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Adventure Game April: Syberia III

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.

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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.

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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in Video Game

 

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Adventure Game April: Syberia

I made a bit of a New Year resolution this year. I play a lot of games like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Half Life, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, that all involve violence and combat. They’re fun and in many cases, quite artful.

But my life as a gamer began with the sedate and cerebral Myst and Riven so I’m going to spend the next month or so reviewing a number of adventure games I’ve picked up in the last couple of years.

So I resolved, having been given a gift card for Steam, that no matter what other games I spent it on, I would buy at least one non-violent adventure game. Steam sales being what they are, I picked this one up for a song. In fact I got a double whammy: Syberia, and its sequel, Syberia II.

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Syberia was released in 2002 by European developer Microids, and features Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer. She has traveled to the sleepy Alpine factory town of Valadilene, famous in its day for producing clockwork ‘automatons’ for work and play. Kate is there to arrange the sale of the over-the-hill factory to a big American toy company, but the owner, the elderly Anna Varlberg, has died without issue. Kate investigates and makes the surprising discovery that there is an heir: Hans, Anna’s brother. Though developmentally impaired by a childhood brain injury, Hans is a genius of clockwork and automaton design, and is not, as was believed, dead, but missing. Kate must track him down to close the deal. She follows a trail through many strange towns and other places, each of which have been touched by Hans’ genius as he pursued his lifelong dream: to find the legendary island of Syberia, the secret last refuge of mammoths.

What drew me to Syberia, apart from the creators evidently being archaeology/palaeontology nerds like myself, was that it shares Myst’s clockpunk/steampunk aesthetic. Like Myst it is also geared around solving puzzles to advance to the next step of the game. You progress through a series of themed lands – towns mostly – discovering secrets in each that contribute to a larger tale.

First off, the game looks great. The graphics probably looked a bit retro even at the time of production; the characters in particular look plastic, and their emoting (mostly in cutscenes) isn’t amazing. But the creators rolled with it by going for cartoony elements. Kate’s eyes are unrealistically big and she can store multiple papers, books and even a narwhal tusk in her jacket somehow; Ivan, the venal villain from the second game has an impossibly big nose, the circus ringmaster has an enormous head and hands, and the mammoth-worshiping Yukol people look like Inuit Hobbits. As a pleasant surprise, Kate isn’t designed for the male gaze. She’s quite tall, willowy and flat-chested, and sensibly dressed with it.

The environments are a work of art, I must say: combining clockpunk and steampunk elements with classic European architecture and scenery, and with fantastical and imaginative designs for fictional creatures and cultures. The game’s advertising makes especial use of the massive mammoth statues at the entrance to Barrockstadt – the second ‘level’ in Syberia I. I’d go so far as to say that this game is better looking than the original Myst, though not quite up to Riven or Myst III. But what is?

The main downside to the graphics is the way you interface with them. Moving Kate around is awkward, since the ‘camera’ tends to maintain a distant, wide-shot perspective. You don’t act as her pilot the same way you do in third-person games like Arkham Asylum or Mass Effect. Rather, you steer her around the environment from afar, in a state somewhere between Dragon Age: Origins and Age of Empires. You have a nice view, but at that scope, figuring out where you can and can’t go can be hard, and sometimes collectible items are extremely hard to spot. I was occasionally reduced to waving the cursor in a search pattern around the screen hoping for the ‘move this way’ or ‘pick up item’ signals to appear, and even then I missed some. Although the environments are big and beautiful, it’s easy for exploration to become frustrating because Kate moves maddeningly slowly.

I’m ashamed to say that I looked at the walkthrough about two dozen times between the two games. Sometimes I confirmed a hunch and spared myself a lot of backtracking, other times smacking myself in the head that I hadn’t spotted the solution. But there were a couple of instances where I can’t imagine how I was supposed to have figured out the answer by myself without hours of trial and error. It’s the blight I’ve heard associated with puzzle games before: that the puzzles only make sense to the people who designed them, not to anybody else.

I get the feeling the developers themselves got fed up with this by Syberia II because the puzzles become a lot more intuitive toward the end of the game – mostly. The puzzles, like many adventure games but notably unlike Myst, require you pick up various sundry items which can be used to make progress elsewhere: keys are common, but punch cards, and even firewood and fishing lures come up at various points. Exactly how they will be useful and where varies – sometimes it’s in the same room, other times you might carry it around half the game. That said, they disappear from your inventory once their job is done, so you don’t end up lugging around dozens of items whose purpose you’ve forgotten.

The trouble with the different levels in Syberia, I find, is that they’re all one step more complex than they need to be. Most of them are based around doing a series of quests or puzzles to get free and clear to move from one town to the next. In talking to people and looking for tools to do this, you find out more about Hans and Syberia at the same time. It does deserve props for a story that unfolds as a consequence of undertaking the gameplay. But it was an ongoing issue that you’d be told to aim for a particular objective and, having achieved it, be told you can’t proceed until you fulfill another objective the game never mentioned until now.
Barrockstadt, the second town in Syberia I, is the worst. You have to open a complicated canal lock, then do a favour for the university to get the funds to pay a barge captain to tow your clockwork train into position to wind up so you can move on. After figuring out and executing all the various steps to get to that point…you then have to go to a new character and do a quest for him to get your exit visa!

That said, I never got frustrated enough to want to give up, partly out of stubbornness but mostly because I genuinely wanted to see what happened.

