The Syberia series used to be among my favorites back when I was heavily into point and click adventures, up there with The Longest Journey. The brainchild of Belgian comic artist turned game auteur Benoît Sokal put players in the shoes of Kate Walker, an American lawyer travelling to France on behalf of her firm to sign some papers finalizing the sale of a toy factory owned by the eccentric Hans Voralberg. Kate’s journey is not only one of new experiences as she travels throughout Europe but also one of self-discovery during which she gradually loses touch with her former life just as she becomes entranced with Hans’ determination to travel to a remote island called Syberia and see the fabled last living mammoths.
Normally I’d invite you along as I take you through the gameplay and story overview, dive a bit into the technical minutia and art direction and then discuss some of the game’s flaws before delivering a conclusion. It is with a heavy heart that I’m telling you, from the get-go, that Syberia 3 is a thoroughly disappointing endeavour and the only real value you’ll get from this review is if you’re curious exactly how and why it fails. Are any of you still here? Ok, let’s take a look at (probably) the last installment in the Syberia series.
Syberia 3: Windows PC [Reviewed], Xbox One, PlayStation 4, macOS, Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS
Developer: Microïds, Anuman, Kylotonn
Publisher: Microïds, Anuman
Release Date: 20 April 2017
Price: €39,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
It’s definitely been a bumpy ride for Syberia 3. Initially slated for release in 2010, over five years after the previous installment, it’s been through every conceivable setback including rights being acquired by another company, a lack of funding and an overall logistic clusterfuck. It was finally announced officially in 2014 and released in early 2017. One would think that more time spent in development would mean more overall quality and polish of the final product. One couldn’t fault another for believing that. But that’s rarely how it plays out.
Barring a short gap in the story, Syberia 3 picks up where the second one left off, with Kate Walker washing ashore after presumably leaving the island where she last saw Hans and being rescued by the fictional Youkol people. The Youkol are a shamanistic tribe living their lives as nomads in a sort of symbiosis with the snow ostriches who serve as their companions, mounts and cattle. The Youkol are undertaking their periodic migration to the snow ostriches’ breeding grounds as they pick up Kate and deliver her to a nearby clinic near the town of Valsembor where… where everything goes batshit.
Let me just get the bad out of the way. The villains in Syberia 3 are not only the most tired tropes, the most boring cliches imaginable but they’re utterly useless to the plot. The burly Nurse Ratched trope that tries to keep Kate in the hospital is a contrived foil since Kate easily escapes without interacting with her all that much. The stern eyepatch-wearing Colonel giving her orders is equally useless, as he enters the fray long after Kate sets upon her journey and the private investigator tasked with bringing her back to America by her former employer is so far removed from anything the player might care about that it’s ridiculous.
Kate doesn’t need a villain or three to push her forward because she already has a more compelling goal: Helping the Youkol traverse a land that has changed much over the decades and reach their sacred grounds safely. Consider, for a moment, the classic epic Lord of the Rings. The heroes are driven by one singular purpose at any given time. At first, they’re being chased by the Nazgûl as they are driven forward but only until they reach Rivendell and decide the Ring must be destroyed, at which point that becomes the driving force behind the plot. Can, uh, can we just talk about Lord of the Rings for the remainder of this piece? No? Ok, fine 🙁
For its failings in story and storytelling, Syberia 3 does make up in atmosphere and setting. Valsembor and the surrounding countryside serve as a bleak run-down soviet backdrop for Kate’s journey. Most remarkable among them is the Prypyat-inspired amusement park and town present throughout the latter half of the game. While decently crafted, the setting lacks in some of the variety that made the first two games great. All of the whimsy is replaced by a morose melancholy which is probably fitting given the tone of the previous installments. The atmosphere is punctuated by an amazing soundtrack by the legendary Inon Zur.
The puzzles are also a breath of fresh air among recent modern adventure games (not made by Daedalic) since they not only require you to use your brain for a change, but most of them are also based on close-ups of intricate and fascinating machinery and clockwork devices within the Syberiverse. However, the puzzles, like most of the game, are marred by a terrible control scheme that doesn’t work well on mouse or controller (the game recommends a controller).
The conceit is that you hold down an “interact” button and then make an appropriate movement as if you’re really interacting with the item in question. Keys need to be turned, levers to be pulled and knives need to be wiggled. It’s definitely a good enough idea, making the game feel more interactive, but the way it controls is floaty, overly sensitive and fails to deliver a satisfying experience, occasionally becoming frustrating.
The rest of the gameplay itself doesn’t shine either. Kate controls almost like a tank and her animations are jerky and unnatural. She seems to slide across the scenery a bit faster or slower than her running animation, making for some really awkward scenes while exploring. Not only that, but the lip sync animations don’t even try to line up with the speech which is its own brand of terrible. Aside from a few characters, the voice acting in Syberia 3 is flat at best, as if the actors were given no context or direction. They enunciate each word painfully and this makes the creators’ attempt to make colorful characters seem forced, especially since they lack any sort of substance.
Color-wise, the art direction suffers as well. I understand that we’re in the post-soviet east, but could we please stop making every single video game use this faded color grading where everything tends to be grey or brown? This would be effective if properly used but combined with Syberia 3‘s dated graphics and poor customization, lack of Anti Aliasing, texture quality and any sort of optimization, the entire game looks grimy, fuzzy and messy.
The piece of resistance in the miserable experience that is Syberia 3 is probably its save system (checkpoint based, sometimes without signalling that it saved your game) and a multitude of bugs and glitches, some of which crashed my game, some of which made me quit and restart. This is made infinitely worsened by the fact that there is no way to skip dialogue lines or cutscenes, forcing you to watch them over and over again if you encounter one of the game-breaking bugs (which for me started showing up just as the game was beginning to break into a stride).
I took no pleasure in writing this. In fact, writing this piece was almost as miserable an experience as playing through Syberia 3. It really pains me to say this. The series was among my favorites in the genre and I was looking forward to seeing it continue. It looks and feels as if it was designed and made in the mid-to-late 2000s, just as the genre was shifting toward 3D environments. However, this didn’t stop recent games such as Dreamfall Chapters to deliver a more polished experience (on the same engine, no less). If it were just an issue of graphics I wouldn’t be bothered but the lack of either time, resources or effort invested shows and permeates throughout all aspects of the game save overall world design and music. Frankly, I can’t fault it for lack of trying, I can see the game wanting to be good, but it’s just not enough. And sadly, patches can only solve a pittance of its issues.