Syberia is a 2002 mystery adventure originally released on the PC, and more recently translated onto the Playstation 3. The story begins in Valadilène, a gloomy town in an alternative-world steampunk Europe where wind-up automatons drive trains, read letters and attend funerals. Intriguingly, the game opens with a stunning cinematic of the funeral of factory owner Anna Voralburg, mourner only by a troop of silent, synchronised automatons that follow the coffin up the hill and through the toy factory gates. This kind of opening had me hooked.
The gothic continues in the town, deserted, 2D but beautifully designed. The rain doesn’t stop. The dreary music goes on, sometimes interrupted by a crescendo which has you expecting for something dramatic to happen. The situation is quickly set up. Against a backdrop of local economic depression, lawyer Kate Walker is there to finalise the purchase of the Voralburg factory for an American multinational toy company. But it wouldn’t be an adventure game if it was that simple. With Anna Voralburg dead, it is revealed that her younger brother Hans has inherited the toy factory. And Syberia wouldn’t be a mystery if there wasn’t a long, complicated backstory to gradually uncover through snippets of diary, clues, ghostly flashbacks and evasive minor characters. Or if Hans was easily found.
Though it is not an open world and you only explore a small part of Valadilène before you move on to new places – a street, the factory, a mammoth cave, Syberia’s fantastic storytelling tell you all you need to know about the declining town and its people to be properly intrigued by what on the surface, starts as a simple plot but rapidly evolves into a epic journey to fantastically imagined towns and an artistically constructed alternative world.
Adventure games like Syberia have become a sub-genre since 2002, and it had been a while since I’d played anything like this. The gameplay is a logical challenge, rather than action packed. There is a set order to do things, and tasks have to be completed before you can move on. Relying on puzzle-solving to progress soon makes you look closely at each scene to see if there is anything there that you might be able to use – even if it’s not immediately apparent what for.
Clues are hard to find, hidden in the background and usually behind a series of levers and keys. Forgetting to pick something up often left me stumped and retracing my steps for a long time, genuinely mystified by the Syberia mystery. Items aren’t always immediately used either. You pick them up and find a use for them later. In this way, the progression is very realistic, and thoughtfully woven together. Strands of sub-plot like increasingly revealing phone calls from Kate’s mother and fiancé back home at the strangest times make it an even more realistic experience and add to Kate’s character and motivations. The plot progresses evenly, occasionally slowly, like a real-time drama.
Now for the gameplay mechanics. Using items on people and objects is used to solve many puzzles. You can question the NPCs by selecting topics from Kate’s notepad which again, is easy enough and occasionally repetitive when you think that you might be able to grill a character for extra information. It’s obvious that this is a PC translation, where clicking on wide segments the screen takes you where you want to go. On the PS3 it’s not always clear what your options are, or that there is an opening – just move a step to the left and then you can go there. Moving between scenes is running at the edge of the screen at a decisive angle, occasionally getting trapped and repeatedly ending up in the wrong room (outside the rector’s office, for one). Some of the ‘in betweens’ you pass through to get between scenes are a bit aimless and empty to run through, placed seemingly for continuity, but the load time between scenes is minimal so they aren’t interfering.
I think reviewing this game in terms of mechanics it’s important to remember just how old it is – 2002, does that make it retro? – and that it was released before the PS3 had been invented. For story and character, I was very impressed. Syberia a perfect blend of realism and the extraordinary. Gamers who like battles and action scenes in their adventures might find Syberia too slow-paced, or hard work – Kate Walker might look uncannily like Lara Croft, but it isn’t that sort of game.
Syberia 3 is in development, due to be released in 2015, and a sneaky look at the screenshots suggests a 3d and very exciting-looking instalment that is sure to draw in new fans for the series. And for those new fans, I recommend the original Syberia as a crucial, intriguing part of the epic.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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