Syberia 3 review
Kate Walker’s latest expedition to save the hapless Youkols is fraught with development missteps on multiple fronts, making Syberia 3 a mammoth disappointment.
Note: Since time of writing, the game has been updated with various fixes, improvements and additions, including a point-and-click control option. This review is based on the original version of the game.
Fifteen years ago, the clockwork train journey of a young New York lawyer and an officious metal man, across the breathtaking landscape of eastern Europe to the fictional Syberia in Russia in pursuit of an old man’s chronicle of mammoths, captured the imaginations – and hearts – of desktop adventurers around the world. Businesslike Kate Walker, on a visit to a remote French village to settle an estate inheritance, was drawn into a world of faded dreams and quirky inventions as she explored once-grand edifices in antiquated towns in search of self-discovery as much as her elusive client Hans Voralberg, leaving the life she knew behind with each determined turn of a gear and pull on a lever. Benoît Sokal’s Syberia, released in 2002, had audacious vision, brilliant storytelling, gripping characters, and complex steampunk-inspired mechanical puzzles that challenged you without distracting from the fragile beauty of their settings. Practical yet vulnerable Kate was an inspiring heroine, and emo automaton Oscar her worthy wingman. Syberia 2 followed soon and saw Kate finish her mission, but left her own future untold, raising the clamour from fans for a continuation.
Thirteen years later, after enough twists and turns in its development history to rival Kate’s expedition, we have Syberia 3, which reunites writer Sokal with developer-publisher Microïds. Unlike its well-oiled predecessors, however, Syberia 3 fails to steam off the blocks, held back by an insipid plot; generic and sometimes absurd quests; poorly engineered game mechanics and clunky controls; few and forgettable characters with lame dialogues and atrocious lip sync; washed-out, dated 3D graphics with robotic animation and jarring weather effects; and numerous glitches. Half of its 20-odd-hour playtime is wasted in backtracking for petty purposes, and much of the rest in guessing what to do, with only one or two hotspots in vast navigable areas, mechanical puzzles with no labelled parts or instructions, and little clarity of objectives or reasoning. It’s a massive ordeal to trudge through so many hours with so little to do, only to have the game end abruptly on a pointless cliffhanger instead of gracefully closing out the series. Players who have waited years may play this out of allegiance to the iconic series, but on its own, Syberia 3 is at best a mediocre, joyless game that is a pain to play, even with the recommended gamepad.
The story resumes with a semi-conscious, injured Kate floating down a river in a small boat. The game either assumes that players will brush up on the backstory of Syberia before loading Part 3, or isn’t too concerned if they start from scratch since this is billed as a ‘new adventure’; either way, it doesn’t bother recapping the story so far. Newcomers will start with an American woman inexplicably afloat on a Russian river, and series veterans will have to proceed with no understanding of intervening events since Kate bid adieu to Hans and the mammoths. In any case, she is soon rescued by the local tribe of Youkols, who revive her and send her to a nearby sanitarium. There Kate recovers, only to find herself trapped by a sinister nurse who is operating on the instructions of an eye patch-wearing goon and his army of gun-toting henchmen. Her co-patient Kurk, the disabled navigator of the Youkols, is also being held captive to prevent the migration of the tribe with their snow ostriches, as the authorities want them to settle down and become ‘civilised’.
Improvising on Kurk’s vague instructions, Kate escapes the sanitarium and connects with the Youkols, stranded in a riverside camp because global warming has melted the ice floes that allowed the ostriches to cross the river. To worsen matters, the folks of the neighbouring town of Valsembor have become paranoid xenophobes in the wake of a nuclear meltdown on a nearby island, and want nothing to do with the refugee tribe, who they perceive to be thieves and troublemakers. Meanwhile, the ‘finest private investigator on the East Coast’ is on Kate’s trail, because she is wanted back in the US by the FBI for absconding with Voralberg’s property.
