Finding myself with nothing to do all day long these days, my fancy once again returned to an old friend: the vast, time-sucking, meaningless void that is computer gaming. I dabbled back into the Real-Time Strategy genre, the Turn-Based Strategy genre, the Stuff I Used To Spend Quarters On genre, and the Put Flags On The Squares With Mines In Them genre. As enjoyable as these nostalgic trips back to my youth (or at least, my less-oldth) were, they were terribly fleeting ones, and as a man who has countless, countless empty hours to fill up, I needed something which was going to assuage my boredom for some serious chunks of time, without requiring too much mental energy on my part. And if there has ever been a more apt description for the adventure game than that, I certainly have never heard it.
So it was that I found myself in the one section of the computer games store that I thought I'd never return to: the section labelled "Adventure", which these days includes about four different games with a wizard on the front, and then the spill-over from the "Family & Kids" section, offering me a choice of games with names like "Wizard Scrolls: The Elven Spell Chronicles", "Islewand: Warlock Magic Demonspell Legends of Magic: The Forest Halflings", and "Learn To Count With Unlicensed Muppet-Like Characters". Way at the bottom, though, was a box I'd been seeing out of the corner of my eye for the past six months or so: A little white box with some chick's face on it, with the title splayed along top in a jaunty script font. "Syberia".
I vaguelly recalled reading a glowing review of this when it first came out, in the middle of 2003. After completing the game, I sought out that review, and found it once again on GameSpot, which gave it a 9.2 (one of their highest ratings ever), and which proudly pronounced, right at the beginning, that Syberia proved that the adventure genre is alive and well!
Well, let me tell you. If Syberia is any indication, the adventure genre is indeed alive, but with oxygen tubes stuck up its nose, able to digest only pureed peas and ice shavings and requiring twice-hourly nurse visitation to clean out its bedpan.
In Syberia, you find yourself playing the part of said chick on the white box, one Kate Walker, American lawyer, who has been sent to the French Alps to close a deal delivering ownership of the "Vorelberg Toy Factory" to some monolithic toy-making conglomerate. Kate arrives, has the owner sign the papers, and then goes home.
Ha ha! No, not really. See, unfortunately for ol' Katie-poo, the owner of the factory, one Anne Vorelberg, has recently kicked the bucket, and is survived by a long-lost younger brother, Hans, who nobody knows where the hell he is. And so, Kate takes off on her journey to find Hans and have him sign the papers.
This part of the story is really rather compelling. Hans, mentally and physically stunted since a childhood accident, was also left imbued with a particular genius for the the design of miraculous mechanical clockwork doohickeys, from humanoid robots to wind-up life-sized trains to... well, as part of the joy of the game is seeing all the neat gadgets Hans concocted, I'll not describe any more. Suffice it to say that we learn that Hans spent his life feeding two great passions: One, developing these grand sculptures of gears and springs, and two: mammoths (just trust me on that one). Throughout Kate's journey, we see remnants of Hans' work everywhere she goes; entire towns run by a collection of Vorelberg "automatons", vehicles, toys and contraptions of all sorts, knitted together by the thread of his obsession with mammoths.
Further background into the history of the Vorelbergs is told by flashbacks, initiated by way of one of Hans' most precious creations, a small platform on which figures on him and Anna are animated by internal mechanisms to walk, talk, hug, cry, and otherwise act out scenes from their early life in pre-war France. These cut-scenes are some of the most emotionally effective moments of the game. In fact, in many ways, the game is more about the Vorelbergs than about Kate, though at times the game desperately tries to prove otherwise, to disastrous effect. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Production values are largely excellent, the highlight without question being the absolutely gorgeous, brilliant artwork that provides the environment for Kate and the various objects with which she interacts. As with most graphic adventures, this art is, save for a ripple of water or two, static. It is, nonetheless, fantastic to look at, and the very best part of the game.
