Space combat sims: “Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger” (PC)

Chris Roberts’ space saga had always tried to mix arcade-like gameplay with a cinematic presentation, but with Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger, the era of full motion video games brought the series even closer to Hollywood productions.

Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (PC)
(USA 1994, developer: Origin Systems (defunct), publishers: Origin Systems (defunct)/ Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, 3DO, PS1)

Colonel Christopher Blair’s lover Colonel Jeannette “Angel” Devereaux is kept prisoner by the Kilrathi after a failed secret ops mission, but while being reassigned by Admiral Tolwyn to the carrier TCS Victory under the command of Captain Eisen and looking for her, he also finds out that the cat race threatens humanity with a genetically-engineered bioweapon.

Hollywood illusions
Even if one shouldn’t expect the high production values of a new Star Wars flick, the CGI cutscenes, special effects and blue screen technology create the illusion of watching/playing a big budget movie. There’s obviously a certain B-movie charm to it with the Kilrathis looking similar to Jim Henson’s puppets, making them appear less frightening. The overall story about the ongoing war between Kilrathi and Terrans is a continuation of the previous games, i.e. the player experiences battles on the frontline first-hand and learns about pilots’ personal war stories, while some interesting topics like genocide are touched upon as well. So the game feels less like military propaganda despite the general bravado of wingmen blasting the cats’ ships to pieces. With a traitor in the midst who sabotages humanity’s attempts to get the upper hand, suspense is kept at a high level, although one can’t shake the feeling of having already seen this in Wing Commander II. The difference is of course that this time one doesn’t watch hand-drawn 2D characters, but real actors perform.

It’s strange how one can get used to subpar acting in games, having experienced so many bad examples in the FMV genre, even with great storytelling titles like The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. While Wing Commander III certainly has its fair share of serious actors like Malcolm McDowell (Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange) as Admiral Tolwyn or John Rhys-Davies (Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir in Indiana Jones) as James “Paladin” Taggart, it also has those who became best-known in blockbusters and then only appeared in minor roles, like Tom Wilson (Biff Tannen in Back to the Future) as Major Todd “Maniac” Marshall and probably the most prominent one-hit-wonder Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) as Colonel Christopher “Maverick” Blair. The quality of their acting performances range from convincing and touching to exaggerated and unintentionally funny. Fortunately some lighthearted humor is present as well, usually at the expense of pilot Maniac who doesn’t realize how his grandeur talk and dangerous flying skills don’t make him a hero, but actually someone people avoid.

Unfortunately cinematic immersion is often broken with a recycling of video sequences, e.g. when choosing a wingman during briefings, watching Blair enter familiar locations or ship technician Rachel comment on the status of his ship depending on the damage taken during a mission, although the first and third part can easily be regarded as an homage to previous games. More problematic is the fact that it’s possible to have the same conversation with a character if one doesn’t leave the room they’re in and that one doesn’t meet certain characters if one doesn’t visit each place during missions. It’s a questionable design decision, because one misses out on a lot of background information about the crew members and even story parts if one doesn’t look for them.

Strong personalities
Having finally a name attached to the main character adds much-needed personality to the rather blank canvas of the previous games, even if the second title somewhat rectified this with a more involving narrative. While one can still play Blair as an obedient flight pilot who follows orders and reprimand crew members who express concern about high command decisions, it’s great to be given the opportunity to turn him into a less by-the-rules man for officials and a more sympathetic colleague for the wingmen. Being on good terms with the latter is especially important, because raising their morale also improves the chance that they perform well in battle, i.e. that they don’t dismiss orders and don’t give up the ghost too quickly.

It soon becomes clear that getting to know the crew members and wingmen on board of the TCS Victory is where the more interesting story segments can be found. Moving around the ship to find different people to talk to gives a great sense of place, as the carrier is a much livelier environment compared to confined spaces like a bar or an office seen in Wing Commander. Of course one can simply jump right into battle and never talk to the NPCs outside the briefing room and thus simply focus on the cockpit action. But this would be missing the point of playing through an interactive movie in which one doesn’t only meet memorable characters who’re part of a greater story, but in which one actively changes their attitudes depending on specific dialogue choices.

