I’ve always had mixed feelings about the Syberia series. The tone-building and environmental design always stood out as the work of a master auteur, but the first two games fell apart due to their pacing and the strange decision to make all of the characters pretty detestable. Kate Walker herself is an atrocious human being, responsible for acts that may seem innocuous at first glance, but upon further thought reveal themselves to be almost crimes against humanity. Despite this, the first two games are still charming for all their clockpunk imagery and dreamlike scenery. I went into Syberia 3 with similar expectations, even hoping that after more than a decade the writing may have matured and improved. Unfortunately, not only has the writing grown even staler, but the gameplay and interfaces have taken a vicious beating as well.
Here is how Syberia 3 starts: Kate wakes up in a clinic that treats mental disabilities, amputation recovery, geriatrics, and what seems to be skin cancer all in the same ward. Her room is locked from the outside and the call button has been sabotaged, so she has to fix it with a knife to get out. She demands to be released by the on-call doctor, so he straps her into what looks like an electric chair to force her to take a lie detector test to prove her sanity. By now it should be obvious that this is an evil clinic, but Kate is a bit slow on the uptake. After proving she is well, the doctor hands her a key with a puzzle mechanism and tells her she has to figure out how to use it to prove she is well enough to leave. Yes, this hospital’s actual written protocol is that all patients must solve an adventure game logic puzzle before they can be released. So we’re already not off to a good start. Sure, adventure games by design tend to have contrived excuses for puzzles, but Syberia isn’t a self-aware comedy series like Monkey Island or Sam & Max. In Syberia 3, when a character tells you almost verbatim that you cannot progress until you solve their puzzle, it shatters the willing suspension of disbelief.
It also doesn’t help that the villains running the clinic are as incompetent at being evil as Kate is at detecting their evilness. Okay, so they sabotaged the puzzle key so she can’t escape, but they also put her up in the same room as a tribesman from a village she previously helped who has outside communication with that tribe. All she has to do is use their messenger owl for the village’s craftsman to fix the key. Later, after Kate has finally put the pieces together and realized how evil the clinic is, she confronts the head doctor against all rational thinking. The doctor, who is again very obviously scheming, conniving, and holding a giant needle, asks Kate if she can “check her pulse” before she leaves and KATE ACTUALLY LETS HER. Surprise! The doctor jabs her with the needle. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, though, because after returning Kate to her room, they don’t bother restraining her. It’s this infuriating tug-of-war between a protagonist who obstructs herself and antagonists who leave every opportunity for her to get the upper hand. In this maelstrom of poor decision making, the player is left powerless.
After this pointless introduction, Kate reaches the tribal Youkol village and decides to once again take on the mantle of “American tourist savior” by guiding the warty Oompa Loompas on their Great Ostrich Pilgrimage. At first, this feels like a subplot or side quest, but this is actually the main plot of Syberia 3. Along the way, she is pursued by the evil doctors, a military faction, and a private detective who inexplicably disappears from the plot altogether after the first two hours. As it turns out, her crimes from the first two games have finally caught up with her, although her arrest warrant charges her with embezzlement and the murder of her traveling companion Hans. Ironically, these are probably the only two crimes she is not guilty of, compared to the path of property destruction, forgery, theft, vandalism, torture, kidnapping, reckless endangerment, drugging, and blackmail she has cut in her wake. You will be happy to know that Kate continues her “heroic deeds” by nearly trampling two men to death, derailing and demolishing an entire public transportation system, stealing precious memorabilia from two people who are both the sole survivors of two different tragedies, bribing a border control officer, and basically human trafficking.
Let’s say that you can look past all the illogical nonsense and moral misattribution in the plot. Even then, Syberia 3 can’t fall back on good gameplay to redeem itself. The decision to switch to full 3D with joystick/WASD controls has already been critiqued plenty, so I won’t belabor that point. It’s an unnecessary change, but not fundamentally flawed. The problem doesn’t lie in the change itself, but with the interface. The game is designed around a number of context-sensitive interaction zones within the environments, but there is simply no effective way to navigate these popup menus. You’re encouraged to play with a controller, which is somewhat understandable since moving around with a joystick is more precise than a keyboard and it’s easier to use the face buttons to use contextual commands than with a mouse. On the other hand, locating interactive zones with a controller is needlessly inhibiting, as the right stick is simultaneously used to move the camera as well as locking on to and cycling between interactive zones, and what would already be an annoying pixel hunt becomes a battle with the camera. If you’re not standing in exactly the right spot, with the camera in just the right position, it’s entirely possible to miss something vital. Sometimes you have to manipulate objects too, and the controller, in a cruel twist of fate, can’t offer the same amount of control as the mouse. The optimal way to play the game is with a keyboard, your mouse, AND a controller. I don’t think I need to explain why that is ridiculous.
If struggling with a clunky control scheme wasn’t bad enough, combine it with padded-for-time scripting and boring puzzles, and you have a recipe for disaster. Although Syberia 3 isn’t the only game to use such a system, there’s no good excuse in any game for blocking a player from taking certain actions or collecting certain objects before they’ve reached an arbitrary goalpost, yet it happens time and time again. One of the late game areas is a massive sports complex. Naturally, the player is encouraged to explore this vast environment, checking nooks and crannies for items. The first time you traverse those dozen or so screens, which I must reiterate are very expansive and take a long time to travel through, you cannot collect any items needed for a later puzzle despite the fact that you can clearly see one of them out in the open. This serves no purpose except to force a player to retrace every single step again through these long, wide, empty corridors after the game has decided they are “ready.” It isn’t even consistent about it: sometimes you can pick up objects much earlier than intended. The game makes a big deal out of this by giving the characters different dialogue depending on if you’ve met certain conditions, even rewarding you with Achievements for your forward-thinking. So why only some of the time?
