Syberia II

Review by Jen
April 2004

I regard Syberia as a minor cultural phenomenon, the culture in question, of course, being the adventure gaming world. It was released to almost universal critical accolade and very well received by the adventure-playing public. At first. But then there was a groundswell against it—the buzz turned negative, the game's flaws being magnified all out of proportion and completely overshadowing what was right about it. Puzzle-lovers reviled it for its easy conundrums, exploration-lovers despised its many doors that would not open ... even the eye-candy lovers found bones to pick—the environments were too sterile, lifeless; pretty pictures do not a good game make. Perhaps it is a token of the broader human condition, this business of it being easier to find fault with a thing than to praise it. I'm certainly guilty of that myself from time to time.

Whatever the case, I was one of those swept off my feet by the first Syberia. For that I make no apology; my fond opinion stands to this day. All of the contrarians have had their effect on me, though. Throughout its development, I have looked at Syberia II with a jaundiced eye.

In between Syberia the first and this new Syberia II, I took up computer role-playing games. I have never understood why anybody thinks linearity in video games is a bad thing; I like knowing where I'm going and what I'm doing and that the game will actually come to an end one day. In CRPGs, though, even if they are wholly linear, you generally can find other things to do aside from working on the main task, and you can do these branching quests out of order. Adventure games don't offer this; usually there is only the one story/puzzle path and if you're stuck, you're stuck—you can't go do something else while you mull over the solution. I thought I would miss this multiplicity of missions in going from RPG back to adventure.

I needn't have worried about any of this. Syberia II is every bit as enchanting as its predecessor—the wind- and snow-swept wintry surroundings, the absolute mastery of the medium displayed in the drawings, the artful camera angles, the grandiose music ... all conspired to carry me off to a different world every time I played.

Puzzles are well-integrated, although some are fairly preposterous. For example, there is a time where Kate has to awaken a character who is visible but out of earshot for whatever reason—the particular puzzle involved is very convoluted with multiple steps and leaps of logic required to reach the goal, and meanwhile there is a whole pile of rocks practically under Kate's arm—in real life, she probably would've just picked up and chucked one or two of them at the guy to attract his notice. Also, there is too much trial-and-error in some of the puzzles, as in one instance where what appears at first glance to be one big hotspot is really several smaller hotspots, and it matters which is chosen. Since I had made a vow to myself to play the whole game without a walkthrough (subsequently broken thanks to these and some other misunderstood or overlooked pixels), I can't tell you how much time I spent on this particular part. Well, really, I could tell you, but ... it's too embarrassing. Overall, though, despite the overabundance of artificial obstacles, one after another, the puzzles make sense within the context of the game and are fun to play.

But Syberia is not really about the puzzles. It is more a computer graphics showcase used as a vehicle for delivery of a magical story of one woman's quest for the meaning of life—if not all life, at least her own. She is carried along by a wave of events on a quest for the fabled lost northern island of Syberia, whose descendants build their towns from ancient ivory and eat long-frozen mammoth meat by thawing glaciers.

The external events are driven by Hans Voralberg, an eccentric inventing savant. Hans is old and tired, and his final wish is to see the legendary living mammoths of Syberia before he kicks it. Hans has designed and built a life-size mechanical train that travels hundreds of miles on a single windup, that stops at real train stations that just happen to have winding mechanisms already in place, and whose tracks end in the far Asian north, deep in the frozen tundra. Yes, it sounds silly, but if you suspend your disbelief just so, it works.

As well, Hans has made a manservant automaton to act as the train's engineer. The metal man, Oscar, is very rigidly built, so to speak, but he does talk, reason (to an extent), and have a personality. The Oscar of the first Syberia drove me nuts. He is supposed to tug at your heartstrings a la R2D2/C3PO or Glottis (funny how those are all LucasArts/-Films creations, eh? what evil hath they wrought?), but he is purely a big fat impediment that must be overcome time and again. Oscar is too close a thing to a sidekick for my personal comfort level; anyone who knows me knows how I feel about stinkin' sidekicks, which is that they stink. (In all fairness, Oscar is well loved by plenty of other players.) Anyway, Oscar is back. This time around, though, he plays a much smaller part, a significant plus in my view.

The player character, Kate Walker, continues, uninterrupted from the first Syberia, down her road to personal development via interactions with others. One thing I really like about these games is their respectful and fairly realistic portrayal of women, as embodied by Kate. Yes, Kate is supermodel-pretty (supposedly, that is; this is not always evidenced by the in-game Kate Walker avatar), but the whole rest of the game is supermodel-pretty as well, so she fits right in. She is young and sexy, yet she is (almost) always fully clothed; she need never resort to feminine wiles. She may make bad choices from time to time, but she is not stupid. She is capable and self-reliant; she ends up assuming a not exactly maternal but more big-sisterly caretaking role in a game world populated predominantly by male nonplayable characters.

The developers have taken a lot more care this time around in cleaning up after themselves. I seem to remember Syberia was originally conceived as a single game, and later, after development was well underway, the decision was made to split it into two. Hence the rather abrupt ending of the first game. Hence too all of those useless extra hotspots in the first game. At the time, I had theorized they were left over from the undivided game and would come into play in part deux. However, not only do those hotspots not do that, you never even see them again! But that turned out to be sloppy design in the first game; we're talking about Syberia II, and there is none of that here.

Unlike the first game, which did stand, albeit, some might argue, somewhat shakily, on its own two feet, I do not think Syberia II would work as anything but a sequel; seeing as how it's really the second half of a single game, I imagine my enjoyment would have been much less had I not played the first part. Accessible from the game's main menu, there is a two- or three-minute video recap of the events of the first game. I don't know if this was meant for players new to the game world or merely as a reminder for returning players. I definitely don't think it would substitute for having played the original Syberia. Whatever the case, I didn't even look at it until I was already well underway in the game proper; the new game does take up right where the old one left off, and my memory did not need refreshing—it all came flooding back within seconds.

Syberia II is not meant to be rushed through, it is intended to be savored, tasted by every side of the gaming tongue, plate licked clean in a leisurely spell of sensual gluttony. Eyes, ears, brain too—all of my gaming senses were engaged and satiated by this sumptuous repast. No, it is not perfect; it may not even have at its core a very good game (although I certainly enjoyed it). But it is a masterwork when viewed as an exemplar of the video game as art, one of the very best fusions of story and imagery extant in the medium today, and for that reason alone it deserves a place in the eventual Electronic Entertainment Hall of Fame. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Microids
Publisher: XS Games
Release Date: March 2004

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
PII 350 MHz processor (PIII 800 MHz recommended)
16 MB Direct3D (DirectX 8.1) compatible 3D video card (32 MB recommended)
64 MB RAM (128 MB recommended)
400 MB free hard disk space
16X CD-ROM drive (24X recommended)
DirectX 7 compatible sound card

Where to Find It

GoGamer 29.90



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