Decisions matter
Even when ignoring crew members on deck, one has to get to grips with a light RPG mechanic working in the background, as choosing one specific pilot before each mission only turns him or her into a good wingman, while neglecting the others results in a lower level of flight efficiency. With deaths in war being daily business, an ever decreasing number of available pilots (except for some story-relevant characters) is the last thing one needs, so one should keep an eye on their in-battle training so that they survive the missions when one doesn’t have the luxury to pick favorites. This commitment to NPCs goes even so far that Blair can choose between two love interests, the repercussions felt only later when he either can’t pick different ships and weapons before launch or that one particular wingwoman doesn’t follow orders anymore. However, as one can simply disregard most of the conversations on board and go straight to the briefing room, it’s up to the player in how far one wants these dialogue options to have an impact on the way how missions play out.

Classic but refined gameplay
As far as gameplay and mission structure are concerned, the third part of the saga delivers what its predecessors already did before, i.e. intense dogfights which require fast reflexes, a keen eye on distributing energy to speed, weapons and shields while giving orders to wingmen. Again losing a mission doesn’t necessarily mean losing the game, but simply fighting one’s way back or going into a defensive mission branch. There are a few ground-based missions (one being very similar to the trench run sequence of Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope) and some optional missions depending on dialogue choices. But the rest of the game stays true to the formula of search-and-destroy and escort missions, i.e. one flies from one checkpoint to another after clearing it from enemy ships or cruisers.

Fortunately one can adjust the difficulty levels and with asteroids being less of an evasion problem and an auto-pilot reserved for immediate landing and taking-off from the TCS Victory, navigating through the NAV points becomes less time-consuming, although it doesn’t mean that the standard difficulty level is a walk in the space park. Being able to choose different types of ships and missiles also adds a more strategic element to proceedings, even if by the time one can fly an Excalibur with auto-aiming function, it’s clear that this is the one to pick, as keeping an enemy in sight and taking care of all the fire around one’s own ship is too much to handle at times.

Looking and sounding like a good flick
Technically, the game is a two-sided sword. On the one hand, the orchestral soundtrack is amazing and adds much to the cinematic flair, although the repetitive one-liners of the pilots’ communication channel can get annoying quite fast. The ship designs are detailed even up close with explosions looking particularly cool, while the game runs much smoother on modern systems thanks to DOSBox, compared to the slideshow or blink-of-an-eye-and-your-dead experience of the first two games. On the other hand, the low resolution of the full motion videos makes them a pain for the eyes to watch at times.

A very different but also familiar experience
Wing Commander III: The Heart of the Tiger might not look as impressive graphically today as when it was released and people upgraded their PC systems for it, and the mission design is far from imaginative. But the ambitious project still delivers an epic space saga atmosphere with exciting and memorable sci-fi setpieces few games or even movies can match. The acting isn’t the best, and some melodramatic moments consequently suffer from this, but it doesn’t distract from the fact that one can get easily lost on the deck of the TCS Victory with interesting characters to listen to and, even more importantly, interact with in a way no other space combat game has done since (except for Wing Commander IV). How dialogues can have an effect on missions and wingmen behavior is also a great way to make the player believe his or her choices matter, even if one can skip most of these altogether if one so chooses.

Score: 9/10

Buy the digital version for PC on
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Amazon UK
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Space combat sims: “Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi” (PC)

Origin Systems’ Wing Commander was just the beginning of a space opera that would push cinematic space-sim action to its limits, so does Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi improve on the formula with just one year after the former release?

Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi (PC)
(USA 1991, developer: Origin Systems (defunct), publishers: Origin Systems (defunct)/ Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, Amiga)

The TCS Tiger’s Claw is attacked by a group of Kilrathi stealth fighters, but due to a damaged flight data recorder and no evidence, one pilot is blamed for its destruction, demoted and has to clear his name from treason when joining the crew of the flagship Concordia.

