles are simple use item on object puzzles. There’s no combining items in the inventory either. The rest of the puzzles are simply about figuring out how to use an array of mechanical devices. You’ll hunt for codes and keys to start machines up, then fiddle with them for a bit until they work. Only one early puzzle required any guesswork to solve, but even then the amount of guesses it takes is very low. I will say that there wasn’t a single puzzle that didn’t make logical sense, even if some of them felt a bit contrived. I almost have to wonder what the game would have been like if it had no puzzles, as these only seem to be here because the adventure game genre demanded it at the time.
As a result of this approach, Syberia is sometimes bogged down with long, talky sections that seem to exist simply to waste your time. One part of the game requires you to talk twice to three different characters in order to obtain a key item. This means lots of traipsing through numerous screens and sitting through their banal conversations.
The writing and voice acting are hit and miss but do manage to remain compelling in the end. Some of the characters have excellent voices behind them, while others seem to lack enthusiasm and emotion, which can make certain moments fall flat. Even the lead character’s acting can be inconsistent, as some lines land far better than others. The writing can be a bit stiff as well, with needlessly long conversations and responses that don’t entirely make sense given their context.
The music can be good, but like recent games such as Breath of the Wild, the game mostly relies on ambient sounds to set the mood and only occasionally plays music. It’s often very melancholy but occasionally magical, which suits the game’s mood very well.
The version I played on my MacBook Pro was clearly based off of a recent mobile port of the game and isn’t actually the original release. Parts of the interface have cheap-looking comic sans fonts and oversized icons that are clearly meant to be tapped by a finger. There are also annoying achievement icons for when you make progress in the game, and reading documents require you to swipe the mouse up and down in order to scroll through them. In addition, all interactive objects are marked, with absolutely no way of turning this off. This eliminates issues with pixel hunting, something that would make this game hard to play on a small screen. At the same time however, it can feel a bit too much like a gimme for a game that is already very easy. While I don’t regret experiencing the game in this manner, I will say that the only way to get the pure experience is with the Windows version.
While I certainly enjoyed my time with Syberia, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it an amazing adventure game. The writing is stiff at times, and the puzzles are so easy as to be almost non-existent. Nevertheless, the world is beautifully designed and the story is compelling, even if you’ll have to wade through a lot of slow parts to experience it. It’s an adventure game designed for those who want to experience an adventure, rather than bust their brain over difficult puzzles, something that would eventually become the norm with the genre.