I could probably say that I'm a gamer because of adventure games. Back in the day, when an Apple IIGS was a lot of computer, I spent a lot of time working through the early titles in the Sierra Quest series: King's Quest, Space Quest, Hero's Quest (later renamed Quest for Glory), and Police Quest. On the NES, I played the hell out of Shadowgate and Uninvited. I suppose if I was a little older, I'd be talking in the same way about the Zork series.
I couldn't tell you why, but over the years between then and now, it seems that "pure" adventure gaming has almost died out. Its last real blockbuster title was the justly famed The Longest Journey, in 1999.
Syberia, as such, feels kind of like a member of a Lazarus species. It's definitely a modern game, with all the eye candy you'd expect, and it has a few new twists to its engine, but it's still, at least on the surface, the kind of adventure title that started it all. You explore vast areas, take anything that isn't nailed down, and use your inventory in new and occasionally bizarre ways to solve puzzles and circumvent obstacles. Granted, it shares the twist with Longest Journey in that it's apparently impossible for its lead character to die, but it's still very much a throwback to an earlier style.
In Syberia, you're Kate Walker, an American lawyer who's come to the European town of Valadilene on business. Anna Voralberg, the owner and CEO of the eponymous toy company, has died, and Kate's here to broker the sale of the company to an American concern.
At almost the last minute, Kate finds out that Anna Voralberg did not, in fact, die without heirs. Her brother Hans, improbably, is still alive, having pursued his childhood interests to the ends of the Earth. It's up to Kate, if she wants to keep her job, to follow Hans's footsteps across Europe, and in so doing, to find out the secret of a legendary island called Syberia.
Syberia is theoretically set in eastern Europe, but it's almost a misnomer. You begin in a sleepy village with misshapen houses and steampunk technology, where everything's a riot of half-rusted wrought iron and Rube Goldberg machinery. People don't send telegrams in Syberia; they encode their voices onto wax cylinder, which is played via a clockwork music box.
All the people you meet are old men and women who distantly remember a more vibrant time; you get the impression, within each new location, of enormous effort expended to create structures that now sit and rust. From the moment the game starts, it's set in a sort of realistic fantasy plane, where you're participating in thousands of people's shared hallucination. When Kate gets calls on her cell phone from American friends with peculiarly American problems, it's like receiving a transmission from another world.
After that, it's superfluous to say that the graphics are amazing. The comparison has, I'm sure, already been made to Myst; Syberia commands a similar sort of visual power, with intricately designed pre-rendered backgrounds. There's not even any music, most of the time, to detract from that. To call it "immersive" is somehow inadequate.
As a game, however, it's a mixed bag at best.
On the PC, Syberia was a point-and-click game. You moved the mouse to tell Kate where to go, and she went there. On Xbox, you use the control pad to move her. I get the feeling that they didn't quite think to accomodate Kate's new and freer range of motion when working on the Xbox port, for there are serious control issues. She frequently gets caught on invisible walls, or refuses to walk through an area for no reason whatsoever. When you try to talk to somebody or pick up an item, Kate will often re-orient herself, walk a few steps, and take up a position before carrying out the action, making most simple tasks somewhat needlessly complicated.
On the other hand, Syberia is a slow-paced adventure game with no risk of death. The only time you'll need fast reflexes is if you drop the controller, so it's easy enough to overlook some problems with basic movement. You're not gonna die because of them. It's still difficult to shake the impression that, in almost all things, nothing in Syberia needs to be this difficult.
The other problem I have with Syberia is, strangely, that it's kind of easy. While the game has its share of puzzles, it also has a tendency to give you only what you need to solve the most immediately visible puzzles at any time. If you run into a roadblock, just search the immediate area and talk to everyone, and you'll probably hit the solution. Further, that solution is usually painfully obvious; there aren't usually any esoteric uses for items like in The Longest Journey, where you're forced to consider not only what an item is, but what it could also be used for.
The other portion of the gameplay involves gathering information from people in the area, which is fun, but doesn't really feel like a game. Kate's adventure is populated by a wide variety of eccentric locals and bizarre characters, all of whom are interesting and memorable, but there's no art or style to it. You pick conversation choices from a limited menu, none of which have the possibility of changing the game in any way. Syberia doesn't feel quite so much like an adventure title, as it does like an interactive novel where you have to actively seek out the next plot development.
Ultimately, Syberia's worth to you depends on how much you value story in your games. If you play games to be games, and read books for stories, then Syberia is as far from your tastes as you can get. If you're willing to forgive a game some flaws in exchange for a memorable plotline and interesting characters, Syberia has those in spades.