Space opera stories of war and no peace
The story is much more suspenseful and engaging than in the first game. This is in no small part due to the various locations the player visits, i.e. different battle stations, breaking the formula of fly-mission-talk-to-people-in-the-same-bar. While military bravado is still present, the personal stories the individual crew members tell are better written, as they depict a bleak war with many losses and touching tragedies. The gung-ho attitude still shines through in some characters like the suicidal pilot Maniac, but there are enough quiet moments of contemplating the meaning of the Kilrathi war in particular and all its victims. Even if the main character is given the name and callsign the player chooses, he’s easier to relate to, being presented as someone who may still follow orders, but questions them as well, something that was absent from the orderly behavior of the past. Being confronted with a general animosity by various crew members he seems less like the war superhero of the first game and more like a human being with all his flaws, as he tries to earn his wingmen’s trust.

The former Kilrathi pilot Hobbes, introduced in the second add-on of the first Wing Commander, also plays a bigger role, and the way mistrust turns into friendship with the player is another memorable moment. At times the story tries a bit too much melodrama, though, as a former co-pilot serves as a love interest for the player. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn of the Concordia is the typical high-rank official who stands in the way of the player’s career whenever he can, being a stark contrast to Peter Halcyon, the commander of the player character’s fighter squadron on the TCS Tiger’s Claw who always took a personal liking to him, but remained rather shallow, only serving as a promoter for military service. All these small stories draw a much bigger picture that goes even so far that the Kilrathi’s side is constantly shown with their motivations and culture, something that was only hinted at before, turning them into more than just evil opponents.

Same old game with some improvements
The way the story develops at a more convincing and engaging pace is also reflected in the gameplay. Despite the mission objectives being of the generic patrol-the-area, search-and-destroy, escort variety, there are often some surprising turns in missions, presented in cinematic cutscenes that challenge the player with new orders to follow and a few decisions during missions even altering the course of narrative events. The gameplay remains largely the same with branching missions leading to different star systems.

Even if the problematic evasion of asteroids is still part of the game, at least landing one’s ship doesn’t depend on approaching the platform from the right side, as one lands automatically when being close enough. Other than this, the control scheme and dogfighting is as much fast-paced fun and unfairly frustrating as ever, requiring all the flying skills and knowledge of enemy flight patterns with using the right weapon or missiles for bigger vessels to destroy one can muster. At least the wingmen’s A.I. is improved, or maybe it has more to do with them being used for critical story segments, i.e. they’re simply invulnerable or eject at the right time.

Special Ops for the hardcore
Just as with the original Wing Commander, there are two add-ons included, at least in the GOG release, with Special Operations 1 telling the story of more Kilrathis rebelling against their Empire and Special Operations 1 dealing with Mandarin traitors who work together with the Kilrathi to bring down the Confederation. If one has nerves of steel and advanced joystick skills, then these mission packs provide hours of blasting fun and frustration. They also take up certain narrative threads from the standalone product, fleshing out well-known characters and villains while bringing light to their unexplained fates, making them an essential play regardless of the quality of the same-y missions.

Looks and sounds of the past with much blast
Technically, the game looks and sounds better than its predecessor, mainly because cutscenes deliver even smoother animations and (for the time it was released) impressive CGI set-pieces when the various fighters take off or land, while the voice acting contributes to the atmosphere. It might be clumsily spoken and of low recording quality, but it adds to the cinematic experience as much as the great soundtrack. In-game graphics might not be a big step up from the pixelated original, but at least it runs a bit more stable with fewer slowdowns.

Everything a sequel has to be
Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi might look and play exactly the same as the original game with all its frustrations. But if one looks closely at how the story is presented and how characters and world-building are handled, one is in for a surprise, as it’s an amazingly involved experience. There might still be some military bad aftertaste left in conversations, but the tale of revenge, redemption, love and camaraderie is the stuff space combat sims dreams are made of. Even if the missions aren’t varied enough and the combat could do with tighter controls, one still wants to know in what directions the branching narrative goes and to find out all about the different characters’ backgrounds, even the ones of the opposing Kilrathi race.

Score: 8/10

Buy the digital version for PC on
GOG (including Wing Commander I)

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

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Space combat sims: “Wing Commander” (PC)

Long before X-Wing or TIE Fighter made epic battles in space possible, Origin Systems’ Wing Commander laid the cinematic groundwork for the space combat sim genre.

