I have a confession to make: I suffer from a split personality when it comes to playing adventure games. There is the Scientist, who looks at the physics in a game world, critiques the controls, and generally sits back and observes the entire game in an objective manner. Actually, instead of Scientist, I'll call this person the Observer. In direct opposition to the observer is the Child, who looks around with awe at the fantasy world provided by the game designers, and really doesn't care about inconsistencies, physical impossibilites, or much of anything outside of the "gee whiz!" part of a game.
Why am I exposing my dirty mental laundry to the world? Because I need to to explain my reaction to Syberia, and it may even provide a hint to your potential enjoyment of the game. The authors and implementers of Syberia have created a beautiful, mesmerizing fantasy world, but it is rife with physical impossibilities and logical inconsistencies. For the first several hours of game play, my Observer would sneer at some feature of the game that was just outright impossible. However, the Child would immediately sit up, smack the Observer on the head, and then clap his hands in glee at the sheer fun of the adventure world.
My Child was the clear winner when playing Syberia, so I won't bother talking much more about how the game world was impossible, nor was I even too concerned about inconsistencies and shortcomings in the story itself.
Graphics (quality, animations, cut scenes)
I would call Syberia's graphics beautiful, but that really doesn't do justice to them.
The artistry itself is breathtaking: you are allowed to explore a world invented by strange architects, with a dazzling array of styles. There is Art Nouveau architecture as interpreted by a mad Gothic builder. There is pure Art Deco architecture, with a soupçon of ruined buildings thrown in for atmosphere. There is modern industrial. There is decayed, old-world, sybaritic luxury. There is more, but it's all inventive, beautiful, and worth your time to visit.
All of the graphics in Syberia utilize an extremely muted palette, with no bright, primary colours to be seen. This technique dramatically increases the game's feeling of reality. The use of a muted palette isn't a new trick; several Dutch painters mastered this technique in the 17th century (notably Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda). For those of you fortunate enough to make it to Amsterdam, go to the Rijksmuseum and look at the painting "Still-life with Gilt Goblet," by Willem Claesz Heda; it's not an experience that you will forget in this lifetime. For those unable to make the trip, the picture is avaiable online. I must warn you, the web picture doesn't do justice to the original; go see the original and see why they called these painters "masters."
The graphics in Syberia were also perfect with respect to gamma and brightness. Not once did I need to adjust a single setting.
The cutscenes were all well done, with the final one being amazing for how well they managed to get a 3D character to move in a lifelike manner. Actually, this game is the best I have ever seen in that respect. The walking and running were very natural looking, and even character interactions were done in a quite lifelike manner. It wasn't perfect, though, with some strange (and funny) motions whenever a character had to turn around in place to face a door or stairway.
Any attempt to turn on hardware anti-aliasing completely trashed the graphics on my GEForce II MX video card. I am beginning to think that hardware anti-aliasing is more of a marketing joke than a reality, at least when applied to adventure games. On the good side, it really wasn't needed, since the 3D characters were smoothly rendered throughout the game. There never was any feeling of blockiness at any point.
Sound (music, voices, special effects)
The voice acting in Syberia was superb, with nary a character seeming out of place, and the actors even had some fun with nearly impossible mixtures of vocal styles (e.g. upper class British accent, spouting some of the most outrageous U.S. slang). One section involving an actor singing some opera was amazing, and was definitely not an amateur doing the singing.
Not only was the voice acting excellent, the script writers were easily up to the task. The dialogue was inventive, especially that involving one character who babbles in a hilarious mixture of multiple languages, and you get to hear his wife's translation. I found some of the characters to be less than likeable, but again, the scripting and voice acting brought them alive. Not all characters were fully realized, but if they had been, I suppose people would be complaining about impossibly long dialog sections.
The music was your basic "bland classical with crescendo," but it worked very well, especially during the cutscenes. The music could have been synchronized with the game in a better manner; twice I had to listen to a phone conversation through a full scale crescendo in the music.
I have no idea why, but the voice actors were given no credits at the end of the game. I had to hunt on the web site to find the actor's names.
