Benoit Sokal was the main person responsible for releasing the adventure Amerzone back in 1999. Now, Amerzone wasn’t a great game. It didn’t have much of a story (I don’t think its main character even had a name), its puzzles were rather easy, and it didn’t take long to play. But it had excellent graphics, both technically and artistically, and its four CD’s were cram packed with quality cinematic sequences. Since I usually look for an interesting story and good puzzles when I play an adventure, I wasn’t exactly salivating or anything when I heard Sokal was coming out with a new adventure, Syberia. But something must have happened to Sokal in the last three years because Syberia has almost nothing in common with Amerzone. The same beautiful artwork is there, but now there are more puzzles, better, deeper characters, and, I’m not sure how to describe this, but a wonderful mood to the game. In short, Syberia is the best adventure to come out in the last two years.
In Syerbia you play an attorney named Kate Walker. You’re given an easy to do job, to go to Valadilene, France and get the owner of an automaton factory to sign a contract selling her company to one of your clients. Since the details have already been worked out, it’s nothing more than a courier job. But when you get to Valadilene, you find out that the owner has died, and, worse, that the heir to the factory wandered off to Siberia over 60 years ago and hasn’t been seen since. So you have to put on your detective shoes and figure out where the heir might have gone, and why, and then track him down. Along the way you’ll have to deal with numerous automatons (essentially wind-up robots), visit exotic locations, and figure out why the heir was so fascinated by wooly mammoths. If that’s not a good set-up, I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, the story never really grabs the premise and takes off. Instead, Sokal is content to let you follow the heir’s footprints through Russia, and so Syberia is more of a travelogue. But, luckily, Sokal being an artist presents creative and beautiful places for you to visit (like a combination aviary and train station), and he populates those places with interesting people. So while the story of the game isn’t all that interesting, the stories of the people are, especially that of the main character, whose perceptions of the world change as she makes her way through the game. In fact, the overall theme of the game is uplifting, as the characters all chase their dreams.
As for gameplay, Syberia does everything you’d want an adventure to do. It has inventory puzzles as well as machine-based puzzles, and the puzzles range from starting up automaton trains to discovering secret caves to rescuing opera singers. Plus, the puzzles are easy enough that you probably won’t lose any sleep trying to solve them, but they’re hard enough that you won’t feel like you’re wasting your time, either. Moreover, the game engine is friendly. You can’t die in the game, and you also can’t do anything that would prevent you from finishing it. So you don’t have to keep a multitude of saved games, and you can experiment freely. Lastly, Syberia doesn’t take itself too seriously. It keeps its tone light, and it provides lots of humorous dialogue, but it doesn’t devolve into slapstick or anything outright silly. So Syberia just ends up being fun to play.
The interface even works pretty well. Syberia is one of those games that uses a third-person perspective, with 2D backgrounds and 3D characters, but unlike, say, a Grim Fandango, everything in Syberia is handled with the mouse. Just click where you want to move, or click on an inventory object when you want to use it. The system works cleanly, and Sokal even showed restraint with the camera angles, so they don’t switch so often to make your disoriented or lost. My only gripes with the interface are that some rooms scroll when you walk through them, and the game doesn’t warn you, so you can think you’ve hit a dead end if you’re not playing close attention, and the inventory system is a little clunky and boring. The main character keeps her inventory in her jacket (maybe that’s why she’s so well endowed), and I would have liked the inventory system to be more thematic.
Graphically, Syberia is just a wonder to behold. The locations in the game, from the industrial / space age city of Valadilene to the austere campus of Barrockstadt University to an old mining facility, show a great artistic touch, and they are all beautiful and memorable. Even the 3D characters look nice enough, and they’re given enough mannerisms and fluid enough movement that they provide a nice semblance of being real. Lastly, Syberia comes with over a dozen impressive cinematic sequences, and they’re as good as anything you’ll see outside of Blizzard Entertainment.
If that wasn’t enough, even the sound is pretty good. There are 20 or so characters in the game, and the voice actors for all of them do a nice job. The background music is also good, and it provides a nice sweeping feel for the game, but there are only four tracks of it and eventually it gets a little repetitive hearing the same music over and over again (especially since one of the tracks seems to dominate the others). Syberia also has a problem in that at key junctures in the game the music swells, and regardless of where I set the music volume, it would drown out the dialogue. But luckily there are subtitles, and so it wasn’t a major problem.
So there you have it. Syberia does just about everything right, and it’s the best adventure I’ve played since The Longest Journey. Unless something amazing happens in the next four months, I expect Syberia will take every publication’s adventure game of the year award, and it’s a game you should definitely own if the adventure genre interests you at all.