Syberia 2 (2004)
by Bacardi Jim
April 11, 2004

 

Developer: Microids
Publisher:   Microids

In 2002, French artist and game designer Benoit Sokal released Syberia, the follow-up to his wonderful yet largely ignored game Amerzone.  Not since Myst has there been a game that has so polarized the adventure gaming community.  Several gaming websites and publications lauded Syberia as the Game of the Year.  It became one of the top selling adventure games of the last decade.  Legions of near-rabid fans sprung up, attracted by Syberia’s stunning artwork and (to their mind) moving storytelling.  An equally adamant cadre of detractors appeared, citing the game’s lack of interactivity, ease and scarcity of puzzles and its brevity.

Given the strong feelings on both sides of the fence, Sokal’s sequel is unlikely to change many minds.  Syberia 2 mostly offers more of the same.  In some ways, it is an improvement on its predecessor, and in others it suffers by comparison.  While addressing most of the shortcomings the harsher critics found in Syberia, the sequel also sacrifices some of the emotional storytelling that won the hearts of many fans.

   

Previously on Syberia

Unlike most game sequels, Syberia 2 picks up almost exactly where the first game left off.  This would normally be a detriment, virtually requiring that the player have purchased and played the original game before jumping into the sequel.  Microids included a clever way around this potential problem.  On the main menu, there is an option to see a cinematic recap of the events of Syberia, assuring that no player is left in the dark.  And given that it is unlikely that anyone reading this review isn’t familiar with the story of the first game, I’m not going to get into it here.

However, I felt a disturbing bit of discontinuity despite this attempt to merge the two games seamlessly.  Hans Voralberg, whom we met only momentarily at the conclusion of Syberia, quickly turns out to be absolutely nothing like the person we had described to us in the first game. When Kate Walker (our heroine) dug into the Voralberg family history in S1, Hans was portrayed as a kind of idiot savant, brain damaged during a childhood fall.  Despite being a mechanical genius, Han’s disability was so severe that his father eventually faked Hans’s death and secretly sent him away rather than live with the social stigma.

But when we finally get to talk to Hans aboard his marvelous clockwork train at the beginning of S2, we discover that while Hans may be a bit of a dreamer, he is perfectly lucid, intelligent and functional.  In fact, his only disability (other than extreme old age) seems to be that he is unusually short!  While this new image of Hans in no way detracts from the self-contained game of Syberia 2 it certainly does not make sense if the player (as Sokal so obviously wants us to do) considers the two games to be telling a single continuous story.

 

Thar’s puzzles in that thar game!”

As I mentioned before, most of the criticism that S1 received bashed it for the lack of interactivity and the ease and scarcity of its puzzles.  Don’t expect any improvements in the interactivity department from S2.  Once again, we are treated to screen after screen after screen of absolutely gorgeous artwork… which contain absolutely nothing to click on or interact with.  Similarly, Kate can only talk to a fraction of the people she sees during her travels.  It is easy to get lulled by all the empty screens, which makes it all the more frustrating when you encounter one of the few obscenely non-intuitive bits of pixel hunting that are required.  (I defy anyone to find the slingshot strap on their first couple of trips through the appropriate screen.)  As in S1, we also sometimes get teased with hotspots which net us no return.  Early in the game, Kate visits a monastery.  The cursor indicates that we can examine/talk to many of the monks we see wandering about, but any attempt to do so results in total silence.  On the other hand, at least we are spared the annoying mantra of “No need to go down there” this time around.

The puzzles, however, mark the most dramatic improvement of Syberia 2 over the original.  One would expect that a game that centers on the exploits of a genius in the design of clockwork machinery and automata to be chock-full of clever mechanical puzzles.  S2 is no Riven, but it certainly succeeds to a far greater degree than its predecessor.  Not only are the puzzles reasonably challenging, they are also logical (with a couple of exceptions) and almost universally well integrated into their various contexts.  There are a couple of puzzles that seem a bit farfetched or are downright clunkers (the bird-obsessed monk, defacing art with a scrub brush and obtaining Laughing Tree berries come to mind) but the majority of the puzzling was exactly what I was expecting and then denied when I purchased the original Syberia.

