As someone who never had a PC that was capable of running anything other than World of Warcraft on the lowest setting until 2010, I was mostly oblivious to the point-and-click adventure genre. Over time, I made friends who were heavily into games like Indiana Jones, Leisure Suit Larry, and Police Quest, but I’ve just always been a console guy. The closest I ever got was Maniac Mansion on the NES, which wasn’t even a faithful port of the PC release — thanks to Nintendo deeming certain parts “inappropriate for children.”
I’ve been playing catch-up with the genre ever since, having tackled (and sometimes reviewed) similar games across PC and console. The list of must-plays is seemingly never-ending!
I recently finished up Microids’ 2002 classic Syberia, which follows the adventure of American lawyer Kate Walker as she travels to a remote French village on behalf of her firm to finalize the takeover of a local toy factory. Her brief visit, however, is immediately extended as she arrives in the middle of the owner’s funeral. A funeral led by strange automatons.
Anna, the now-deceased owner, inherited the Voralberg factory after the deaths of her brother and father. Without a next of kin, Kate simply needs to visit the notary, get the proper documents signed, and catch the next flight back to New York — though it’s never that easy in these types of games, is it?
Without spoiling too much of the plot, Anna revealed to the notary prior to her death that her brother, Hans, is actually alive and the rightful heir to the Voralberg toy factory. Discovering why her father faked Hans death was a tragic read, mostly due to his newly-acquired mental handicap after a fall inside of an old mammoth cave — Hans discovered mammoth cave paintings and a mammoth doll inside of a nearby cave, climbed atop a stone structure, and lost his footing, which left his growth stunted and deteriorated the expansion of his mental faculties.
Despite his mental illness, Hans was a genius tinkerer who specialized in creating automatons with the purpose of replacing the men and women who left to fight in the war. Many of them never returned, leaving the village of Valadilene mostly barren.
If it sounds like I’m spoiling too much, fear not — this is just the first hour of the game. There’s a lot to discover over the course of Kate’s adventure.
With Hans alive, Kate chases clues as to his whereabouts across Europe and Russia so she can finalize her firm’s takeover and return to New York. But this is merely one of the plot points Syberia introduces.
The game takes place in a steampunk version of Europe, where Hans’ footprints can be found at every stop along the way. Towns are full of gears and springs, automated servants, and cranks to recharge the engine. A local paleontology school far off from Valadilene even has a broken bandstand that Kate repairs, where a seated group of automatons spring to life in a fantastical song led by their violins.
As Kate travels mostly by train, early on she meets one of Hans’ automatons, Oscar — a humanoid automaton that acts as the train’s conductor, ticket master, and engineer. All of the voice acting in the game is considerably great, even by 2017 standards. Oscar, in particular, is one of the strongest cast members with his “pre-programmed thinking only” approach to conversation and problem-solving. Since he acts as both the conductor and the ticket master, I chuckled whenever he’d leave the train to enter a ticket booth and demand I show the proper documentation.
The narrative is often broken up by frequent phone calls from Kate’s fiance Dan, her mother, her boss, and one of her co-workers. Each has their own unique personality that plays into their own stories and how they affect Kate outside of her adventure. Like Oscar, their voiceovers are also incredibly well done (given the 2002 release date, this was extremely impressive).
Syberia uses the late 90s/early 2000s pre-rendered background design, wherein backdrops are created in “high” detail (imagine the difference between an older game’s cutscene versus its actual 3D polygons — Final Fantasy VII is a great example) and frozen as a still image for the player to walk around. I’ve always found this aesthetic charming, since it’s a sign of the times.
The character models are clearly from 2002, with plenty of smudged textures and rounded edges, erratic mouth movements and sub par animations, but the narrative and world design are so strong that it far outweighed the “negatives.” I didn’t find the dated models jarring in any way, but I always knew I was playing something well over a decade old.
Being a point-and-click adventure game, Syberia is played entirely with the mouse. Many of the explorable areas are broken into smaller zones that can be navigated with simple mouse clicks. Likewise, Kate can interact with objects, solve puzzles, and chat with NPCs, with ease.
It’s not all candy and nuts, though. Many point-and-click adventure games fall into the trap of including unnecessarily complicated solutions, and Syberia is no different. One part, in particular, has Kate speaking with all manner of NPCs around a college campus to unearth their wine-making scheme, all to discover the location of a rare fruit that she can use to lure a flock of birds away from a ladder — instead of, I don’t know, just shooing them away.
Syberia is relatively short, with a runtime of around 7 hours. If I found myself walking in circles I didn’t hesitate to use a puzzle guide, but brain-bending puzzles with odd solutions wasn’t at all what I was looking to be enthralled by. Still, it’s worth taking into consideration if you’re the type who likes staring intently until the solution appears. The average completion time for this is listed at 10 hours, so I guess I shaved quite a bit off by periodically using a walkthrough.
I’m certainly glad I decided to reach into the ol’ backlog for this one. I thoroughly enjoyed Kate Walker’s multiple narrative threads and the somber steampunk aesthetic crafted by the folks at Microids. The world is mostly barren, but what characters do exist are usually interesting. Syberia’s story even wraps up rather nicely and moves immediately into the 2004 sequel.
There’s certainly not much to do aside from explore, converse, and solve puzzles, but if you’re looking for a memorable narrative with great character development, I’d rank Syberia up there as one of the best point-and-click adventure games I’ve ever played — maybe even the best. It’s truly excellent.