Xatrix Entertainment’s Cyberia excelled in cinematic CG graphics and action-adventure gameplay back in the days, but does it still hold up well today?
(USA 1994, developer: Xatrix Entertainment (now defunct), publisher: Interplay, platforms: PC, FM Towns, Sega Saturn, 3DO, PS1)
In the year 2027, two opposing super powers compete against each other after a global economic collapse, and it’s up to cyber-hacker Zebulon Pike “Zak” Kingston to infiltrate an underground secret base in Siberia where a mysterious weapon is developed.
Storytelling in cyberspace
Cyberpunk and espionage thrillers can be thought-provoking because of their similarities to our modern age in which technological progress can result in unprecedented catastrophes, but they can also end up as convoluted and unintentionally funny stories with too much tech talk thrown in. While Cyberia might not be material for a trash movie, it isn’t much material for an epic or thrilling story, either. Despite providing a solid background for all the shooting and adventuring, neither characters nor storyline aren’t anything worth remembering. This isn’t to say that they’re boring, because there are a few narrative surprises and enough set-pieces to make for a entertaining movie. But there isn’t any emotional connection to the bland main character or the plot that is often just an excuse for the next shooting or puzzle solving segment.
The gameplay is an interesting mix of action-adventure and on-rails shooter, with difficulty settings that can be adjusted accordingly. This means that some puzzles don’t even have to be solved and action sequences become even harder, and vice versa. There’s even a bit of decision-making, as certain actions, e.g. kissing the woman at the beginning resulting in a less than friendly welcome by her boss. One shouldn’t expect a completely different storyline, though, as these and other parts of the game are just alternative ways to progress. As the puzzles are already obscure enough without many hints, one should find a good compromise between both modes, even as an adventure gamer.
The puzzles are varied enough due to the use of Zak’s BLADES (Bi-optic Low Amplitude Displayed Energy System) that scan objects in three modes: InfraRed/Thermal Scan to heat traces and marks left in the InfraRed spectrum, Magnetic Resonance Imaging to look through an object to see how it works (good for defusing bombs or unlocking a door), and BioScan to scan for organic matter. These cyberpunk tools aren’t just gimmicks, but add variety to puzzles and immerses the player. However, it doesn’t prevent the game from becoming very difficult in solving these conundrums because of too many time-sensitive sequences and far too many deaths to count. As one can’t save anytime, replaying a very annoying and long part becomes common practice.
It’s not only the puzzle segments that are difficult and require a lot of backtracking and reading files on computers, but the corridor and on-rails shooting levels aren’t a piece of cake, either. Reminiscent of Rebel Assault and Rebel Assault II: The Hidden Empire, these parts are frustrating to play, not only because of the sheer number of enemies requiring fast reflexes, but also because of the very imprecise controls. No matter if played with a mouse, gamepad or joystick, one can’t seem to be fast enough to hit every target.
This is a shame, because the flight action sequences outdoors are usually quite fun, as there’s so much going on in the background to evoke the feeling of being in an arcade cabinet. Of course this also means that one has to be careful what is CG eye candy and what becomes an enemy threat. Unfortunately, there is an almost impossible and difficult on-rails shooting section in which one has to destroy very small virus parts where missing only a few results in an instant gameover. As the speed of flight and the bad controls unnecessarily complicate things, this borders on the unfair.
Technological advances and disadvantages
The graphics haven’t aged that well with doll-like character models, often pixelated backgrounds during the on-rails sections and lifeless if atmospherically claustrophobic environments in the adventure segments. However, explosion effects are great, and some of the various futuristic vehicles have a certain coolness in their design about them. The voice acting is quite good as well, but the music and sound effects are even better. With on-rails sections being restricted to a single path to take, the cinematic music adapts to each situation with some build-up and bombastic moments that are further enhanced by flight chatter and other environmental sounds.
The past game in the present future landscape
Cyberia is one of those games that might have been blown away the audience due to its cinematic presentation with various camera angles and great music, but nowadays one realizes that gameplay and writing aren’t that polished. The on-rails shooting sections are still a lot of fun, but the high difficulty spikes aren’t. The same goes for the puzzles that are too obscure, and death sequences that are too frequent. A story and characters that are as cold as cyberspace itself make the game a relic of the past when CG graphics could cover up a not-so-great game.
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