The story didn’t always make it easy. There are elements that could be pure whimsy, but that also smack of inconsistent tone. For the most part, it’s a clean, non-violent puzzle game, with a magi-tech aesthetic, but by Syberia II we have out-and-out spiritual magic, some strong language – the villainous Ivan calls Kate a whore at one point – and then Kate indirectly kills him by leaving him to be – and I’m really not kidding – eaten alive by penguins! In the Northern Hemisphere!

It also struck me that the creators could not seem to make up their minds what time period they wanted the game set in. Hans and his family made their fortune by making wonderful clockwork automatons and other mechanisms, such as the full-scale windup train you travel on. But Kate has a cellphone! It just doesn’t ring true that a distinguished clockwork workshop would only be closing down in the age of the SIM card, or that an American toy company would want to buy it.

As you move eastwards following Hans’ quest, you encounter people mourning for the glory days of the Soviet Union – although they seldom use the name – as if the Berlin Wall just fell. Yet there is still a wall in Barrockstadt protecting against enemies from the east, but these are described by one character as coming in the form of cossack cavalry!

If they’d set the game, say, right after World War I or in the Depression, it might have worked as a kind of fantasy alternate history. As it is, it is a very strange stew of anachronisms, and that’s before we get to the mammoths!

Speaking of that cellphone, my heart sank a little right at the start of Syberia I because I found some of the dialogue really clunky, inefficient or just boring – so much that I often skipped it once I figured out how. The game has a crude dialogue tree that’s a bit of a slog and the conversations sometimes don’t sync, with one character responding to a choice of words the other character didn’t use. Possibly a translation issue since this game wasn’t originally made in English.

The biggest issue for me was that, in Syberia I, Kate periodically gets phone calls that are, universally, incredibly annoying. Her boss yells at her to get the papers signed and get back to New York, blaming and threatening her over the unforeseen complications. Her mother and workmate witter inconsequentially about their love lives and pester her about coming home. Her fiancee guilt trips her for having to be away longer than five minutes – a massive red flag for emotional abuse. Kate begs, pleads and moans like a put-upon sitcom character in response.

As the game progressed, however, it slowly dawned on me that I was supposed to think that. I went into Syberia assuming it was story-driven like Myst, but it turned out to be character-driven, and this was the starting point for Kate’s arc.

At the start, Kate is a straightforward, no-nonsense woman with all the boxes ticked: upwardly mobile career, nagging mother, chatty best friend, cookie-cutter husband-to-be. The American Dream, in short. However, as the game progresses and she learns Hans’ story and gets increasingly captivated by the quest for Syberia, she gradually realizes that the world is bigger, more magical and wondrous and full of fascinating people. At the same time, she becomes more independent from her mother and more assertive with her boss. Finally, after her fiancee and her airhead friend cheat on her, she breaks it off – with surprising kindness – because the world they represented didn’t fit her after all.

That element has been accused of being a slur on American culture – although as a Canadian I can’t say I mind – but both games share a more general theme against narrow-mindedness. The just-business behaviour of Kate’s boss, her clingy fiancee, the greed of Sergei and Ivan and the fanaticism of the Patriarch are contrasted against Hans as the unshakable dreamer and builder. Kindness is a key theme too – the first game subtly vilifies the use of the word ‘retard’ to describe developmentally disabled folks like Hans.

Some of this doesn’t completely add up. Kate’s boss is cast as villainous in Syberia II for sending a P.I. to chase Kate down and make her come back to New York, but it comes across more as looking for a missing person or employee gone rogue. Especially since Kate’s mother is worried sick – not enough to answer the phone if you call her, admittedly. If, say, Kate had tied off the contract, resigned, and then headed off on the quest, and the law firm had still insisted on hunting her down, or if her bitter ex had been on their case instead of her mom, that would have made me think of them as an enemy. As it is, Kate can come across as a bit irresponsible instead. In any case, the P.I. never manages to catch up, so their threat is somewhat hollow.

As her character develops, the other main characters become dear to you as they do to her. Oscar, the automaton engine driver, while a bit of an anal coward reminiscent of C-3PO, is kind of sweet and surprisingly tragic. Hans is adorable; physically about 80 but mentally 12 with the patience of the Dalai Lama. You really feel like you would do everything you could to make sure his dream came true. As his health declines throughout the second game, there’s a real sense of fear that you might not make it. I grew quite fond of Yuki, the fantastical dog-creature Kate adopts. Kind of reminds me of Naga from the Legend of Korra.

The sense of wonder and mystery is sold really well as you progress, however sluggishly, through a rich variety of interconnected environments. You start to realize that Hans has been slowly building and inventing his way across Eurasia en route to Syberia for decades, and the sense of wonder he leaves behind him is vaguely Messianic. Or, since we’re heading for the Arctic, like Santa Claus.

For all the clunky gameplay, corny dialogue and kinks in internal logic, I’m really glad I gave Syberia a go. It has a good heart: thoughtful character arc, enormous imagination, themes of respect and liberation of the spirit, all held up by lovely environments and music. I found myself genuinely moved by its finale. It’s almost cool that the game ends quite smartly, because it allows you to imagine the next step. Personally my headcanon is Kate becoming a bestselling travel writer and professional adventuress. Although a new game is apparently in the pipeline, so we’ll see. As much as it served to remind me I’m not necessarily intellectually well-suited to them, I was glad to affirm my roots as an adventure gamer, and to have enjoyed a good story too.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Video Game

 

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