Wing Commander (PC)
(USA 1990, developer: Origin Systems (defunct), publishers: Origin Systems (defunct)/ Electronic Arts, platforms: PC, Amiga, Amiga CD32, Sega CD, SNES, 3DO, PS1, GBA, FM Towns)

Making a name for himself, a pilot aboard the strike carrier TCS Tiger’s Claw goes against the feline Kilrathi race who rage war against the human Confederation.

A long time ago in a galaxy very similar to…
If Star Wars is the romanticized version of war for a good cause, then Wing Commander takes a much more militaristic and realistic approach. While it’s cat-like warmongers the player fights against, there’s a lot of big talk in front of superiors and camaraderie among the pilots. As designer Chris Roberts has stated, the World War II comparison of having different nations standing up against one enemy who wants to rule over all as the supreme race isn’t far fetched. What this results in story-wise is that one goes from one mission to the next with the only notion of fighting in a great war, slowly driving back the forces of the Kilrathi, or actually being driven back, depending on the outcome of each mission. It’s not really literature material, as the enemy remains rather faceless throughout the campaign.

Personal flight stories
Not so faceless are the other pilots who don’t only function as wingmen helping out during missions, but who have their own personalities. One can find out more about them during conversations in a bar where the barman also provides some background info on the various star systems. While these dialogues can become quite repetitive with characters talking about combat tactics and ship details, there are always some personal stories they share with the player which add to the illusion of actually being on the battleship and knowing each individual with their strengths and weaknesses. Fighting alongside them turns out to be a much more personal experience than if one fights with nameless rookies in other space sims, as their deaths mean that they’re not part of the ongoing story anymore.

It’s only too bad that the player character himself remains rather uninteresting throughout the adventure. This might have to do with his attitude to follow every order and reprimand characters like the chaotically flying Maniac, or it might have to do with him not having a real name and background story, as the player can decide how he’s called. However, choosing a name and a call sign still serves to give the journey one takes through the ranks of military service a more personal touch. After each mission one can also see the number of kills the player character achieved on a board in the recreation room. Being compared to other wingmen, this makes for a competitive if only rather superficial experience.

High military ranks and different mission branches
Just as in the Star Wars space sims, one receives medals, is promoted after completing missions or achieving certain goals, usually by eliminating a number of enemy fighters and battle ships. This makes the player feel rewarded, even if it doesn’t change the gameplay or story in any meaningful way. What changes though is the mission structure, as failure in a particular assignment doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the game or a forced restart. One can lose in some parts of a star system and go to a different one, fighting one’s way back through tougher missions. Losing the war can simply turn into an alternative ending, resulting in a much more replayable title than other space sims.

Hard-earned glory in battle
Despite this non-linearity, the missions are rather uninspired, usually consisting of search and destroy or escort assignments. While going from one navigation point to the next creates the illusion of fighting in a wider environment than the simple hyperspace-in-and-out of the later LucasArts space sims, there isn’t much variety in the star systems, although one can get into an asteroid field that doesn’t just serve as graphical decoration, but requires more flying skills when evading the space rocks. Unfortunately, it also means decreasing the ship’s speed and therefore resulting in time-consuming travels between NAV points, as it’s not possible to quick jump if dangers are present, including enemy fighters.

The game is already difficult enough without these realistic touches (even requiring to position one’s ship correctly in order to land on the home carrier), especially if the asteroids are so unpredictable to hit the player (sometimes even right at the beginning of a mission meaning instant death) after having endured a long fight with constantly moving Kilrathi fighters or heavily armored capital ships. The latter require a rather short targeting range of missiles, while the former ask the player to manage the ship’s speed and afterburners of which there is only a limited supply. In the heat of battle it’s quite challenging to switch between the appropriate weapons, evade enemy fire with missiles and simultaneously keep one’s wingman alive.

