Nothing like having a scoop. A year or so after discovering the charming and memorable adventure games Syberia and Syberia II, I get the opportunity to play and comment on the long, long awaited third installment of the franchise when it’s fresh.
To recap, Syberia I and II is the story of Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer sent to Europe to oversee the sale of a factory specializing in automatons, clockwork robots that were once the envy of the world. Kate has to track down the last heir to the factory, the aged genius Hans Voralberg, famed for the quality, artistry, and positive humanity of his automatons. Befriending the automaton Oscar, Kate follows the trail Hans has left across Eurasia, working around intricate machines, mysterious ruins, and sinister enemies to reach the Youkol tribe, and beyond, the gateway to the island of Syberia, last stronghold of mammoths and Hans’ lifelong dream.
Perhaps more significant, however, is how Kate herself transforms by degrees from a superficial careerist into a passionate, starry-eyed adventuress, casting off the shallow life in the big city and seeing the world, believing in dreams and making her way in all sorts of surroundings.
Since Syberia III came out on Thursday, we get to continue Kate’s voyages. Having apparently returned from Syberia Island barely alive, Kate is recovered and nursed back to health by the Youkols, and she joins them on the fraught traditional migration of their herd of giant snow ostriches.
Okay, what? I though the Youkols’ culture revolved around mammoths, if only as a distant memory. Where the heck did snow ostriches come from? For that matter, what’s a snow ostrich? They sort of resemble prehistoric gastornithids, as rendered by Jim Henson. We already had the youkis, the bear-seal-dog hybrid creatures, but as something central to their culture, these seem out of left field. Whatever, if I can cope with mammoths, youkis and man-eating Arctic penguins in the first games, I can deal with snow ostriches. Moving on…
The traditional migration to the sacred breeding grounds of the ostriches is hampered with trouble, and Kate must overcome meddling officials who think the Youkols are riff-raff who should be made to settle down and become labourers and use her modern knowledge to help them steer through a Chernobyl-esque nuclear disaster zone. At the same time, Kate herself is pursued by a Russian colonel with his own agenda, and by Cantin, the private eye her old law firm sent on her track in Syberia II. She finds allies, like the old clockmaker, his granddaughter, a broken and penitent ferry captain, and the mysterious half-Youkol girl living almost wild in the ruins of an Olympic complex, as well as the Youkol shaman, and Kurk, the young, spirit-appointed guide of the migration.
With original Syberia auteur Benoit Sokal in charge, it’s easy to recognize the pattern of Syberia: a linear progression between different sites, solving puzzles and persuading characters to advance the quest. Having spent the past two games getting to know Kate’s character, we now have some little power to shape that character ourselves. The dialogue system works essentially the same way as before, with topics to go through to get all the information, but when you have to persuade or explain yourself to somebody, you’re given a Mass Effect-style choice of confrontational, gentle, or whatever others suit the situation. Using the blunt approach generally makes things harder to achieve, but as a character driven game, this little element of roleplaying both shapes Kate in your mind and makes the dialogue itself a bit of a puzzle.
I’m pleased to say the puzzles themselves are much better. Maybe it’s practice but I found Syberia III more intuitive than the last two. Each one is a little step in advancing your progress that is helped with a grasp of logic, physics and a little general knowledge. The controls are neat: rather than select, say, a screwdriver from your inventory and click on the screw to undo it, you actually have to spin the cursor to simulate turning the screwdriver! The game did warn me going in that a controller would make this easier than a mouse, but once I understood the basic tenets of the system, I found it easy enough.
The movement controls have changed. In the first two you moved Kate around by clicking and letting her walk to where you clicked, a la strategy games. Now you steer her around with the W-A-S-D keys. Admittedly, the mostly static camera positions are still there and can place Kate quite far away from you, and it can get fiddly if you move offscreen and then in the new screen angle the axis of movement changes, which can cause her to abruptly change direction if you’re not careful. But it’s no worse than the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I just think Kate should run all the time. She walks so slowly that not holding the run button is pointless, but it’s also awkward to do.