This increase in the number of puzzles also leads to S2 being significantly longer than S1, if still short by the standards of most adventure game “classics.”  The game is also “artificially” lengthened by a combination of extreme linearity, being dialogue driven for the first half of the game, and forced marching to and fro to accomplish tasks.  For instance, when trying to get into the above-mentioned monastery, Kate must first attempt (unsuccessfully) to enter the monastery on her own before returning to town and discovering that she can now discuss getting access to the monastery with some of the townsfolk.  Even after that, Kate eventually finds that she must fetch an item that requires a journey of fourteen screens each way before she finally gains admittance to the monastery.  Given that even Kate’s running speed isn’t particularly fast, such forced back-and-forth trudging actually accounts for a significant portion of the total time spent playing Syberia 2.

 

It’s the story… of a lovely lady…

If Syberia 2 manages to win over some critics with its increase in length and difficulty, it may also lose some of S1’s devoted fans with generally worse storytelling and character development.  Syberia has frequently been compared with The Longest Journey, allegedly telling an involving and emotional story of the heroine’s personal growth and change as she travels through the game.  Whether such a comparison is accurate or not, this perceived personal growth and development on Kate’s part is at the center of many fans’ devotion to the game.  However, I think that even the most devout fan of S1 will admit that this “change” in Kate isn’t so much demonstrated by her own actions as it is reflected in her interactions and conversations with others, particularly in the cell phone conversations she has with her mother, boss, fiancé and girlfriend.  In Syberia 2, there are fewer people with whom Kate can interact, and most of the conversations are fairly businesslike.  And she only receives a couple of calls from America , one each from her mother and her boss.  Kate basically hangs up on both of them, providing us with no additional insight into her personality.  In the only personal conversations Kate has, all she exhibits is an almost fanatical devotion to seeing Hans through to the completion of his trek to the mystical land of Syberia .  At no time did I feel that I was seeing the internal Kate Walker.  This would not normally be a huge drawback in an adventure game.  But when we are talking about a sequel to a game wherein exactly this sort of character development is lauded as one of its great strengths, different standards apply.

Despite its greater length, there is also simply less actual plot in Syberia 2.  The great majority of what story there is takes place in the village where the game starts.  There are fewer stops for the train, fewer people to meet and fewer adventures than in S1.  What there is, though, is a side-story about how the law firm for which Kate works has sent a private detective on her trail to bring her back to the States.  This side-plot has absolutely no bearing on Kate and Hans’s journey and serves zero literary purpose, acting purely as an occasional interruption of the primary narrative stream.  Furthermore, these interruptions are all essentially identical and quickly become repetitive and tiresome.

On the plus side, I found C3PO… errrOscar less annoying this time around.  However, in one huge gaffe, Oscar does something that is 100% contrary to his entire character and programming in order to provide one of the major plot points.  I won’t give it away, but when you play Syberia 2, think back to everything Kate had to go through in order to get Oscar to take her anywhere on the train.  Then consider how likely it is that Oscar would take other people who have no tickets anywhere at all.

 

All’s well that ends well

Much of your reaction to Syberia 2 will depend not only on whether you liked S1, but also specifically what you did or didn’t like about it.  The graphics and sound are, if anything, even more wondrous this time around, making S2 one of the most beautiful games of any genre ever produced.  The challenge has definitely been upped, while the personal nature of the story has disappeared.  It is certainly longer than S1, but much of the length has been added artificially and is a result of forced trudging around through lots and lots of non-interactive screens.  Personally, I found the improvements over the original to outweigh the flaws and completed Syberia 2 feeling satisfied that this time I’d got what I paid for.

 

Final Grade: 8 out of 10

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