And so it falls upon Kate to devise a plan to ferry the Youkols across the river, past the clownish villain, the idiot PI, a giant ‘sea monster’, and an irradiated island littered with decrepit amusement park rides and rusting automatons. Despite many millennia of migrations, the nomadic Youkols are totally inept at bridging an ordinary river or charting an alternate path for their ostriches, and must rely on a chance encounter with a foreigner, a novice to the region and outdoors in general, to save them from extinction while they crowd around her, either whimpering in fear or joyously shouting, ‘Miss Kate Walker! Miss Kate Walker!’ This lazy plot is embellished with only casual nods to the important issues of climate change and intolerance towards refugees – and since this is Russia, a token Chernobyl-esque disaster with scarred, demented survivors. I also didn’t quite get why the villains were hunting Kate with such ferocity, or why the US officials were using a PI instead of Interpol to track Kate, but these watery side-plots are largely irrelevant.
The game is set in five key locations: the sanitarium; the Youkol camp; the town of Volsembor, drab and in decline; aboard the ferry ship Krystal; and Baranour, the irradiated island down the river. Each has a few explorable areas, such as the Krystal’s decks and engine room; Valsembor’s clock workshop, warehouse and a bar; plus the lakeshore, some rides and a subway station in Baranour. Surprisingly for a game of Syberia’s pedigree, famed for its expansive vistas and architectural artistry, most of the locations here are unappealing, barring the sun-dappled arboretum of the sanitarium with its creepy wind-up birds, and the decrepit charm of Baranour’s rotting amusement park. The three-dimensional settings are rather rudimentary, and many scenes are afflicted with dim lighting, depth perception issues, and over-use of crude ambient effects like smoke, snow, rain, and lightning. The game allows for 360° third-person movement, and even has an auto-cam that allows you to sit back and take in a bird’s-eye view of select scenes, but the dated graphics cannot capitalise on such freedom.
Most places are also difficult to manoeuvre, in part because of poor layout design, such as the cramped Youkol market with its awkwardly placed crates and clumsy sprites that stumble into you, along with the confusing lanes of Volsembor and the cluttered setup of structures at Baranour. The camera constantly changes your viewing perspective, disorienting you and making you repeatedly alter Kate’s direction to keep going as intended. Another issue is the momentary but tangible delay in Kate’s response each time. Interacting with objects requires considerable jugglery with the gamepad buttons. If you play with a keyboard, Kate is controlled with the WASD keys while the mouse controls the camera. Hotspots can be used with the left mouse button, or their assigned pop-up interaction numbers. While okay in theory, in-game execution is fraught with problematic movement and camera control.
Compounding the issue, hotspots get marked with tiny white spots when Kate steps near them, but they are easy to miss. As far as I could tell, the game doesn’t offer a hotspot highlighter. You get a one-time option at the start to choose between the easier ‘Voyager’ mode, which claims to offer more detailed instructions and automatic selection of correct inventory items, and the no-hints ‘Adventure’ mode, with no way to swap difficulty modes in-game. The inventory, designed as a rotating wheel of items, is placed at the left side of the screen, and in the ‘Adventure’ mode it opens with the earliest collected item each time. Objects cannot be combined in the inventory, but can be dragged onto any onscreen hotspot, leading to abundant negative feedback.
While the game itself is strictly linear, with only one or two active objectives at a time, it burdens you with hours of backtracking as Kate is forced to go back-and-forth over long distances for everyday objects and pieces of conversations. Worse, hotspots get activated without any notice in already-explored areas, and you must keep revisiting scenes to check for new interactions. There are no handy tools like a map or a diary, but on the bright side, Kate runs in some areas. The game provides for only one saved game, auto-saving at preset junctures. If this gets corrupted, like mine did, you will have to start over.
The inventory-based obstacles are mostly straightforward, comprising unlocking doors, forging paperwork, and running errands for sundry persons. The spirit of Syberia shines through the standalone puzzles involving operating cranes, steering ships, adjusting assorted gauges, and activating the amusement park rides. Some are fun, like decoding a cleverly worded cypher to unlock a model ship, identifying a coal chute in a warehouse, and positioning mirrors to direct light beams. However, several others, like starting a motorcycle and casting a key, are reduced to trial-and-error due to missing labels and lack of clear directives. And then there are the absurd, like finding a small item you don’t know you need or exists, in the darkness of night somewhere in a random lane in Volsembor. Or locating the medication of a man having a seizure who is conversant about everything except where he keeps this literally lifesaving item.
