It’s been over a decade since the Syberia series last captured my attention. The original two games, desgined by Belgian comic artist Benoit Sokal, were a fresh breath of whimsy, combining a real Eastern European style and atmosphere with fantastical ideas and intricate steampunk contraptions. To my satisfaction, the story was completed by the end of Syberia II, to the extent that its themes had reached their conclusion and the journey had wrapped up. Not so, says Sokal, as after an extensive development of around eight years, Syberia 3 now arrives on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Unfortunately, what could have been a nostalgic coda to a unique niche of the adventure game genre has instead bloated to an overlong, buggy, boring and ultimately unnecessary sequel.
From the outset, Syberia 3 seems confused. The gameplay style is the same as previous point-and-click adventures, focusing on collecting items for your inventory and solving puzzles with them, except updated slightly for modern audiences. I played the game on PC, and at the game’s recommendation with a controller, rather than the traditional mouse. It’s a recommendation I should have ignored. With a controller, it’s never precisely clear how to select specific objects on screen, which is a pretty integral part of adventure gameplay, resulting in a lot of fiddling around with both analogue sticks. Your character moves relative to the camera, not to their own orientation, meaning that each time the camera changes angles (and it does so frequently), you have no choice but to re-orient yourself too.
There are some decent puzzles strewn throughout the game, the best ones requiring you to examine intricate devices closely and discern their internal operation. However, most of your time is spent with a great deal of seemingly pointless busy work. Case in point: At one point of the game, it’s required that you find a ship to carry you across a river. In any other adventure game, this might boil down to one task – find a captain willing to take you, or perhaps, steal a boat. Not Syberia 3. It makes you go through each and every step that booking an actual ship would require – finding a captain, convincing him to take you on board, refilling the ship’s water tanks, refilling its coal supply, opening the lock, finding where the captain has misplaced his keys… I’m not making up any of those tasks either – you really have to do all that, and a lot of it requires running around a large, expansive, but frustratingly empty town where it seems to take forever to get anywhere.
Running around is also where you’ll encounter the game’s many bugs, which is disappointing given the game’s long development cycle. You’ll frequently be unable to climb stairs as your character glitches on and off the first step, or decides not to climb at all if she’s not at the right angle or speed. Sometimes triggers or prompts to continue a puzzle will fail to appear, unless you restart the game, or items that should be gone from your inventory appear back in there, confusing whether they can still be used or not. In what seems to be a translation error, the aforementioned ship’s captain asks you several times to head to his ship’s ‘bridge’ to solve a puzzle, when in fact he actually means the ‘deck’ of the ship, leading to a lot of frustrating searching in the wrong place. The hardest puzzles the game throws at you are generally, “Where did this character who was just standing here go? Is the game bugged or did I trigger something to move him?” and “Does this massive, empty area contain a single item I’ll need for my inventory, or is it just a huge waste of time?”
This may all be tolerable if the story in Syberia 3 was engrossing, or at least as atmospheric as the previous games. Those entries told a sweet tale of American contract lawyer Kate Walker, who walks out on her job and past life to help a dying genius journey across Europe and Russia to pursue his life’s dream of seeing the last existing woolly mammoths. In Syberia 3, Kate Walker somehow finds herself half-frozen to death in the Siberian wilds, and is rescued by the nomadic Youkal tribe. These Youkals, who ride mythical snow ostrich creatures, embark on a ritual pilgrimage with the ostriches’ migration every 20 years across the continent, and Kate agrees to help them in their journey.
There’s not a lot else to the story beyond the constant trials and tribulations the Youkals face at every step of their quest. The fact that they’re so incompetent, and become so reliant on strong and tall American Kate Walker to do absolutely everything for them, actually borders a little on offensive, combined with their portrayal as squat, obese catchphrase-spouting foreigners. The tribe is pursued by evil-doers who are given no motivation beyond possibly just being racist, but this pursuit means that the whole game feels like a constant escape, rather than the journey to somewhere (or someone) that past games did. It’s also only half a story, ending on a cliffhanger in much the same way as the original game (although much more abruptly), with no meaningful thematic resolution reached by its close. There is an undercurrent of something interesting going on – occasional mentions of a violent history in the region, ageing Soviet propaganda posters, and the looming probability that the Youkals’ nomadic way of life in an industrialised world just may not be possible. These are all hints of a more fleshed out, or well told story, that we sadly never get to see.
While Inon Zur’s soundtrack impresses, with a particularly memorable main theme, the same cannot be said for the game’s English voice acting, which actually gets so bad it undercuts the story even further. Despite being in what I presume is Russia or Siberia, almost everybody sounds American, not even attempting an accent. The evil Dr. Olga, who rules a run-down hospital with an iron fist, sounds barely interested in the schemes she’s meant to be involved in. Older, wiser, characters sound like mid-twenties voice actors more concerned with lip syncing than with emotion, while any actors who are half-decent get re-used to a ridiculous degree. I love Mike Pollock, he is an amazing Dr. Eggman, but his distinct voice is constantly noticeable across multiple roles, although he does fare well in his main appearance as Captain Obo. Kate herself is fine, but often sounds like she was recorded in isolation from the rest of the script, or from context of the situations she’s meant to be responding to.
On the positive side, I can say that the various locations of the game are quite well detailed with props and dressing to make everything feel more or less authentic. The yurts the Youkals sleep in, or their market tent, are full of interesting designs, while the main town and steampunk-styled amusement park feel unique as well.
As much as I always would like to be an advocate for adventure games in modern gaming, I have to hold them to a certain standard, and Syberia 3 falls short of the mark. It doesn’t provide any substantial additional material to the series, beyond an appearance by a fan-favourite character, and its meandering, glacial pace is more likely to bore you than intrigue you. The current unpolished state of the game is also disappointing, but developer Microids seem supportive of updating the game through patches to come. Syberia 3 is unfortunately just a very hard game to get much enjoyment from, especially when there are so many other excellent story-driven experiences out there at the moment.
-Detailed locations -Sedate, European pace and style -Occasionally neat steampunk ideas
-Boring busywork puzzles -Buggy visuals and collisions -Imprecise controls -Meandering, uncompelling story -Poor English voiceovers