That said, taking the time to enjoy the game environments is worthwhile. The Youkol camp, Valsembor on the lake, the ruined amusement park and all the others are just stunning, with the upgraded graphics engine working for it in a big way. Plus, when exploring, the game will subtly highlight interactive points and objects you get close to, so that you have to search carefully with less of the needle-in-a-haystack feeling of the first games. The environments are further enhanced by the music, which is better than the last games. The music in those wasn’t bad by any means, but it tended to crescendo during dialogue and drown it out, and I ended up turning it off. I left it on far more often in Syberia III. My Dad once joked that he must have been Armenian in a previous life, because of how moving he finds the sound of the duduk. I think I have a similar relationship with Mongolian throat singing.
My primary complaint is that the lavish environments – particularly Valsembor and the Olympic complex – are too big. This wasn’t the Obduction thing where the environment would load for half an hour and then crash after ten seconds, but in addition to taking up an astonishing amount of my hard drive, I periodically got lost in the bigger environments. I also had to take the graphics settings down a peg because they were making my processor wheeze a bit. One of the few times I had to check a walkthrough was because I simply couldn’t find an object I needed in the vastness. Being lavish and being tightly designed are not mutually exclusive – the Youkol camp in this game is gorgeous; Barrockstadt in Syberia I and the monastery in Syberia II bear out that premise. Some of the environments here seem huge in a way that prioritizes realism over practicality, and result in you staying in any one environment long enough to get a little sick of it. The music’s better orchestrated and less intrusive than in the previous games, but in the long stays in each environment, you listen to each piece an awful lot.
The only really bad habit that’s carried over from the old games is the puzzles can pile up. Getting the ferry going is particularly tiresome for this – the captain will tell you ‘go fix this so we can get underway’ and when you’ve done it and report back he’ll say ‘okay, now go fix this other thing I haven’t even mentioned.’ Each puzzle so bred is pretty clever, but especially in the ferry situation it felt like we were delaying the story rather than contributing to it.
The main complaint you’ll hear from the internet hive is regarding the lip syncing. The facial animations are pretty good, actually, but the mouth movements in dialogue are indeed very clunky – I think. I don’t know for sure if the lip sync is bad or just bad in English – Benoit Sokal is Belgian and developer Microids is based in Paris so maybe it’d look better if I reset to French. It would be petty to call that a deal-breaker, especially considering the plastic marionette look of the previous games. The cartoonishness of the character design has wound back to align with more realistic graphics. Kate, Kurk, and a few others benefit enormously – despite her overall resemblance to Lara Croft, Kate doesn’t have ridiculously huge breasts and actually dresses for the weather – but some of the more cartoony-looking characters end up in the uncanny valley somewhat.
I’m not really all that perturbed by how their mouths move so much as with what they’re saying. I have to grudgingly agree with the mob is that the voice acting is, at best, mediocre. The dialogue is good, to be sure, but the voice actors are speaking the lines without actually acting. Not all of them – Kate, thankfully, Kurk, Shaman Ayawaska, Captain Obo and some other performances are on par with previous games. But a lot of them speak flatly with no intonation – the Russian Colonel is really bad – like they’re reciting the lines but not reading them. Which might explain why nobody caught the occasional hiccup in the English translation. The voices themselves often don’t match the characters. Cantin returns having completely lost his New York accent, and Steiner, despite being old enough to have an adult granddaughter and a dodgy heart, has no roughness or weight of years in his voice; he sounds younger than I do!
The worldbuilding in this series was always pretty whimsical, like Syberia I blending clockwork, cossacks and cellular phones. I can detect a few oddities here, like Kate’s varying faculty with languages. The Youkols are the source of a lot of this – their puzzling physique, but also their lifestyle. Sokal might have benefited from an anthropology textbook or two. In addition to the ostriches coming out of nowhere, there’s little in their material culture that reflects their importance, and the Youkols’ lifestyle is depicted inconsistently; they’re described as nomadic, but the village in Syberia II looks permanent, like a Pueblo made of ice, and Kurk mentions that snow ostrich manure is used as a crop fertilizer. What crops? Nomads don’t grow crops, and even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in the high Arctic!
I’m not sure whether I ought to be offended by the Youkols or not. You’re not being invited to laugh at them, but they are a little ridiculous. I don’t have the faintest idea where Sokal got the idea that they should look like obese Inuit Hobbits. The townspeople call them thieves – standard irrational bigotry – but then I find a computer mouse among the Shaman’s personal effects for some reason. At least now they have more words in their language than ‘took-took.’ Plus they’re a mashup of indigenous cultures. Their dress, to my relatively untrained eye, codes as a mix of Inuit and Mongolian, the Spirit Mask in Syberia II looked like it was made in British Columbia, and they use dreamcatchers, a practice originating with the Ojibwe people of Eastern North America. All their talk of what the spirits want seems cliched. There’s also a bit of a white savior dynamic with Kate as the one who has to fix everything.
