Reviewed: August 7, 2003
Released: July 28, 2003
When I first got started playing computer games about the only genre you could find was the adventure games. Back then it was all text parser where you had to type in your commands and hope for the best. Then around 1991 with the advent of VGA and the emphasis moving towards graphics rather than immersion and interactivity we lost the text interface in favor of the point-n-click adventure. Admittedly, these games were nothing more than a pixel hunt where you tried to find “hot spots” on each screen and then try everything possible until you stumbled on the correct solution.
Somewhere in the past decade adventure games have fallen by the wayside in favor of FPS, RTS, and RPG style games and consoles rarely see a true adventure game. Even though the adventure game is all but extinct, there are a surprising number of old-school adventure gamers who are always patiently waiting for that next big adventure. It takes a lot to make a great adventure game and the truly good ones are few and far between. The last epic adventure to release for the Xbox was Myst III: Exile, which set a new bar for modern day adventure games and proved that the genre could survive on consoles.
Syberia is the latest attempt to revitalize console adventure gaming, and while it is an amazing visual tour de’ force, many hardcore adventures might find this title a bit weak in the gameplay department. It takes a lot of elements to combine to create the perfect adventure and Syberia only covers about half of them.
The first thing that is required to make a good adventure game is a compelling story; one that grabs you from the beginning and can carry the action and puzzles throughout the duration of the game. Syberia puts you in the legal shoes of American lawyer Kate Walker who has been sent to Europe to finalize the paperwork for the purchase of the Universal Toy Company. When she arrives in Valadilene things start to go wrong the moment she checks into her hotel room.
The owner of the toy company has died which would normally make things pretty cut and dry except that her heir who was supposedly dead now turns up to be alive. You must now track down Hans Voralberg and complete the purchase. This leads to a traditional series of not-so-challenging puzzles, exploration, item collection, and conversations with the local inhabitants – pretty standard adventure stuff.
My big problems with Syberia stem from the shallow story that fails to get more involved or engaging than what I have already told you. There is no huge conspiracy, murder mystery or sinister plot. You just follow the footsteps of Hans through several exotic and fanciful locations solving puzzles so more morsels of the story are spoon-fed to you. And just when the story starts to get good the game come to an abrupt and disappointing ending. Perhaps this is a lead-in to a sequel, and I don’t mind a good cliffhanger as long as I feel fulfilled in what I have already played. Unfortunately, Syberia just left me with an incomplete feeling like I had ended the game early without finishing it.
Syberia features a simple interface that blends right into the game and never distracts. A golden halo is your main cursor and it will glow when you are on a click-able object. One annoyance is that the halo doesn’t always glow at the edge of screen when you can continue to another view. Sometimes you simply have to move toward the edge and see if the view will start scrolling. The halo only glows when the view will actually change to a new perspective and finding this location is often more challenging than some puzzles.
Much of the gameplay is walking around and exploring. Kate moves a bit too slow for my taste, especially when you take into consideration you will be backtracking across previously explored screens, so you will want to keep the "run" button mashed down most of the game. As you explore the beautiful painted backgrounds, you will collect everything that isn’t nailed down and talk to anyone who will give you the time of day.
As you collect items and talk to people more entries appear in your journal which is used to converse with the various inhabitants. This ultimately requires you to check back with previous encounters as new topics become available. You also have a cell phone at your disposal for checking in with the office, mom, and your boyfriend. The controls are as simple as the interface. You can interact with items by pressing a button and you move around using the left stick. Most important is the right trigger that allows you to zoom in and read the various documents you will find throughout the game.
Some of the best puzzles in the game deal with the clever if not downright ingenious automatons (don’t call them robots) created by Hans. These little devices are scattered about the game and make the simplest task seem exceedingly complicated, but a delightful to watch. One of the earliest gizmos is a mechanical doorbell that requires you to insert some documents into the hands and press the button. A mechanical head will scan the papers allowing the person inside to view the document with a periscope device before allowing you to enter his office.
