Publisher: The Adventure Company
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 8 = Excellent
PII 450, 64MB RAM, 16MB 3D Accelerator
(Originally published on December 04, 2002)
If you think about it, the adventure genre has it pretty rough. It sits quietly in the background, putting forth small titles that are often too modest and too free of death and destruction to be noticed on the mainstream radar. Then, every once in a while, somebody has to come along and announce in a very serious, disheartened tone that our old friend the adventure genre is in fact dead. This causes everyone to sadly hang their heads and sigh wistfully while recalling the long-gone golden days of LucasArts and Sierra adventure titles. As a result, the genre occasionally has to put forth a very concerted effort to go around, tapping us on our collective shoulder to let us know that it is very much alive and well. Funcom’s excellent The Longest Journey provided one such wake-up call a couple years ago, and although it doesn’t quite succeed on the same level, Microids’ Syberia attempts to do the same.
Set in modern times, Syberia opens with a shot of our hero, corporate lawyer Kate Walker, as she stands atop a hill in the small, sleepy French town of Valadilene. Using her umbrella to shelter herself from the rainstorm, she watches as a small parade of mourners make their way from the church as they slowly and almost mechanically make their way up and over the hill. As they come into view, however, Kate is able to make out through the rain that the procession isn’t actually made of people but rather of metallic and clunky automatons, with very human movement and characteristics. To see this group of lifeless machines paying their respects to the dead is an exceedingly eerie moment, and it’s one that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the game.
It turns out that the funeral in question was for the town’s longtime friend and economic savior, Anna Voralberg, who owned and ran the city’s world-famous clockwork automaton workshop and factory. Without Anna at the helm of this once-prosperous company, the city risks financial ruin, or at the very least stands to lose the old-fashioned values that so clearly marked the city; although Kate cares little for tradition or the city’s well-being, she is tremendously concerned by the fact that she finds herself in Valadilene to have Anna sign the company over to her American client, a large toy corporation. Though Anna’s death should represent little more than an inconvenience as the paperwork had been put through ahead of time, Kate finds herself stopped cold by the discovery that Anna has a long-lost brother, Hans, who is now the heir to the family factory. As a result, you’re forced to revive the 70-year-old tracks of this disappeared relative, sending you through various locales on your surreal journey to discover more and more about Hans—and yourself.
With most adventure games, atmosphere is important, and Syberia is no different as it possesses a unique sense and feel that truly cause it to stand out. As so perfectly exemplified within the opening shot, Syberia is, by and large, an experience about sorrow and loss that almost seems to take place in an alternate dimension. Everywhere you visit on your journey is long past its prime, with run-down, crumbling buildings on tired skylines that have obviously seen better days. Most people you come across long for something that they can’t have—not without your help, anyway—and even the ever-elusive Hans Voralberg represents a sad tale. As you follow in his wake, you find yourself among the people whose lives he has touched, and the numerous highly complex automatons that serve as his legacy. As a result, you’re left feeling as though you’re chasing a distant memory tinged with both hope and constant sad regret. Even the many automatons themselves represent this sort of lifeless shell of humanity; needless to say, it’s a powerful, foreboding atmosphere, and it’s carried off surprisingly well, though it’s one that’s likely to be best appreciated by a mature audience.
If adventure games were judged on atmosphere alone, Syberia would easily become a mainstream classic. It’s when you look a little closer and examine the game’s puzzles, however, that some people will find themselves turned off. This is a traditional-style point-and-click adventure, and while it allows you to collect various inventory items, it doesn’t allow you to combine them; this isn’t so much a problem as it is an indication of how the puzzles are often only moderately challenging. Since your cursor lights up to indicate the few interactive hotspots, you’ll almost always know what needs to be obtained or done in order to complete an objective, even if you haven’t seen the necessary objects yet; the puzzles are often that straightforward. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a number of surprising twists to be found, or that the puzzles themselves are uninteresting. Rather, they tend to be somewhat fascinating—even if you can guess at what’s needed—and often serve to further the story in unpredictable ways, as each piece unlocks yet another aspect of Hans’ life, and sometimes shines light on your own. This tends to give the game a leisurely pace, giving you just enough slack to absorb the story but not so much that you’ll find yourself getting sick of a given area. It’s a good balance for those who want to enjoy a well-told and emotional tale mingled with some puzzles, though die-hard puzzle fans who want nothing more than to be challenged will find themselves rather disappointed.
With the game’s simplistic puzzles comes a simplistic control scheme that’s obviously been designed to allow players to focus on the game rather than the interface. Between the one-touch point-and-click, easily accessed inventory and the cursor hotspots, things are kept as user-friendly as you could imagine. The only thing that could have used work is how you get Kate to run: although you ordinarily only need to double-click on a certain spot to break into a sprint, this doesn’t apply to exit hotspots, where double-clicking leaves you ever-so-slowly walking. Strangely enough, if you double-click somewhere and then click on the exit, Kate will run to the next area. It’s a small, strange oversight, and it’s not terribly inconvenient, but it’s a slight irritation nonetheless.
Although a story can go a long way in projecting a game’s atmosphere, graphics can often make the difference between “interesting” and “immersive,” and Syberia‘s visuals are certainly strong enough to change things for the better. The various environments look terrific, with the sense of sorrow that fills the game coming through very clearly in the decrepit, worn-down buildings that dot the landscapes. That which is still alive and kicking is also represented well: for instance, you might see flocks of birds swarming back and forth through an overgrown greenhouse/aviary. The characters themselves look equally great, with their impressive animations, textures, and models keeping up the standard set by the rest of the game; the only sticking point here is are people’s hands, which look as though they’re made of wood. It’s a minor point, and one that’s easily overlooked in light of the general graphical excellence that marks the game.
Between the excellent ambient sounds and the general effects, Syberia‘s audio is as strong as could be hoped for. Nature hums and buzzes around you as you walk down forest paths, while decades-old automatons loudly creak to life as you interact with them; it’s all very well done. The voice acting is also fairly good, for the most part; the main characters are of professional quality, though the side characters—especially Kate’s personal acquaintances—are so ham-fisted and overdone that you’ll dread any time that you have to hear from them. Thankfully, the music more than makes up for these shortcomings, as it provides a soft orchestral touch that enriches the adventure tremendously.
Heavy on plot and light on puzzles, Syberia isn’t going to have the same widespread appeal enjoyed by the likes of The Longest Journey. This is a shame, since it’s actually a high-quality title that tells a great story while immersing you in one of the most interesting and intelligent environments seen in recent years. The graphics are a joy to behold, the music is both beautiful and epic, and the story is extremely well told; the relatively low challenge offered by the game’s various puzzles is the only item that will scare away prospective fans. If you’re willing to put up with the low difficulty, however, you’ll discover that Syberia to be one of the best adventure titles of the year.