Unlike its predecessors, Syberia 3 is also an artistic disappointment. A strange haze covers most of the outdoor locations, and the coarse, blocky graphics and stiff, robotic characters do not flatter the series’ signature style of using desaturated colours to amplify the sense of desolation while accentuating the frail beauty of quaint locales. Shifting from meticulously hand-painted, intricately detailed screens to simplistic, run-of-the-mill computer-generated 3D scenes eliminates the unique, classical sophistication that defined the art of Syberia. Mountains, trees, rocks, buildings and furniture are rendered as crude arrangements of flat planes, while the muted colours look dowdy instead of elegant when applied to abundant, sparsely detailed surfaces like roads, floors, walls and snowy ground. Only a precious few scenes, like Kate jogging through the wilderness around the Youkol camp, marked with frayed, fluttering red flags, are impressive.
Kate and her fellow cast have well-constructed appearances with lots of detailing, but lack emotive expressions. Character animation, with stymied movements, collisions with obstacles and totally misaligned lip sync, are reminiscent of Chaplin comedies, and along with amateur ambient graphics like huge rod-like raindrops and thick, almost-opaque radioactive ‘smoke’, make for an overall tiresome experience. The cutscenes, like Kate’s fevered dreams as she is treated by the Youkol shaman inside a firelit tepee and the amusement park creaking to life once more are suitably dramatic, but blurry at high resolution. Weighing in at 40GB, the game strained even my high-performance system, with lengthy load times between scenes and screen transition jumps.
The underwhelming script doesn’t allow any of the new characters make a mark. Kurk remains a tool for basic exposition, while the drunk, self-loathing captain of the Krystal hams through voluminous dialogue and makes a hash of every crisis, failing to earn any empathy despite a meaty role. The rest of the cast, voiced in bland American accents despite being Russians, simply go through the motions. Actress Sharon Mann reprises her role as Kate, and does a fair job of sounding the same as fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, the writing is awkwardly translated and sprinkled with typos. Dialogues – including repetitive negative feedback and rabid, incessant nagging by people once you are given a task – cannot be skipped, while important exchanges cannot be replayed. At least the soundtrack has a couple of gems, including soaring vocals backed by melancholy strings, and some melodious humming against the rhythmic beat of the Youkol drums.
As I watched the final cutscene of Syberia 3, which ends on a lukewarm, and one may even say unnecessary cliffhanger, I felt relief at somehow having completed this trudge, and regret at this devolution of a stellar series. Like Oscar, the original Syberia was more than the sum of its parts. It went beyond tinkering with gears and chasing mythical mammoths deep into the heart of Russia to ask us, through the gradual self-actualisation of Kate Walker, our raisons d'etre. Kate’s choice to disconnect from the cacophony of her life in New York to embrace an existence that felt alien yet comforting was a virtual challenge to follow one’s heart, and it resonated wistfully with the tired souls in the cities she passed through.
It’s sad, therefore, that one of the most anticipated releases of this decade has turned out to be a clunker, so completely devoid of art and skill and soul. Syberia 3 doesn’t even bother connecting Kate’s present with her journey so far. Instead, the contrived storyline gives her a task-list simply because now that she has chosen to stay on in Syberia, she must have something to do. Loaded with contemporary artifices, the plot never rises above the transactional, failing to make any emotional impact even in the face of grand sacrifice. Weighed down by a weak script, a blah cast, a clumsy control system, subpar graphics, generic quests and poor game design leading to hours of backtracking, Syberia 3 creaks along on the single track of getting the Youkols across the river. I do not fully discourage existing fans from playing it as an homage to a much-loved series, but without the benefit of fond familiarity, this is really just a poor game with a lousy mechanical framework.