None of the puzzles in the game are exceptionally challenging and there is no real way to die or fail in your quest. The game is also virtually bug-free which makes this a refreshing change from those other games that require frequent saving and loading of games. You can muddle your way through Syberia by simply visiting every screen and “scanning” the display for hotspots you can interact with, either with the magnifying icon, the take icon, or the glowing halo. As long as you exhaust all available options you will be led through the adventure with a series of obvious clues and story devices.
Syberia is gorgeous. Each and every screen is a work of art and combined, the game is a gallery of some of the best visuals I have experienced in a modern adventure game. Everything has a washed-out look about it, almost like a haunting mist is permeating the game, but this is more of a unique visual style than a graphical deficiency. As good as Syberia looked on the PC the Xbox version manages to improve upon those graphics, especially in the movies. The cutscenes are exceptional and feature beautiful pre-rendered visuals that closely resemble the gameplay graphics. This creates a seamless blend between the interactive segments and the narrative movies.
Kate and the other characters are created in 3D and are integrated into the 2D backdrops with great care. Unlike other games of this type where the characters pop-off the screen, the cast of Syberia all share the same pastel look and use anti-aliasing to smooth those annoying jaggies so they all seamlessly merge with their backgrounds. The character animation is wonderful. Kate and the rest of the cast all move with lifelike animations thanks to motion capture technology. Kate will break into a run then stop and cautiously climb some steps and it all blends together wonderfully.
The interface is excellent, simple to use, and very intuitive. The control icons are all self-explanatory and the inventory menu and rest of the control menus are easy to operate. There are all sorts of nice little subtle animations, mechanical in nature, that appear through the game menus creating an immersive presentation from opening title to closing credits.
The sound and music in Syberia compliment the visuals perfectly. The soundtrack is a blend of fantasy and haunting orchestral tunes that blend into the background and create a wonderful and often eerie atmosphere. The best thing about the music is that is only appears when needed leaving you in appropriate silence for a majority of the game allowing you to appreciate the ambient sounds.
The voice acting is excellent for the most part. There are a few annoying characters that really could have been left out without harming the story including Kate’s mother. All of the other characters offer a great selection of dialog and in some cases you can ask the same question and get a rephrased answer. Everyone has great authentic accents and charming personality that comes through with every syllable.
Sound effects are worthy of a motion picture. Every sound is authentic and meticulously placed into the world to create a totally immersive and interactive experience. Every footstep is accounted for on any type of material Kate might be walking on. The eerie silence of Valadilene is broken by the cheerful sounds of chirping birds or the creepy sounds of whispering winds. Water has appropriate sounds whether it is trickling in a nearby stream or crashing in white foamy breakers along the beach. Of course the best sounds are the intricate mechanical hums of the numerous automatons. The Xbox version features a Dolby Digital mix that surrounds you in all these wonderful sounds.
Syberia will keep you busy for 15-20 hours based on your experience with these types of games. The fact that many of these puzzles are easier than most veteran adventurers are used to detract significantly from the overall game time, but this also makes the game more approachable by novice or first time gamers looking to explore this forgotten genre. Face it, there just aren't a lot of "adventure" games on consoles these days.
As with any other game in the adventure genre, there is seldom a reason to replay Syberia. Much like any book, once you have played it out to its conclusion there is nothing different when you start the process over again, but also like a good book, you'll probably want to revisit the adventure sometime in the future.
Syberia has almost everything it takes to make it as a great adventure game. The designers have nailed the graphics and sound presentation down to perfection, but the less-than-compelling story, and simplistic puzzles will have most adventure aficionados yawning after a few hours.
Even so, in these days of only one or two adventure games being released each year, Syberia will probably fill that longing desire of Xbox owners to play a classic adventure game, especially if you have already conquered Myst III: Exile. The classic artistic design and wonderful acting is probably enough for most gamers to take this one for a spin.