Syberia

4 January 2003

Copyright © 2003 Balmoral Software (http://www.balmoralsoftware.com). Portions copyright © 2002 Microids/DreamCatcher Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Balmoral Software.


Syberia is a visually impressive adventure from Microids and Benoit Sokal, the creators of Amerzone . In the game, you control the main character Kate Walker, a lawyer from New York who visits various European locales as she tries to finalize the legalities of a toy factory takeover. The mechanical automatons created in this factory provide a central theme throughout the gameplay. Kate encounters many characters and challenges in her quest. The game seems to have just the right elements of story development without creating an adventure that is too long or complex.

The best parts of this game are its high-definition rendered graphics, showing lots of details in a full-screen display. There are really fantastic architectures and ambience in the game environments, particularly in the early stages of the game. These seem to be the special contribution of art director Benoit Sokal. There are also very effective animated water effects in many areas throughout the game, which give the game a sense of realism missing from most contemporary adventures. Ten cutscenes are presented as transition videos, and these are shown with the same level of detail as the interactive portions of the game. Kate Walker is rendered as a realistic, high-resolution cyberpuppet with a Sandra Bullock hair-in-the-face look. Her shadow seems to abruptly appear and disappear whenever she uses stairs, but otherwise she is well-integrated into the screen backgrounds. For the most part, there is consistent graphic continuity in the game, but all wall clocks seem broken and there is a disappearing airship in one of the backgrounds. The abruptly-shifting viewpoints or camera angles between game screens may take a little getting used to. But all these considerations are minor in light of the exceptional overall appearance of the game.

Without a good storyline, this game would be nothing more than fancy eye candy. Fortunately, Sokal's contributions as writer are as effective as his art direction, for Syberia has an excellent plot with interesting characters and gradual story development that builds suspense and keeps the player involved. Some references to Sokal's previous release Amerzone are made in the game. Syberia is broken down into five distinct geographical sections, and most gameplay is completed in one area before travelling to the next area. Transportation between areas is provided by an intriguing railroad train and a dirigible. The general plot line is very good, and the player has mostly-obvious clues about his tasks at hand. The plot is rather linear, but most challenges seemed logical although occasionally fantastic. Kate periodically receives calls on her cell phone, an excellent aspect of the game design. These calls maintain parallel "real-world" storylines outside the fantasy game settings, and also add to the depth of Kate Walker's characterization. Some of the character dialog in the game may be a bit long-winded, but most does not detract from the atmosphere of the game. Some of the dialog choices are crucial to advancing the gameplay, while many offer backstory. On replay, dialog sections can be skipped by pressing [Esc], but hitting the key one too many times erases the dialog choice screen.

As gameplay progresses, it's usually pretty clear where the areas are that need to be returned to later. There are only a few instances of critical items that may be obscure in the game screens. Some hotspots, especially early in the game, may indicate areas that never become accessible. However, most hotspots pertain to areas requiring a future visit and careful examination. A few characters, inventory items and hotspots may be hard to see against the screen backgrounds, so each scene should be examined carefully. There is pretty much only one standalone puzzle in the game - virtually all game challenges have to do with inventory hunts. A hedge maze is briefly toyed with, but never materializes as a real puzzle. The cell phone is an important tool at a few points in the game. Thankfully, there are no timed-play sequences in this game, which would have seemed out of place in a thought-provoking adventure such as this.

The basic game interface is similar to The Longest Journey , but with a much more lucid plot line and much better rendered cyberpuppet characters with movements that are more fluid and believable. There is a minimum of pointless navigation in Syberia since activities in each section of the game are concentrated in a few areas. Double-clicking the mouse can speed up Kate's walking pace, but her other movements are still rather slow and we would have liked a way to speed them up even more. New dialog choices or inventory items are indicated by an icon temporarily appearing at the upper right corner of the screen. An unusual font is used for dialog subtitles, with all letters appearing in capitals except for the letter "i". Up to 10,000 saved games can be stored, presented in reverse chronological order. Under Windows 2000/XP, saved game files are stored in the My Documents folder rather than the game installation directory (see the Readme file for details). A saved game cannot be named, but it includes an accurate thumbnail of the current game view, as well as a timestamp. There are no dead ends in the game and no way the main character can be killed, so there is little reason to restore a saved game to get around a problem, unless it's to save a bit of repeat navigation. The game's separate inventory screen overlay is servicable, toggled by right-clicking the mouse. Individual inventory items are identified on this screen, which may provide important information about the item's characteristics. The game can be started from either of its two CD's.

The game is played exclusively in the third person, except for the occasional close-up. There is no 3D VR engine and no transitions between screens. Navigation is screen oriented, with available exit directions indicated by a clearly highlighted cursor. A few of the game scenes side-scroll without any special indication, so boundaries of the game screens should always be explored. A smart cursor shows areas in the game that can be examined more closely or involve inventory items or dialog choices. For the most part, this cursor is easy to identify on screen backgrounds. No maps or special navigation features are included in the game to speed up movement, but these don't seem necessary. The game has interesting music, in some cases obviously chosen to reflect the game's cultural environment. All of the voice acting is excellent, especially when showing the emotions of the various characters in the game, although a few of the accents seem to drop now and then. There are great sound effects throughout the game, including all of Kate's movements and interactions with the environment.

The suggested hardware for Syberia is fairly powerful, especially for video. We experienced a few random crashes of the game, but these were probably due to "bending the rules" about the required video resources for the game, which are stated as a 3D video card with at least 16MB memory (the game may in fact run with less). The game packaging is excellent, with a dual-fold boxfront showing scenes from the game which (for once) are accurate depictions of what you'll actually see on screen.

Syberia is a visually stunning game with a great story that all levels of players should find an absorbing adventure.


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Copyright © 2003 Balmoral Software (http://www.balmoralsoftware.com). Portions copyright © 2002 Microids/DreamCatcher Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Balmoral Software.