More missions to die in
Special mention has to be made about the the mission packs, namely Wing Commander: The Secret Missions and Wing Commander: The Secret Missions 2: Crusade. The former spins the space opera yarn further with the Tiger’s Claw chasing after a superweapon of the Kilrathi that destroyed a whole colony planet, a concept not too far removed from the Star Wars Death Star concept. The latter gives a better understanding of the inner workings of the Kilrathi race when it goes on a holy war against a new ally of the human Confederation. It also introduces more interesting characters like Hobbes, a Kilrathi defecting from his people in order to fight side by side with the humans. The general difficulty of these missions is very high, but the gameplay adds more variety in the form of new ships to control and further improves the wingmen’s A.I., making it easier to keep them alive. The story elements are also much better elaborated, as it can be seen in the closer connection to individual crew members and fighter pilots, so that the second add-on already hints at a much deeper experience the true sequel would provide.

Technology from the past with enough blast
Graphically, the in-game battles haven’t aged particularly well with pixelated ships and explosions that look rather ugly when being up close. Even more problematic is the speed in which the game has to be run. Either it’s too fast on modern PCs or one watches a slide show in order to have a chance hitting fast-moving targets. Of course this is a general problem of DOS games run in DOSBox, but it’s a shame that one has to make such compromises with this outdated graphics engine. Still, the hand-drawn characters during conversations and cutscenes have a certain charm, while some of the animations of people standing up during briefings and then running to their ships are fluid and life-like, comparable to the smooth animations of the original Prince of Persia hero. The soundtrack, while mostly composed of military drums, is excellent and varied, with some exhilarating flight tunes to dynamically enhance the action on screen, but also with some jazz interludes which fit the bar atmosphere on board perfectly.

The beginning of something very special
Wing Commander is a game that hasn’t aged well in graphics, although the soundtrack is still quite captivating in the battle sequences. While the mission design isn’t varied enough, the way how the story branches into different versions is quite impressive, considering how arcade-like the action on screen is and how simple the plot and character development turn out to be. It might not leave the same everlasting impression as the Star Wars saga, as it takes itself too serious at times, but as a starting point for a series that would be innovative in technology and game design, it’s definitely a classic worth revisiting. While the GOG version isn’t perfect with its slowdowns, it’s still amazing value for money, considering one gets to play both Wing Commander I+II plus all the add-ons, especially with the retail boxes fetching high prices on the market.

Score: 7/10

Buy the digital version for PC on
GOG (including Wing Commander II)

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon USA

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
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Adventures made in Germany: “Heaven’s Hope” (PC)

Can adventure games with a religious background be any fun to play? Mosaic Mask Studio‘s point-and-clicker Heaven’s Hope is out of development hell to prove nonbelievers wrong.

Heaven’s Hope (PC)
(Germany 2016, developer: Mosaic Mask Studio, publisher: EuroVideo Medien GmbH, platform: PC)

After accidentally losing his wings and halo, Angel Talorel falls down from Heaven to 19th Century Earth and ends up in the small town of Heaven’s Hope where the fanatic nun Greta wants to bring back the Inquisition, while Talorel has to find a way back up again.

Laughing and preaching
Getting humor right is difficult with so many different cultural aspects coming into play. Even something like Monty Python’s Life of Brian can be offensive to some people, while others find it tremendously funny. While Heaven’s Hope never reaches the same high level of British humor, it certainly tries to mix things up a bit. Having an angel on earth as an outsider looking at people’s strange behavior that somehow goes against the church’s or the nun’s rules is an interesting concept, but it only partly succeeds with its humanitarian message.

It’s ironic that Talorel does all kinds of bad things, e.g. stealing a list of customers from a merchant, in order to achieve his goals, something that would usually not even be a point of discussion in an adventure game, as the protagonist often picks up everything that fits into his or her pockets. However, late into the game, the angel sits in a confession booth and realizes how many small sins he did without realizing it. Now if the tone of the game was humorous throughout one could simply interpret this scene as another poking-fun-at-religion moment, but it turns out to be quite preachy, resulting in alternative narrative branches and puzzle chains. For Sunday church, this message should work, but as a seasoned adventure gamer one feels a bit insulted to have every action questioned in this way in addition to be presented with all sorts of bible references.

