Platform: Xbox, PC
Review Date: 8/15/03
Kate Walker is an American lawyer on a business trip in the French Alps to finalize the acquisition of a local toy factory by the multinational Universal Toy Company. The deal becomes complicated when the owner of the factory dies and a mysterious heir gets thrown into the mix. In order to close the deal, Kate has to track down the eccentric genius Hans Voralberg and get him to sign the contract, but no one (apart from his dead sister) has seen or heard from him in decades. And thus begin's Kate's greatest adventure, a voyage of wonder and discovery as she treks across a bleak and decaying Europe towards Siberia to find her missing heir.
"Syberia" is an adventure game that uses the same navigation model as "Grim Fandango" (1997) and the "Resident Evil" series. The game world is made up of interconnected screens of static, prerendered 2D art, through which a 3D rendered character can navigate and interact with certain objects. The game was written and directed by the famous French artist Benoît Sokal, and the art direction is superb. While the angles aren't overly dramatic, each screen is a beautifully rendered and highly detailed portrait of Sokal's bizarre and fantastic reality. All of the game locations have a similar look and feel, and tell the sad tale of a once beautiful dying world. Everywhere Kate goes there is an oppressive weight of isolation, loneliness, and decay. The game's commentaries on society are anything but subtle, and the overall recurring message of the game seems to be "corporate America sucks and lawyers are agents of evil." As an American lawyer and therefore the embodiment of evil, the protagonist of the game (Kate Walker) is instantly dislikable. She's bitchy, arrogant, and insecure, and won't even pick up things on the ground because they're "dirty and wet." (so she has the local retarded boy pick them up for her) She also has a lying, cheating, selfish, arrogant, and insecure asshole fiancé back home who annoyingly calls her throughout the game and makes you want to scream. Fortunately, the underlying theme of the game is about Kate's awakening and personal growth, and as the game wears on she becomes more assertive, compassionate, open minded, and outgoing, and realizes that there's so much more to life than dating a jerk and being a corporate lawyer.
Production wise, the game certainly looks gorgeous and the brief cut scenes are nicely rendered. For the most part, the voice acting is decent. The women who perform Kate and Helena Romanski are superb, while all of the other secondary characters range from good to poor. The classical music score is also excellent, but there are only four short tunes in the game and they get relentlessly played over and over until all enjoyment is bled out of them. The stock sound effects are average at best. The writing is well done, but a bit overdone. Conversations are lengthy and extraneous, and make awkward stabs at satire and humor that rarely work (although I did burst out laughing once towards the end of the game). There's also a significant chunk of backstory that seems to serve no purpose other than to set up the game's sequel. Adventure game fans will probably appreciate the depth of writing, but I found it to be just more noise to filter out. Oddly enough, for all of its narrative depth, the game lacks any real dramatic punch, and the pay-offs are emotionally flat.
The game is certainly not without serious problems, though. At first it's a quaint and entertaining puzzle game, but after the initial wow factor wears off and you start interacting with the game's increasingly annoying cast of eccentric and insane characters, it becomes a tedious journey into hell. After about two hours of gameplay I realized that "Syberia" is actually a survival horror game thinly disguised as an adventure game, only instead of dealing with deadly viruses and flesh eating zombies, Kate has to endure the horror of endless conversations with idiots and the infuriating madness of the poor navigation controls. Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield never had to deal with anything like this. At least they had shotguns and their adversaries never talked back to them. By the second act when Kate arrives in the University town of Barrockstadt, the game has gone completely out of its way to become the most irritating gaming experience I've ever had. Imagine playing "Halo" (2001) if Guilty Spark were your constant companion instead of Cortana. That's when I realized that the key to enjoying this game is PATIENCE. As someone who's spent a lifetime actively avoiding conversations with annoying people, the gameplay in "Syberia" can be very painful. The game is more about the journey than the destination, and after you realize that you're not going to get anywhere quickly, you can approach the game in a more leisurely fashion and try to tune out most of the noise. As previously mentioned, the game's navigation controls are a complete nightmare and also require a lot of patience and finesse. In most games of this genre, as soon as you walk off the side of the screen or reach some physical boundary condition, you transition to the next screen, but in "Syberia" those conditions are almost incomprehensible. Nearly every screen has illogical invisible barriers and unreasonably narrow exit channels that don't match up with the geometry of the scene. And when you run into a barrier, you can't move at all until you perform a full 180 degree turn, which is extremely klunky and cumbersome (at least with the Xbox controller). There are also several spots in the game where Kate gets stuck and can't leave a particular area, which forces you to reload the game and try again. Ironically, the control issues only mimic and reinforce Kate's own sense of helplessness in the game.
Whenever I strongly dislike a game, I like to understand why. Is it me or is it the game? Is it my low tolerance for fools, short attention span, and gun-toting American attitude that makes conversing with the game's characters unbearable, or is it that the writing and voice acting is bad and that conversations are way too long? Some conversations last for minutes, and at one point you actually have to sit in on a college lecture that lasts at least ten minutes (I didn't time it, but it's exceedingly long and tiresome). Since it's a foreign game, part of it could be the cultural differences in presentation that I'm not accustomed to, and I'm sure that numerous nuances were lost in translation. The game definitely has an arty European feel to it, and the sluggish pacing and meandering narrative feels like a French art film. But is that actually a flaw with the game? Also, like a foreign art film, the writing and presentation seems overly pretentious and full of self adulation, which left a bad taste in my mouth. Interestingly, as I progressed through the game, Kate became more likable and the other characters seemed less annoying. Was this because I'd gotten used to the game world, or is it possible that the anger and frustration I felt with the first half of the game was actually a reflection of Kate's frustration with her situation, and that as a game player, I was growing with her? I think that would be giving the game way too much credit, but it's an interesting notion. Or could it be that the game is trying to present the experience and frustration of being a young, attractive, American female in a foreign country, where everyone wants to talk to you, but no one wants to lift a finger to help? Again, I think that's a projection, but one could certainly argue the point. However, for all of its irritations and dramatic letdowns, by the time I finished the game I felt happy that I made it all the way through, and I'd even grown a soft spot for my annoying companion.
While most of the conversations in the game are mind-numbingly uninteresting,
"Syberia" does feature some memorable quotes, including:
"I'm a lawyer godammit!"
"Give me back my hands!"
"From your mouth to god's ear..."
"There are two things every good soldier is prepared to do: drop his pants and spill his blood."
And the funniest line in the game (which out of context is meaningless): "I don't think of water sports."