In Dreamcatcher/Microid’s Syberia, you play Kate Walker, a young attorney who is sent to the European town of Valadilene to acquire the Voralberg Toy Factory from its owner, Anna Voralberg, for a big American conglomerate. Upon her arrival, Kate witnesses Anna’s funeral, and the negotiations seem to have ended before they’d even begun. Kate learns that Anna’s long-lost brother, Hans, is the sole heir, and she must obtain his signature to complete the transaction. Created by comic book artist Benoit Sokal of Amerzone fame, Syberia will take you through the quiet French town of Valadilene, the university town of Barrockstadt, a space center in Komkolzgrad, and a luxurious elderly resort in Aralbad.
Syberia is a 3rd-person point-and-click adventure. A ring serves as the cursor, and it glows if you can follow a path, becomes a magnifying glass if you can take a closer look at something, a cog-like hand if you can pick up an item, and a lever if you can use the item. Double-click on a path if you want her to run instead of walk. As you encounter new people and events in your journeys, more dialogue options will appear in your notebook. Syberia teaches you this as soon as you reach the hotel: you try to get Kate to pick up the suitcase, but she protests that she’s too tired. When you speak to the hotel clerk, you have a dialogue option for “Help,” so he can do the dirty work for you.
The game was so engaging that I wanted to explore every single nook and cranny, but most places that were irrelevant to the plot weren’t available for exploration. I found myself clicking on paths that looked illuminated, but they ended up returning me to the previous screen. I’m not sure if this would be considered ambiguous gameplay, or if it was just me trying to WILL these extra areas into being.
While the entire game was really quite humorous, my hat is off to the writer/s for penning the hilarious dialogue, a factor which made the game all the more endearing. For most of the game, Kate is saddled with a neurotic automaton (they’re not robots!) named Oscar who’s a real stickler for rules, won’t help out for fear of rusting his joints, and is constantly getting into trouble. In Barrockstadt, the barge people speak a hilarious mishmash of all European languages – German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Russian. As a linguistics major, it was all I could do to keep from falling off my chair with laughter.
The game has a linear, path-driven storyline, and you can end up wandering around a town in frustration, wondering what detail you missed that isn’t giving you the proper dialogue options. Your initial interaction with Oscar is a foreshadowing of how the game flows: you can’t proceed to the next step unless you follow his rules, in the order that he’s specified.
Syberia introduces a very interesting feature, Kate’s cellular phone, which I initially shrugged off as deadweight. Not only do you pick up the phone when it rings, but you can actually initiate a phone call by scrolling through the numbers stored in the phone’s memory and clicking on the “send” button. The phone turns out to be vital during the course of the game, and the conversations help show a shift in Kate’s priorities. At the beginning of Syberia, Kate was SO robotic about her work that she would end phone calls on her mother, best friend, and fiancé so she could get back to matters that seemed to be more important. The only beef I have with the cell phone is that it has international range and can pick up a signal anywhere. I need to know the name of her cell phone carrier, because I apparently need to switch (has that “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy really been everywhere?)!
The shifting camera angle is both the game’s best and worst feature. While you’re rendered speechless by Sokal’s ability to create masterpieces out of mundane train stations, it also makes for jarring navigation. I needed to run from one end of the Barrockstadt train station to the other, and I’d prepared myself to continually click on the right part of the screen for Kate to advance. However, the next screen showed the train station from a different angle, and I had to run right from the right to the left instead. While it’s a minor detail, I wanted my time to be spent on something more constructive rather than reorienting myself while running to and fro.
It should come as no great surprise that Syberia is graphically superb. You know that the game will be a feast of eye candy just from viewing the main menu, with a cycling automaton operating panels that flip open to show you game options.
Kate’s walk is very natural and fluid, some of the pudgier characters waddle along, and the automatons walk like … well, robots. The stairs are navigated a bit too slowly for my taste, although not nearly as slowly as in Jazz and Faust, where I could have gone out for a few beers and returned to have found them STILL climbing the stairs. Mr. Sokal was so painstakingly thorough in his details that the fall of shadows on the characters is very realistic, and the Aralbad hotel clerk is watching realistic soccer footage on TV, complete with bad reception and static.
The cut scenes were created from the same digital cloth as the “Final Fantasy” movie; the hair on a Clydesdale horse’s hoof moves fluidly, as does the hair on young Hans’ head when he turns around to admonish his sister. Simply stunning!
To me, the most breathtaking scene of all is the front of the university, adorned with grandiose mammoth statues. The scene lasts about two seconds because you’re ascending the steps, and it cuts to another screen. I had to go up and down the stairs a few times to fully admire the scene.
The graphics were so impressive that I wished I could explore a bit more in the world of Syberia, but Mr. Sokal teases with gorgeous backdrops that we can only admire from afar.
The graphics were very thorough, but just as much attention to detail went into the game’s sound. You hear elevator music when Kate is waiting on the line to talk to her boss, and the resonance of her footsteps actually changes when she’s on a metal bridge or walking through the woods. The voice acting is quite good, and they actually went to the trouble of making the accents sound accurate (unlike some other companies).
In my opinion, the dialogue was a bit superfluous, and although it contributes to the story, it definitely interrupted gameplay. It almost seemed as if I spent more time conversing than actually playing the game.
Ambient sound is always present in the game but isn’t overwhelming so you can hear regular sound effects, such as footsteps, shuffling paper, ringing phones, etc. Ambient sound goes hand in hand with the game’s musical score to create a great atmosphere.
With Syberia, Benoit Sokal has created a gaming experience that will stay near and dear to your heart, regardless of whether you’re an adventure newbie or a seasoned pro. It’s packed with awe-inspiring graphics, music, and details that don’t even cross the minds of other game developers. Dreamcatcher has always had an excellent reputation for adventure games, and they’ve taken gaming one step further with Syberia. I never wanted the game to end, but alas, all good things MUST. I’ll try my hand at petitioning for EverSyberia, but for now, I’ll just hope for a Syberia II. ;)