Syberia 3 (or its author at least) is a product of Belgium, just like Jean-Claude Van Damme, artisan chocolate, and inflated diamond prices. It’s also a sequel to a game that was released all the way back in 2004, and an awful lot has changed since then. Adventure games like Syberia 3 (hereafter referred to as S3) are not as marginalised as they once were and are now even popular thanks to the likes of Telltale Games and Double Fine. With that in mind, S3 feels very much like a throwback that also wants to bring modern amenities to a very niche kind of game, even within the adventure genre. As a result, it’s a game with distinct character and enjoyable aspects but suffers from the success of its competitors. It’s a slower kind of adventure game, and after years of being hastily thrown between skin-deep puzzles and frenetic quick-time-events in the likes of The Walking Dead series and Tales from the Borderlands, S3 feels a little alien to me. As charming and unique as its surreal world and characters are, an abrupt ending, and design and localisation problems ultimately bog down what joy there is to be had.
Out of the gate, S3 doesn’t need you to be familiar with the previous games. Players assume the role of Kate Walker, an American lawyer who’s been swept up in an odd adventure through a surreal re-imagining of Eastern Europe. As we find her, Kate is unconscious and lying on a river bank in Syberia, after which a tribe of shamanistic nomads known as the Youkols rescue her. Kate’s journey is tied to the progress of these nomads and their pilgrimage to the ‘sacred lands’ – a breeding ground for their giant snow-ostriches. And yes, said ostriches are as weird and adorable as they sound. Kate’s also being pursued by a Soviet Colonel (replete with a rather silly eye-patch) and his goons. Kate is a woman of determination and an archetypal sense of justice – she’s polite, crafty, and likes to stick up for the downtrodden. And while she and her interactions with the rest of the game’s cast exude a certain quaint charm, the plot of S3 ultimately ends up as a stopgap for a future instalment. As a result, what few resolutions I hoped to see in the story didn’t eventuate, and the characters of the plot didn’t change in any way as to produce real drama. If I were a long-time fan, I’d be hugely disappointed.
S3 differs from its predecessors in a couple of fundamental ways. Whereas the previous games were solely mouse controlled, S3 recommends that you play with a controller. It also has mutable instances where your choices can alter outcomes and how the characters remember you, just like in a Telltale game. These situations don’t happen all that often, however, and as death isn’t an outcome for bad decision making, these decisions rarely feel like they’re of great consequence. S3 also feels severely padded out due to the amount of backtracking, and Kate’s particularly sluggish galumphing about S3’s levels. This game is slow, slower than it has a right to be most of the time. It’s either that or my years spent in multiplayer shooters has withered away my of patience for such things. S3 also has multiple difficulty levels to accommodate to both old pixel hunters and adventure neophytes. And while you can apparently also customise difficulty options to your liking, I never managed to see any changes rendered in the game when I started finding some of S3’s puzzles a bit too hard and tried to make the game easier for a bit. I pin this down to a limited QA testing period, so hopefully it will be fixed in due course.
While the Telltale-esque trappings of S3’s design might have one thinking this was a more hasty experience than its forebears, S3 is a game that sticks to the traditions of old and emphasises exploration and puzzle solving more than what fans of mainstream adventure games may be used to. Puzzles usually take the form of over-long item hunts, all of which will drag you neatly from one major scene to the next, keeping the game’s pace at a steady (albeit slow) rate. The item hunts themselves are made in the pursuit of fulfilling mundane tasks – stamping fabricated passports, fetching old men’s heart medication, filling furnaces with coal, etc. You’re not going to encounter any Gilbert/Schafer-esque subversive item combinations, either. You’ll find plenty of things that don’t have any use, but do help flesh out the characters and the world. Your emotional investment in which will probably depend on your affinity for obscure European comic books. The prosaic puzzles and gameplay elements add to a sense of dryness, as is reinforced by the quaint narrative – and yet, in spite of S3’s difficult to shake sense of dullness, its puzzles are satisfying and fun to solve.
S3’s world is the series first to be made with the use of a fully 3D renderer, whereas previous entries used a mixture of pre-rendered backdrops and polygonal character models. Unity tech powers it, and, for the most part, its visuals hold up in spite of a somewhat limited quality in animation and a washed-out colour palette. As this game’s writing is translated from French, and by a smaller indie studio, subtitles frequently use words and parts of speech not expressed in characters’ voice performances, and there’s a fair bit of audio stuttering to boot. While this is only mildly jarring, the actual performances themselves are a bit off-kilter sometimes, yet I felt this added to the game’s charm rather than detracting from it – I don’t expect others to feel the same way, though. It may be unintentional, but it’s terribly funny when you approach a gruff looking villager only to hear a squeaky voice wail out of him, recorded by someone less than half his apparent age. The music, composed by industry stalwart Inon Zur, is positively mesmerising. I’m a sucker for classical music in games, and S3’s main theme, carried by woodwind arrangements, is beautiful and helped me feel like returning to Kate Walker’s world even when its puzzles and characters grew tiresome.
Syberia 3 is a difficult game to recommend. I suspect it fills a particular set of niche tastes for a particular type of adventure game fan. One who doesn’t like quick-time-events, doesn’t need brazen or wacky humour, and has plenty of time on their hands to plod slowly through a game’s well-characterised world. If this sounds like you, by all means, dive in. Otherwise, you might get a bit bored of it and give up.