Ambient and reactive sounds are also of a generally high quality, and the original score is quite fitting and lovely, though the player generally only hears it whenever Kate solves a significant puzzle, and during cut-scenes. The cut-scenes themselves, while there are only a handful or two, are excellent, and often very moving.
The mechanics of gameplay are fairly standard for a modern graphic adventure, with the game being entirely mouse-driven. One simply points to the spot on the screen where one wants Kate to go, the mouse cursor changing whenever a particular action (talk, use, put, get, etc.) can be taken on whatever object rests under it. I had no problem hunting for any pixels, and while it is a minor annoyance that it takes Kate so long to traverse one end of the screen to the other, the ability to make her run slightly alleviates the problem (although, about the tenth time you see her run from one end of a giant courtyard to the other, it starts to get a little old.)
Her movements themselves alternate between being quite realistic (walking and running) to being ludicrously mechanical, as if she's one of Hans Vorelberg's automatons. Stairs in particular are a major irritant, as no matter what speed Kate is moving, and no matter where she's coming from, when faced with stairs, she will stop, slowly orient herself perpendicularly to the stairs, and then quite laboriously step up the stairs. And there are a lot of stairs in Syberia, so by the end, you're happy to find any spot of flat land to move across. NPC (non-player character) movement is similarly hindered, as anything other than walking straight is a big problem for these fellows. If one is facing away from you, and you alert him to your presence, he will turn exactly 90 degrees, pause, then turn 90 more degrees, pause again, and then greet you. For a game already langourous in its pacing, this feels a little like adding insult to injury.
Dialogue and voice acting is (with the exceptions mentioned very hatefully below) passable, occasionally amusing, but mostly perfunctory. The dialogue engine itself is something of a rough edge, as there are pauses in between each character's lines, which works fine in a normal conversation, but sounds very odd and stilted when (as they often do in this game) one character interrupts another, leading to unfortunate, confusing transitions. But as the game is not as "talky" as some other recent adventure games, this niggling problem quickly fades from your list of concerns.
The puzzles themselves are... well, there's really no other way to put this: Easy. This is an easy game, obviously designed to tell the story with an occasional challenge, rather than to provide challenges tied together by the story. If you stick by the traditional adventure operating procedure of "go everywhere, pick everything up, talk to everyone", there's virtually no way to go wrong. I personally was stuck twice, once just because there was a room near the beginning I forgot to go into, and once because of the one non-straightforward puzzle in the entire game, which requires a little guesswork (and dare I say it, a little mindreading of the designer) on the player's part.
The remainder of the puzzles are largely of the "A. You need a key, B. Move into the other room. C. Look, a key!" variety, with a few opportunities to figure out how one contraption or another works, though these rarely require more than a brief thought to fully grasp. Some of the puzzles seem rather ridiculous and arbitrary in nature, though I am willing to forgive this as an unavoidable characteristic of the genre. For instance, one is told (by university professors, no less) that such and such machine has been broken for years, and it would be so nice if you could fix it for them, since you've shown such an aptitude for mechanical things. You look at the broken whatever-it-is, and using your vast powers of mechanical analysis, pull the one lever sticking out from the machine, and voila! Rube Goldberg, eat my shorts!
So, beautiful graphics, easy but logical puzzles, and an interesting story. What's not to like?
The search for Hans is a good enough story, and could have carried the game to its conclusion on its own. If it had, the game would be much, much better than it is. However, there is a side story here that you are supposed to care about, but assuming you are a human being over the age of six, there is no possible way to react to this side story with anything less that complete and utter revulsion. For while Kate is hunting down Hans, we are pleaded desperately with by the game to both care about Kate, and also understand that she's going through a process of soul-searching and spiritual metamorphosis, taking her from her old life in which we are supposed to understand (though this is never clearly demonstrated) she's this meek, subservient, delicate little flower, but now she's being empowered, and is embracing adventure, and learning that there's a whole world out there, and she doesn't need to be held down by any of the people who infest her life back in the States!
The game's attempt to tell this story is its very worst aspect, and one of the most horrid design/writing choices I've ever been victimized by in a video game. First of all, we are never once made to give a crap about Kate in the first place, so what do we care what "changes" she's going through? And second of all... the cell phone.
