on Sunday, January 04, 2009
Adventure games were some of the first games ever created for computers, and back in the day were the dominant PC gaming genre. Today, however, they're the ones you'll have the hardest time finding on the shelves as publishers have slowly gravitated towards more "profitable" genres. In fact, over the past two years, fans of the genre have really only had one stellar title to cling to -- Funcom's The Longest Journey. Thankfully, we now have another stellar game to put in that category: Syberia. In Syberia, you control Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York attorney who travels to the French town of Valadilene to get the owner's signature of the Voralberg Factory to complete a merger. When she arrives, she learns that the owner, Anna Voralberg, has passed away and her brother, long thought dead, is the new heir. To complete the merger, Kate must travel to Siberia to find this brother, and along the way, she'll learn about the intriguing life Hans Voralberg held, his wonderful automaton creations, and the people his presence touched along the way. It should be easy to tell from the accompanying screenshots on these pages how beautiful Syberia is. Although the backdrops are static, the world feels like a living, breathing thing, with softly lapping water and flocks of birds taking flight. The cutscenes are so well done you'll think you're watching a movie, and are such a joy to watch that you'll wish they lasted much, much longer. Characters are also well rendered, especially Kate, but some walk a bit awkwardly, and Kate's run is an odd lope. Still, none of that detracts from the game's look and feel. Not only is Syberia one of the most beautiful games around, it's also beautiful sounding as well. Nick Varley and Dimitri Bodiansky have produced a soundtrack so extraordinary it easily stands on its own. It's an amazing example of the quality of music that developers are capable of producing. The fabulous sound effects and voice acting complement the music so that just listening to the game is pure pleasure. Of course, no matter how beautiful an adventure game looks or sounds, it's not worth a cent if the interface is uncomfortable or the story or puzzles are poor. Fortunately, Syberia does a terrific job in two of those departments and an acceptable job in one. The interface is simple to use and takes only minutes to learn. Simply left-click on something to use (or look at), and if the object is a person, you can talk to them the same way. Right-clicking anywhere on the screen brings up a menu with access to anything in your possession, including Kate's cell phone. The puzzles are the least developed parts of the game. Some adventure games rely on puzzles heavily to propel the story forward; in Syberia, they sometimes feel a little tacked-on. The developers did make an attempt to make the puzzles sensible and integrate them into the game smoothly, but they still feel almost like an afterthought. The biggest problem is that you'll often be engaged in pixel-hunting as useable objects don't stand out much from the rest of the background. Kate will turn her head to look at things she can interact with, but the movement is subtle and hard to see if you've sent her running across the screen. Once you have the right item in your inventory, puzzles are pretty easy to figure out -- it's when you don't that you'll wrack your brain trying to figure out what you've missed. A few puzzles are annoying because they involve running back and forth through several screens trying to accomplish various parts of a task -- Kate runs so slow that it just becomes annoying, and a map allowing her to quick-jump to places she's already been would have been a welcome feature. None of these complaints really ruin the game, however, and the story more than makes up for any deficiencies in the puzzles. Since Kate is a stranger in the area, she doesn't have any buddies around to interact with -- characters who might give the player some insight into Kate's character. However, at various times throughout the game, Kate's cell phone may ring, triggering an exchange with her boss, mom, best friend, or boyfriend. You'll learn all about Kate and her relationships to these people through these triggered calls (Kate will make a few calls as well). Not all of these conversations are entirely for fluff as some important information can be relayed, so it's necessary to listen to them. As with the cell phone conversations, dialogue with the people Kate meets is essential to completing the game. Some of these talks can be quite long, but they're never boring. Still, Syberia is not a game for the impatient. The story of Hans Voralberg's life is told almost exclusively in this manner, so a desire to ask everything to every person you meet is necessary. Although the game is not played for laughs, Kate has an acerbic wit, and some of the non-essential conversations are humorous. give Syberia an air of magic and mystery -- many are almost realistic. Each of the four areas in the game are progressively sadder and their people more isolated and tired. The overall feel of the story can be best summed up as hauntingly sad, but Syberia isn't depressing. On the contrary, the air of sadness is countered by Kate's personal growth. When we first meet her she's uptight, only concerned with closing the deal and getting back to New York. By the end … well, I won't spoil the ending. When you've finished the game, which should take between fifteen and twenty hours, you'll feel as if you just sat through a very long, very intriguing movie. If adventure games are one of your favorite genres -- or even if they're not -- Syberia is one title you don't want to miss.