Story (plot, theme, depth)
I found Syberia to be a great game for two reasons: the graphics and the storytelling. I criticized Jazz and Faust for poor storytelling, and Syberia is a great example of how well it can be done. I didn't have the story spouted to me by characters delivering long monologues. Instead, I was part of an ongoing story that revealed itself as the game progressed. The graphics kept me visually happy, but the story was what kept me playing the game long after I should have gone to bed. I want to talk more about the story, but I think that would spoiling the game. You need to play the game yourself to discover all the unusual (and skillful) tricks used to tell a story without ruining the adventure.
I only have a single criticism of the story: Syberia ends rather more abruptly than I had anticipated. There is a resolution at the end of the game, but it's not the one you may expect, and it leaves some questions unanswered. I don't demand that all questions be resolved by a game's ending, but Syberia takes a bit too much liberty in that respect.
Characters (depth, development, interaction)
Some characters appeared to serve no purpose in the game at all, and some characters were given quite a small part compared to what could have been done. However, the character of Kate, the protagonist, is well explored, and you learn a large amount about her and her life by the time the game is complete. A primary character other than Kate is Oscar, but he brings up some interesting questions best left answered by the game player, not the reviewer. I'll pose just one question: Is Oscar a character at all? Or is he merely an automaton cunningly designed to help explore Kate's personality in the context of the game?
Puzzles (difficulty, uniqueness, suitability, ugliness, linearity)
All games seem to require their share of warts, and the puzzle design in Syberia is definitely less than perfect. I found almost all of the puzzles to be far too easy, with most of them solvable by little more than brute force, or by finding the relevant -- and obvious -- inventory item to apply to the problem. In the entire game, I only found two or three puzzles that involved any thought at all.
On the good side, you couldn't die, there were no timed puzzles, no sliders, no sound-based puzzles, and no mazes. The game designers even had a bit of fun poking fun at maze haters; I'll let you discover what they did.
If the puzzle designers from the Myst games had been hired to create the puzzles for Syberia, then this would have been close to a perfect game for me. The Myst-style puzzles would have been a perfect fit in Syberia's world of mechanical surroundings, but the game just didn't take advantage of that potential.
There was a certain amount of inconsistency with respect to hotspots. There were hotspots that appeared after some trigger, while others were permanently hot for no purpose at all. An example is locked doors: you could select them, but Kate would just make some comment about not wanting to "go down there," or would say, "It's locked." It was a bit of a time waster, since you never really knew which doors might be of interest later in the game, and which ones were just permanently closed.
Controls (user interface, save/restore, sound/video adjustments)
The menu control screen was a work of art in its own right, and was a visual delight. All controls were clearly labeled, with no "mystery meat" navigation to be found. Game saving and restoring was easy, and all games were stored with a small picture and the time and date of the save. A nice touch was that saved games were stored in reverse chronological order, with the most recent save at the top of the list.
Bugs or problems
I was unable to use hardware anti-aliasing (but this wasn't a problem).
The game installs DirectX8.0a without even asking first. If this is a problem for you, you want to be sure that you have a complete backup of your system before installing Syberia.
Once the (maximum) install was complete, the only access to the CD was when starting the game. I assume this was for copy protection reasons.
Uninstalling was complete and clean, except for DirectX, which isn't removable.
- Wonderful graphics
- Wonderful storytelling
- Great voice acting and dialogue writing
- Control panel is a work of art and still easy to use
- Installs DirectX8.0a without asking first
- No credits given to voice actors
- Puzzles too easy
- Some hotspot inconsistency
- Ending was a bit abrupt
Syberia is a world of impossible automatons, wild architecture, and beautiful scenery, with every new corner revealing a visual delight. It tells a story that may be somber in tone, but is compelling from beginning to end. There are inconsistencies in this game, and it ends too soon, but if you can let the Child in you override the Observer, then you should find this game to be pure pleasure from beginning to end.
Syberia isn't perfect, but it's a damn fine adventure. It gets an honoured spot on my top ten list.
This article copyright © 2002, Murray Peterson