We learn all about Kate's life through occasional cell phone calls she gets (and I want to know what provider she uses, because even underground, in the furthest reaches of western Asia, everything comes through clear as a bell) from four characters back in America, characters which are possibly the worst written, worst voice-acted, and most poorly conceived characters since Zero Wing, though perhaps their awfulness is just underscored by the relative decency of the rest of the game. Here we have her mother, a doting, annoying old bat who talks to her daughter like she's a four-year-old, her obnoxious friend Gloria, who calls every once in a while to tell Kate that, omigod, there was a sale at Boffengerfer's department store and she got just the most gorgeous blue silk top for only $200, and... So yeah, we hate her too.
Then there's her boss, who is just such an incredibly over-the-top asshole that one wonders how the writer(s?) thought for a second that anyone would buy that such a person could actually exist. Check this, he sends Kate to do this job, Kate has a problem (Anna died), Kate explains this problems to him, explains what she has to do to get the papers signed, and he spends the rest of the game calling her, getting progressively more angry and threatening, yelling at her about, "Goddammit, what the hell are you doing out there? I want results, bitch! I shoulda sent someone who could handle this if I knew you were such a fuck-up! ARRRGHHGHGHHH!!!!"
Indeed, the boss would be the worst character in adventure game history, if not for...
Ugh. Even the name gives me the churns.
Dan's her boyfriend/husband/something (we find out later "fiance", but it doesn't matter), and Dan's just in a tizzy that his widdle Katie is out in the world, and not at home in the kitchen whippin' up a big bowl o' beef Stroganoff! So Dan keeps calling, and keeps calling, and "When are you coming home!? Where are you!? What's going on!? I FEEL LIKE WE'RE GROWING APART!!" And then DAN starts getting mad and yelling at her, "Come on, Kate! Come home, you whore! You're probably banging those professors that asked you to fix that whatever it was that the reviewer mentioned earlier! COME HOME TO ME, goddammit! So you can be with ME, because I'm such a fabulous boyfriend obviously!"
And they're aaaall telling her, "You're changing, Kate! You're not yourself anymore!" Is she changing? Of course not! She still can't get up a flight of stairs without swiveling around like she's standing on a lazy susan, and she still hasn't gotten smart enough to quit answering the goddamn phone, because everyone who calls on it is an unmitigated, whiny, annoying, obnoxious douchebag.
After this game, I'm thinking of cancelling my own cell phone service.
The only thing more poorly conceived than this whole contrivance is its execution. Take this part of the game out, and you have a very passable, very pretty, often enjoyable adventure game. With it, you have a possible lawsuit on your hands from when you threw your computer speakers out the window and they landed on some guy's new Porsche.
If you can train yourself to shut off your mind during these segments, or to just laugh at them rather than feel incensed, enraged, and condescended to, you'll be much better off, as you're left to get on with the business of tracking down Hans. But then, there's the other main problem.
This game has a long introduction, spanning four gorgeous locales, lots of puzzles, lots of exploration. Lots of buildup, as you get closer and closer to getting to the titular location, having the whole mess sorted out, and being left dumbstruck by the awesomeness of what has just transpired before you. The excitement level rises as you can sense the introduction coming to a close. You've come a long way, and you're finally nearing your destination. You're so close you can taste it. Things are about to get interesting...
And that's when you see...
What? WHAT?! NOOOO!!!!
Incensed, I immediately logged onto GameSpot to load up the game's page again, and what on Earth did you think I saw, right on the top of the "latest news" column?
Syberia II ships 03/26/2004
Well, no shit.
So now I've got a dilemma with regard to buying the sequel. On the one hand, I put a bunch of hours (15-20) into this game, invested a lot of energy into following the story, and did, in general, enjoy the experience.
On the other hand, I didn't see any scene at the end wherein she dumps her cellphone into a Vorelberg-Brand Trash Compactor.