The conversational system seems to be trying to capitalize on the success of Telltale’s games, with dialogue options that change the way other characters feel about you. While they could have made something interesting out of it, your decisions don’t really influence future events or carry much impact. If you need to convince a character of something, Syberia 3 automatically highlights the most effective answer if you’ve gathered enough clues for it, so it doesn’t even hold the illusion of having stakes. The dialogue options are no more nuanced than “Say thank you” or “Don’t say thank you.” Other times, the game gives you the exact same exposition dump four times in a row and you can’t skip any of it. That’s not a hyperbole. There’s a point in the game where an old man delivers an info dump, then he plays a film that repeats the same information, then his granddaughter tells you about it, and then a random tavern owner repeats it yet again.
Your mileage may vary on the puzzles themselves. In all of the thirteen hours of the game, I only marked down two as particularly enjoyable. The Syberia games’ puzzles have always bugged me, since they tend to involve using semi-realistic machinery, flipping knobs and switches just to see what happens. There’s an inherent trial-and-error involved just to learn the way the puzzle works before the inevitable trial-and-error of trying to implement solutions, whereas I prefer to jump right in. Having to teach yourself the basic contents of an operations manual on each new machine gets pretty dull after a while. I always feel like I’m doing someone else’s job, poorly, and I don’t find that very engaging. If you like those kinds of puzzles from the earlier games, you may enjoy them in Syberia 3, but even putting aside my personal bias I think it’s overdone here. There’s also a disappointing amount of puzzles for which the solution is to break the object in question.
Then there are the bugs. Oh lordy, the bugs. Fortunately, I did not encounter any game-breaking issues, like the save-game corruption plaguing many other players, but there are a plethora of glitches that run the gamut from minor oversight to major frustration. In the “mostly harmless” corner, in the last section of the game, there is an area that requires the use of the knife Kate has had with her since the beginning of the game. No problem, just use the knife from your inventory to cut the object… except Kate says it’s “Impossible.” It turns out that the knife isn’t actually in Kate’s inventory. It is, but it isn’t. She has to return to her yurt and dig in her belongings to pick up the knife… the same knife… so that she now has two of the knife in her inventory. Only the second knife, which is the same as the first knife, can be used to cut the object. Throughout the duration, I also encountered a puzzle where the controls stopped working halfway through so I had to reload an autosave, a room that consistently loaded without the floor or walls, NPCs that blipped in and out of existence, camera angles that became stuck even after hitting the spots to transition to the next angle, and Kate’s apparent fear of stairs that prevented me from climbing them unless I approached at a severe angle. This is to say nothing of the never-ending loading screens between almost every area.
One thing this series has always had going for it is the artistic quality of the visuals, and Syberia 3′s one saving grace may be that it matches its predecessors on that end. The game may not be a graphical tour-de-force, and the facial animations when characters are speaking leave a lot to be desired, but the landscapes and grand architectures inspire the same kind of awe and reverence that Valadilene achieved in the first game. The Baranour theme park, clearly inspired by the remains of Chernobyl, particularly stands out for its muted colors seen through the miasma of lake fog and radioactive haze. The character designs on the new characters left me somewhat unimpressed, but you can’t help but love the Youkols for the barrel-sized squashes they are (visually, I mean, personality-wise they’re kind of jerks).
The music has also improved in Syberia 3. It’s a little less cheesy and a little more ambient, though the main theme still manages to become kind of annoying by the end. Still, like the earlier games, this one prefers its silence in letting Kate wander around lifeless regions. Things aren’t so positive on the voice acting side, at least in English. To start, the subtitles and spoken dialogue don’t even resemble each other vaguely. Sometimes when you initiate dialogue with a character, they’ll move their mouths as if they’re speaking but no words will come out, so they look like they’re awkwardly chewing air. When they do speak, they’re dubbed over French lip movements which are already poorly synchronized. Lines frequently cut off mid-sentence only to resume after a moment of blank silence. At least Kate’s voice actor still does a remarkable job in bringing her character to life, but much of the supporting cast is voiced by the same couple of folks who don’t even bother to differentiate between their different characters. An old man in the clinic at the beginning and an elderly clockmaker in the first town both share the same voice, which is more like that of a 30-something mailman they invited in to read the lines. Sarah’s voice actor reads all her lines way too fast. The Big Bad, Doctor Efimova, sounds like a professor of cosmetology begrudging the fact that her tenure didn’t get approved. And the drunken, beer-bellied sailor Captain Obo (who is introduced with a Bulk-and-Skull tuba riff, I’m not even joking) is literally voiced by Doctor Eggman.
I’m now 2300 words into this review and I’ve only scratched the surface of my complaints with this game. Halfway through the game, I made a note to myself: “It’s definitely not a good game, but I don’t know if I can conscientiously call it a bad one.” Two hours later I struck through the note and wrote: “Nope pretty bad.” It’s not an absolutely broken game. It works, mostly, but it’s composed of so many decisions that are either questionable or downright wasteful of the player’s time. It’s not even terrible. I wish I could say it was! It’s just mediocre, violently and painfully so. After every puzzle, when a character would say, “There’s still a lot left to do!” I would actually become filled with existential dread. I can only say this: If the thought of spending three hours doing routine maintenance on a boat appeals to you, Syberia 3 might be the game to scratch that festering itch.More About This Game
Syberia 3 manages to squander all the series' charm with a low-stakes plot, clunky gameplay, and a number of distracting bugs. It is playable, but severely lacking in entertainment value.
- Gorgeous Environments
- A Couple Of Decent Puzzles
- Boring And Overlong
- Terrible Interface
- Lazy English Dub
- Bugs Galore