Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
Even if the first Syberia is lacking in the snow department (preparing for the wintry sequel), Microïds‘ point-and-click adventure collaboration with esteemed comic book author Benoît Sokal doesn’t disappoint in evoking dreamy, nostalgic feelings so prevalent during that time of the year.
Lawyer Kate Walker is sent to the small French village of Valadilene to bring the take-over of a toy factory to a close, but with death of the owner, Anna Voralberg, she has to find her missing brother as the sole benefactor to seal the deal for good.
Material woman in a mechanical world
What first appears to be just another step up the corporate ladder for the young and aspiring lawyer soon turns out to be an emotional, spiritual journey, as she discovers more about the tragic family history of the Voralbergs, Anna’s brother Hans’ love for building automatons and his search for the mystical country Syberia where Mammoths are still alive. The way the story unfolds is both epic and touching with diary entries by Anna pulling at the heart strings of the player, a feeling further enhanced by music box cylinders providing audio recordings of the siblings’ past communication.
In addition to the human relationships, it’s the places changed by Hans’ inventions and constructions Kate visits which leave an everlasting impression: automatons playing music in front of a university where the steps leading up to it are lined by gigantic mammoth statues, a mechanical bird that chases away real ones in a train station that feels more like a tropical paradise, or more importantly a train that has to be rewound at each station, with its driver, Oscar, bringing Kate from one vista to the next.
Oscar might not seem like the easiest companion with his reliance on protocols and lack of humor (which again make up for some lighthearted moments), but he soon grows on the player. The same can be said about Kate who at first behaves like a typical business woman with her strict boss, shallow friends and snobbish mother constantly harassing her on the phone. These long conversations can be quite annoying, but they serve the story of self-discovery well, as the main protagonist slowly cuts her ties to the material world and becomes emotionally attached to the search for Hans Voralberg. The NPCs Kate meets are also well-written with their own little stories, e.g. the rectors at the University of Barockstadt who are as much concerned about the prestige of the institution as keeping their small illegal alcohol brewing operation a secret, or an opera singer who lost her touch with the world, but is suddenly brought back for a fan who is very similar to the Phantom of the Opera.
So the places, often shadows of their former glory, are just as dilapidated or trodden down as the people who inhabit them, giving the whole world of Syberia a unique dream-and-realism-like atmosphere. Each new stop brings more challenges and even if the search for Hans always seems to be far away, she is presented with more background information in the form of conversations, lectures or books about the inventor and also the place he dreamed about, again showing how rich the cultural lore is Benoit Sokal put into the game.
Puzzling inventions brought back to life
The puzzles are well-integrated in the plot and have a certain uniqueness to them with the automaton theme permeating most of them, but there is a clear lack of hints with the additional problem of important items lost in the background visuals. The solutions are often easy enough with a certain key to find in order to operate an automaton or cogs to put into a machinery, especially with only a few items in the inventory which don’t even have to be combined. But one should carefully read through newspaper articles or books, as these are the only sources of information hinting at particular solutions, e.g. which color Oscar’s legs should have before he is assembled.
While there are parts which can be solved in any order, the game relies a bit too much on linear progression, resulting too often in waiting for special trigger moments, e.g. receiving a phone call, or picking up items which can be easily overlooked. All this combined with Kate’s slow movements when moving up or down steps and performing other actions makes for unnecessary downtime, even if the environments are beautiful to look at.
A tranquil painting-like atmosphere
Despite the low resolution of character models and some washed-out background textures, the graphics hold up very well even today, especially with some dramatic cutscenes, in no small part due to the amazing art direction.So many screens look like imaginative paintings with attention to detail that one is simply swept away to places which feel as if they could still exist and are there to visit, a clear indication for great world-building and environmental storytelling. The orchestral music is also very memorable and adds to the atmosphere, while the voice acting is mostly convincing as well.
More than just an adventure game
Benoît Sokal might not be the greatest puzzle designer, but when it comes to creating a believable world one wants to return to again and again, then Syberia hits all the right notes, with artful backgrounds, detailed drawings in books and a great soundtrack to accompany Kate Walker’s journey. The writing in both character and plot development is consistently good as well. It certainly has its flaws in gameplay, but as a touching, epic story, few adventure games can evoke the same emotional impact one feels when reaching the ending that is only the beginning of a longer journey.
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