It’s been said that the appeal of the Syberia series is more about a feeling than a specific tangible thing. Benoit Sokal’s charming steampunk tale of discovery and wonderment may not be the most famous franchise, but with sales figures running into the millions it’s something of a sleeper hit. And slept it has: for 13 years now there hasn’t been a title in the series--unless you count a poorly received DS and Android port--but in 2017, Microids are bringing the game back to its adoring fanbase. I met with the developers of the game to try out the latest build, and today I’ll be sharing my thoughts with you.
The first thing that I noticed when starting to play is the fact that the aforementioned sensation is back. The sweeping music from Inon Zur sets the scene perfectly again, whilst the sedate pace of the earlier games is kept intact. This isn’t a game to play if you want heavy-duty action, but if you like games like The Witness, Firewatch or The Stanley Parable that are about the experience as much as the end goal, then you’ll want to play this.
It has to be said that I didn’t finish Syberia II back in the day. This wasn’t because I wasn’t engaged though, it was because I made the mistake of buying it on the Xbox (yes, the original breeze block sized one) and I just didn’t enjoy playing a point-and-click adventure with a joypad. So when I was handed an Xbox 360 controller to play with by the developer, my heart sank a little.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to worry, as the controls have been significantly modernised. Interactions now work a bit like Heavy Rain’s: objects are interacted with through actions that simulate the motion your character is performing, such as rotating the stick to turn a screwdriver. This took a little getting used to, but it was pretty intuitive once I did. Character movement is a bit frustrating sometimes though: you move in relation to the camera, and scenes have fixed camera angles, which aren’t always consistent between scenes. This led to me going back into the room I’d just left on a few occasions. Think the PS1 era Resident Evil games and you’ll get the idea.
That new control scheme is necessary as this is the first fully 3D title in the series. Although it’s different from what came before, it seems to work pretty well and actually helps with immersion in the action. It’s easy to criticise a game for changing things up, but I think in this case it’s a positive change. It’s still an adventure, just not really a point-and-click one any more. Nonetheless, it’s still unmistakably Syberia.
The graphical fidelity hasn’t been changed hugely, with the game looking nice but not groundbreaking. In terms of visuals, this latest installment hasn’t improved a huge amount compared to the previous games. Clearly, this isn’t going to be a graphics-fest. That said, there’s a clear attention to detail within the world; it’s filled with characters going about their daily business and plenty of little features that make the everything seem more alive. Also, I definitely want a snow-ostrich as a pet! (Check out the latest trailer if you haven’t seen the snow ostriches yet, they’re super cute.) The build I saw had some issues with lip-syncing, which didn’t look brilliant, but I’m told this should be fixed before the game is released.
It plays just how you expect a Syberia game to play. The puzzles are logical and based around literal thought rather than lateral. You won’t find rubber chickens with a pulley in the middle or Babel Fish dispensers here. I saw a few parts from the latter part of the game, with some of the puzzles being quite challenging but never so obtuse that you can’t work out what you’re supposed to be doing. What I quite liked was the option to adjust the difficulty settings on the fly for puzzles. You can have the game give you no help at all, or have it guide you as to what you might have to do. There’s no penalty for this either, no separate achievements for completing in hard or easy mode; Microids just want you to be able to experience the game’s story.
(Spoiler alert! - if you're avoiding trailers, avoid this paragraph) If you’ve seen the most recent trailer, you’ll know that Oscar is back. This was a welcome sight, even more so when I realised that he’s briefly playable in the game as well. For the main though, you’re controlling Kate Walker as before, complete with original voice actor Sharon Mann reprising her role. It’s good to see the familiar, but you’ll be meeting new characters along the way, so we’re not just retreading old ground.
We learn of the Youkol race, who are a nomadic tribe travelling the world with their snow ostriches when they come across Kate Walker, wounded and unconscious at the roadside. This is how you end up in a hospital at the start of the game, complete with a one-legged Youkol and a crazy psychiatrist. It’s a dark start to a game that’s not known for getting too dark, but it’s a really nice set piece that provides a sense of action from the outset.
At this stage, it’s looking like Syberia III will be upping the ante just a little bit. It’s more of the same, but with a new adventure making a trio alongside a shiny new control system and perspective. If you didn’t like the original games, then this isn’t likely to win you over; if you did, chances are you’ll not be disappointed. With the franchise having been gone for so long however, there’s a high chance that a lot of younger gamers haven’t had the chance to play the first titles. Hopefully this doesn’t hinder the game’s chance of success as it is a genuinely charming little videogame, which I’m looking forward to a lot more now that I’ve had a chance to play it.