It always makes me very happy to see publishers release adventure games like Syberia. Sure, there are the great graphics, the enchanting story, and the often-interesting characters. But that's only half the fun. The other half is knowing that if you read any of those magazines and other websites that keep declaring the death of the adventure game, this is another one of those great adventures that's going to make them eat crow once again and admit that, yes, maybe there are good adventures out there. Well, I exaggerate slightly about the second half, but Syberia really is a great adventure game.
The story starts out when American lawyer Kate Walker travels to the village of Valadilene in the French Alps. Her trip there is supposed to be a short one -- find the owner of a local automaton factory that has fallen on hard times in the modern day, buy the factory for her corporate client, and go home. But as soon as Kate arrives in Valadilene, she discovers that Anna Voralberg has died and left the factory to a previously unknown heir. (For those who don't know, automatons are basically old-fashioned robots made out of clockwork gears instead of circuits -- just don't call them "robots.")
Kate's journey to locate Anna's long-lost brother Hans takes her across Europe and eventually into Siberia. Each of the four places where Anna stops -- the quaint village of Valadilene, the town and university of Barrockstadt with its beautiful gardens and imposing sculptures, the run-down former communist factory in Komkolzgrad, and the aging Soviet-era resort in Aralbad -- all have their own personality and their own charms.
Syberia's background graphics are beautifully drawn, and even the run-down Komkolzgrad has an attention to detail and sense of style to it that conveys "This used to be an important city that's well past its prime," rather than "This is what some old buildings look like." I don't think that words alone can do the graphics justice, so be sure to check out the screenshots posted on this page for yourself. And yes, those screenshots are representative of the entire game, not just a couple of rare examples.
The story itself is quite entertaining, although it's more about the journey itself and Kate's interaction with the various characters she meets along the way than it is about the specific events that happen to (or around) her. As the game progresses, Kate becomes more attached to the new world she discovers in her journeys and less attached to her life back home in New York. The major characters, like Kate, her automaton companion Oscar, and a few more she'll find along the way, are all quite good, as is the respective voice acting. Even the flashbacks, letters, and other characters' recollections about Hans and Anna give you a strong sense of those two characters and their history.
Unfortunately, some of the minor characters you'll run into along the way aren't quite so great -- a few of them would perhaps be better described as caricatures than as fully developed characters. While I realize the designers may have intended to stylize the characters a bit to match the somewhat surreal nature of the story itself, some of the minor characters were more irritating than charming, and those voices could have been done a little better.
The one part of the story that I'm still not sure what to make of is Kate's interaction with her life in New York. Since the game starts out in Valadilene, you only hear from Kate's friends and family through cell phone calls, and Kate often answers calls from home at very inconvenient times. Part of me thinks this was a well-done plot device that properly emphasized the contrast between the two "worlds." The other part of me thinks it was a bit too distracting and artificial -- doesn't Kate's cell phone have voice mail or can't she at least call home at more opportune times? -- and never really gave me much sense of Kate's other life. But since Syberia is mainly about where the journey leads, not where it starts, I guess this is a minor point overall.
The puzzles themselves tend to be fairly straightforward, and they often have something to do with repairing or using one of the Voralberg's automatons, keeping them relevant to the game's overall plot. There are a few trickier puzzles here and there, but the focus is on the story and graphics, not the challenge of the puzzles. A fairly simple point-and-click interface (with no way to combine different items inside your inventory, for example) helps to keep things easy to use for novice gamers. Also, plenty of locations are free of puzzles and are included for nothing more than atmosphere, which I thought was a nice touch, even if does mean a bit more walking around and perhaps fewer puzzles.
Overall, Syberia is a very charming adventure game, and one that's suitable for more than just the traditional adventure fan. While I do have a few minor quibbles with some of the characters and plot points, the overall warmth of the story and the beauty of the graphics are more than enough for me to recommend this title.
-- Jason Strautman