Fantastical setting and creatures
If one forgets about the not so subtle religious message, then one can find many great things to like about the world Talorel traverses. There’s a farmer whose background touches the Civil War, telling a tragic story about how he lost his wife and how he still remembers her by a stew she liked to cook. Then there’s a bar proprietress who complains about the alcohol prohibition, or a cemetery guard who has bad dreams and is afraid of ghosts. These are only a few examples of how memorable some of the characters are with or without much interaction, i.e. that most stay silent for the rest of the game if a certain puzzle is solved or has to be solved after a special event is triggered.

Special mention has to go to Talorel’s angelic companions Myriel and Azael who try to help him understand certain concepts and traditions on Earth. Some sarcastic remarks are quite witty, even if relying on strange pronunciations of words is a sad attempt at humor. Another example of not hitting the right funny notes is a painting of a red herring hanging in the bar with the sole purpose of having the player think about storytelling conventions.

In addition to these supernatural beings, one also gets to meet talking animals or even a tree who all have their unique human traits like slyness, superficiality and others. With quite a few places to visit, this makes Heaven’s Hope and its surroundings a believable world one wants to stay in for a while despite the dark religious undertone resulting in a story that takes itself too seriously.

In the hands of a puzzled angel
The puzzle design is varied, but not without its problems. Inventory-based object combinations are usually logical, even if using a mouse for cleaning a painting doesn’t belong to that category. One often has more than one objective to complete, and if one forgets about the current task(s), it’s always possible to check in a scribbled notebook that gives additional clues. Talorel can also ask his companions, but they’re rarely helpful, as they either refer to the notebook or state the obvious task at hand. A bit more situation-relevant information would have been nice in this case. The difficulty level is acceptable for beginners, but can be too low for advanced players. However, with different puzzle chains to solve, the reward to open up new dialogue options or visit places which were closed before is motivating enough to keep on playing.

While the solutions and problems don’t stay in the player’s mind for long as in classics like Monkey Island, there’s still enough to do. Unfortunately, some parts of the puzzle design feel as if the developer wanted to give more complexity but ultimately ended up with nothing more than a gimmick. So Talorel’s only special power is blowing life into creatures, talk to them and use a mouse for reaching inaccessible places. It’s obvious when to use these, and in a very short segment of the story one can even switch between three characters which again seems to be just there for the sake of doing what games like The Book of Unwritten Tales have been built around.

This holds especially true for piece-together-fragments-to-build-a-machine and what-urn-goes-in-which-grave-wíthout-going-against-special-rules puzzles which have been done to death in Puzzle Agent, Puzzle Agent 2 or the Professor Layton titles. A few mini games are also infuriatingly frustrating because of clunky controls, e.g. navigating a mouse to the top of stairs while jumping over barrels or keeping the little critter from falling off when losing balance, which happens far too often due to weird collision detection.

Divine presentation
Aesthetically, the backgrounds and characters look great with a hand-drawn 2.5D style. Despite repetitive animations, some of these still fit the individuals and only suffer from slowdowns at times. It’s too bad that the game has long loading times before it’s possible to visit new and old places alike. The cutscenes which use an old film filter are great as well, even if they’re not as numerous as one would like them to be.

The soundtrack is fantastic and suits the fantasy location well, which can also be said about the voice acting the only downside of which is the main character. For whatever reason, Talorel comes across as very stilted, with very few situations in which he speaks as if he knows what he says. Maybe this was done for comic purposes, but as none of the other characters, including his celestial companions, speak in this way, the only explanation is that the voice actor wasn’t given the context or that he’s simply not suitable for the job.

A strange hybrid of fun and serious ideas
Heaven’s Hope looks very pretty, it sounds quite good, and there’s a lot to like in the standard but varied puzzle design. Unfortunately, it does all this by the numbers, only trying to stand out from the crowd of other point-and-click adventure games with its religious themes. It’s here where it falls down, as the main character isn’t that interesting and the story about demonic possession and salvation stands in contrast to the colorful fantasy world. As the first title of Mosaic Mask Studio, it’s a great effort, but to compete with all the other adventure titles flooding the market at the moment, the serious relies too much on allegories and the funny on often not so subtle humor, preventing both to create something coherent in the end.