She still sounds skeptical about supernatural talk even now, which seems inappropriate given her own spiritual experiences and every improbable thing she’s heard about being true, but she does take her cues from the Youkols, she’s not leading them. There is great resonance in the scenario of the nomads being harassed, attacked or fenced in by modern borders, commerce and sensibilities, which has historical basis on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and there’s evidence of the harm done at the Olympic complex which is heartbreaking.
I would say that narratively the thing that bothers me about Syberia III is that it seems oddly disconnected from Syberia II, like there’s another story in between that’s missing. Kate found a temperate island in the high Arctic with mammoths, but that seems not to be important anymore. How did she get back? What was she doing where the Youkols found her? How does Syberia exist? She remarks that the Youkols have made her one of them, but it would have been nice if they’d said that at some point, given her an initiation or something. Maybe it’s me, ’cause I’m working on a fanfiction dealing with this exactly, but it feels like there was a lot of material supplied by Syberia II that Syberia III isn’t using.
The one part of her past that does seem to be relevant is the one that stuck out to me in Syberia I: she gets the contract signed before heading off on the quest with Hans and Oscar, but doesn’t send it back. I still don’t know why she didn’t just fax the damn thing with her resignation letter first. Now, it’s claimed, she’s a wanted woman for stealing the contract and causing mayhem on Russian soil, which rather reinforces the sense that she was kind of irresponsible.
Another interesting difference between this game and the last is that, in Syberia II, Kate was running toward something – Syberia Island – and now she seems to be running away. Whereas Cantin was never really a threat in Syberia II, and seemed to think he was trying to help Kate for her boss and family, he’s more obviously villainous this time: condescending to her and smugly tying her up at the first opportunity. This might represent an attempt to compensate for the negative reading of Kate’s actions in Syberia I: I have a hunch Cantin is lying about her being wanted. He claims Kate’s being sought by the US Department of Justice, but as Kate herself points out, the DOJ wouldn’t send a private detective. The way he and the doctors keep trying to insist she really doesn’t want to do this or that, and the fact that the doctors are in cahoots with both Cantin and the Colonel, suggest this is a bigger plot, and understanding and evading the pursuers seems to be more the focus of her story than the destination of the migration.
Kate continues her trend of asserting her independence and determination, not taking being locked up, tied up, gaslighted or hunted lying down for one second, using her wits and her good heart at every turn. At the same time, her pursuers cast their shadow, she’s left a lot of new friends in her wake with stakes of their own in what happens, and it’s implied that the consequences of turning her back on home and family, be they personal, political or legal, are still to be faced. Certainly they’re facing far darker times than the first games. There’s no combat in these games, of course, but what violence there is, even when Kate has to break a window to get a puzzle piece and cuts herself, becomes somehow more upsetting than a thousand defeats in XCOM or Mass Effect.
Like in the last games, I’ve grown to really care about Kate, Kurk, and the other characters. I think more dialogue would have done a better job, but the job is nevertheless done, and now I can’t wait to see what happens.
Because I don’t know what happens, and this is where it gets really bizarre. At the climax of the migration, just when they’re nearly out of reach of the bad guys, with Kate risking her very life to give the Youkols a chance…the game ends, cut to credits.
For a wild moment, I thought some kind of glitch had triggered the credits early, so I went back and tried again. Same result. We’d introduced the characters and conflicts and then ended the game just as they got rolling! Syberia I and II were originally intended to be one game, so probably Syberia IV will come along in due time, but Syberia I had a distinct ending that made use of everything that had happened in it, and this doesn’t.
I was having fun while it lasted. The game’s new, a bit buggy, but everything that made Syberia awesome was in place: beautiful environments, clever puzzles, good characters, excellent music and dialogue, and it’s a nice respite from games that contain combat. It has some of the shoddiness of troubled production, and seems longer and slower than needed – I can play Syberia II two or three times over in the time it takes to play III once – and the plot barely seems to get going before the game stops! I won’t be angry, because gamers spew enough hype-driven bile online already, but I hope Syberia IV can run with the potential I see in this game. So I shall resume waiting, and maybe play the series to date through again.
Bon chance, Kate Walker.