Score: 7.5/10

Buy the digital version on
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany

Official Website

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page:). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
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Winter games: “Syberia II” (PC)

Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.

If Syberia didn’t have enough snow in it, then MicroïdsSyberia II more than makes up for this, although it has to drop a few storytelling and puzzle qualities on the way.

Syberia II (PC)
(France 2004, developer: Microïds, publishers: Microïds/Anuman Interactive, platforms: PC, Xbox, Xbox 360, PS”, PS3, iOS, Android)

After finding automaton inventor Hans Voralberg, Kate Walker still has a long journey ahead of her before she can reach the mysterious Syberia and bring him to his mammoths.

A journey with many emotional stops
With Hans slowly losing his health and sanity, the plot has a darker tone than the first game. Unfortunately it suffers from inconsistencies and unnecessary narrative branches, e.g. with a detective who is hired by Kate’s former law company to find her whose only reason d’être is to talk about places she’s already been to. As family and friends have already become a part of her past life, this distracts from the main relationship between Kate, Oscar and Hans.

There’s also the introduction of two mischievous villains who come across as exaggerated caricatures with the sole purpose to prevent the three from reaching their final destination. Of course this has to do with the absence of train stations which served to told about Hans’ past, but this comical duo of gangsters feels like a cheap narrative trick to extend playtime.

Change in character and soul
Spirituality becomes an encompassing theme which has already been touched upon with Kate’s personal growth away from the material world she once knew. Now it’s much more prevalent with the zealous abbey of a monastery in the mountains who simply sees Hans’ approaching death as an inevitable spiritual salvation that can’t and doesn’t have to be stopped. Then there’s the shaman of the Youkols, the group of people who had first-hand experience with Syberia and the mammoths, who sees hope in making Kate enter Hans’ dreams to bring back his will to live, as he seems to have given up on ever finding his dream land and relapses into his troubled past with his strict father.

While Walker is still a strong female character, her motivation to help Hans reach his destination often results in cold-hearted behavior towards other people, making her less likeable than before, as she becomes as much obsessed about finding Syberia as Hans is. All this adds to a rather depressing story about soul searching and redemption, although there are still incredible places to visit and some wonderfully weird characters to talk to which give the game its dream-like fantasy quality.

Looking for clues and problems to solve
Gameplay-wise, there are quite obscure puzzles with few hints and even more difficult to find items hidden in the detailed backgrounds. This requires quite a bit of walking around in more open interconnected spaces and triggering certain events before one can progress in the story. While this has been a staple in most adventure games, it’s still annoying to revisit all the locations just to see if a new person has arrived or if another dialogue option is available to acquire a particular object that is needed elsewhere.

The solutions aren’t always logical, and some puzzles rely too much on guess work or trial and error, e.g. when fishing for a species that can only be found in a certain part of water, or operating an aircraft’s communication system with too many buttons to press in a specific order. The lack of automaton puzzles, as easy as they were, is certainly felt in the less varied conundrums.

Dreaming of a white present and black past
Graphically, the game offers countless backgrounds one could easily hang up as paintings, especially with all the snow covering the landscapes. The picturesque environments are less industrialized as in the first game and are full of life with all kinds of animals running or flying around in addition to the characters leaving footprints in the snow or snow falling from branches. This attention to detail is also true for the Yuki, a strange mixture of dog and bear that later accompanies Kate whose animations are quite impressive.

The cuteness and the overall romantic scenery almost make one forget the dark side of the story, even if there is a change in atmosphere when Kate steps into Hans’ past, with known places of Valadilene bathed in an old sepia photographic tone, showcasing the amazing art direction of Sokal. The music with its use of ritualistic drums and chorus parts also adds to the mystic atmosphere, while the voice acting is again of a high quality, except for a few characters.

The end of an epic tale
Syberia II continues the epic story of its predecessor and provides many emotional moments, but it loses its momentum in mysticism and some unnecessary narrative branches. It still looks and sounds beautiful with memorable set-pieces, even if the puzzle design has more flaws than before. However, it’s a spiritual journey worth taking, because there’s simply nothing like it in the genre.

Score: 8/10

Buy the digital version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

Official Website

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