Chilly reunion: A critical review of “Syberia 3” (2017)

The first game in the Syberia franchise had the foresight to be released around one of the (numerous) times adventure games were (allegedly) on the way out. But “Syberia’s” literary story and dream-like atmosphere – and its robust sales – convinced the naysayers that adventure games were fine, for a few more months at least.

Unsurprisingly, a sequel was released two years later. More surprisingly, it took 13 years for the third entry to follow that. More than a decade and two console generations later, players could trek back to the mythical isle of Syberia. Except not really. I’m getting ahead of myself.

A decade in game industry time can be an opportunity for a franchise to improve graphics and absorb inspiration from other like-minded titles from along the years. It can also be an opportunity to lose touch. I won’t worry about getting ahead here. “Syberia 3” is definitely in the latter camp.

“Syberia 3” picks up where things left off 13 years ago, only no one’s aged. American lawyer Kate Walker is somewhere in Eurasia, kinda former Soviet bloc, trying to repay a tribe of dwarf shamans who rescued her from drowning in a river. She’s helping them track a herd of snow ostriches to its sacred breeding ground. The size of the herd changes frequently, but we can chalk that up to graphical limitations.

Walker is useful to the tribe because she can move in modern society easier than they can, I guess. I’m less certain why the tribe is being pursued by an eye patch wearing Colonel Klink type and a hypnotist Nurse Ratched type. Walker herself is also being pursued by an American private detective, for reasons that are quickly forgotten by the narrative.

When it comes to adventure games, this blog looks for three things: atmosphere, story and puzzles, in that order. As far as atmosphere goes, “Syberia 3” never rises above OK. It creates some atmosphere with its music, Slavic sounding stuff that is pleasant but rarely more than background. The settings are hit or miss. Ruined towns and chilly forests are moody environments for sure, but their presentation is hampered by bad graphics and ugly blocking. A game with a bigger budget would have created a sense of place with detailed landscapes. A game with a more novel art direction could have done it with pure style. “Syberia 3” apparently has neither.

You can’t blame the game for not trying. It opens in a mental institution – that’s always a nice touch. There’s a troubled sea crossing – this blog finds the ocean terrifying. There’s a series of increasingly abandoned Soviet ghost towns, sewers and amusement parks – the game does excellent Soviet abandonment. Unfortunately, there’s no sense of dread in the mental institution, no sense of danger at sea, and the abandoned locales keep getting filled up with people, robbing them of any sense of isolation.

“Syberia 3’s” story is pretty routine, and it never bothers to explore any of its potential. The paradox of both guiding and following a force of nature – a herd that travels like seasonal clockwork – could have been fascinating. As it’s presented here, it just boils down to: outcasts are going somewhere; bad people plague them, because bad people need things to do too; our heroine backtracks and throws switches to keep everyone moving.

It might be all right if the characters we met along the way were interesting, but they’re poorly sketched out cliches. Even that might be OK if the voice actors could make trotting out the archetypes fresh or fun, but that ain’t happening either. Early in the game, Walker notes that the scout master of the shaman tribe speaks excellent English. Her compliment seems arbitrary. Every character speaks flawless American English, regardless of how much gratuitous German is thrown into their dialogue. Were there no voice actors of Russian or German background? What about British? That’s who Americans usually hire when they can’t get real Europeans. These actors sound like the closest they’ve ever gotten to Eastern Europe is in old episodes of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

There are two exceptions. The first is New York voice actor Mike Pollock, who is serviceable as a drunk sea captain, a skittish border guard and one of the most unconventional looking and least effective private detectives I’ve seen in a video game (pretty much everyone does triple duty on voice work).

The other exception is Sharon Mann as Kate Walker. Mann has been playing Walker since 2002, so she knows what she’s doing and delivers most of her lines like she cares. In fact, Walker is the only character worth caring about. She dresses like a steampunk goddess, which I appreciate. More importantly, she’s dynamic, in part due to multiple dialogue options players can use throughout her adventures. My Kate Walker was direct and given to fits of wonder and amazement, but she could also be manipulative or sarcastic when she needed to be. Thanks to Mann’s believable delivery, it always worked.

Finally, there’s the puzzles. They’re fairly mediocre. They’re usually straightforward enough to bully your way through. Anyone who wants depth will likely be disappointed, since the main component in solving a lot of these is backtracking, followed by put-the-thing-on-top-of-the-other-thing style trial and error. I liked one puzzle involving breaking down a door for its lateral thinking solution. Manipulating a crane was spatially rewarding. The deepest puzzle was probably a late game entry that required the most real world reasoning about sparking fires and channeling heat.

That’s probably not a good review. Three good puzzles in a game between seven and 14 hours long, with the rest ranging from filler to frustrating. I’ve seen reviews call this game terrible. I won’t quite go that far, but it isn’t great either. If this blog had to pick a word, it would be awkward. “Syberia 3” is awkward. Its backtracking is awkward. Its console controls are awkward and its camera is awkward, and that combination suggests puzzle games should stick to the PC.

Its uncertainty of its own atmosphere is awkward. The relationship between the spoken dialogue and the captions is awkward, since they don’t always match up. The mouth movements don’t always match up with the dialogue either, leaving the characters looking like they’re chewing more than talking. The chewing is awkward.

“Syberia 3” does one thing right, which is to indicate that the other games in the franchise will be better. A confession: Although I’ve heard of the series, I have never played any of the other Syberia games. They are supposed to have more steampunk, fewer ostriches, more concrete themes and more competent voice actors. As for the third entry, there’s not enough good, or suggestive of good, to make me excited about an upcoming release (which is allegedly in the works as of this writing). There is enough suggestion to make me curious about the previous releases. Whether that’s a victory or not is the real puzzle.

A title too perfect: A critical review of “Past Cure” (2018)

Every now and again, a video game will come along and do something amazing, something that few games, maybe even no game, has ever done before. “Past Cure” is such a game. It’s a third-person shooter with elements of stealth and survival horror. Not only did it have that fascinating combination of genres, but it was also so buggy I wasn’t able to finish it.

In fact, I almost couldn’t start it. But we’ll get into that.

Produced by a studio in a part of Berlin that seems unaware the Wall came down in 1989, “Past Cure” puts you in the angsty shoes of Ian, a super soldier turned secret assassin. With the aid of his brother, Ian is hunting down the shadowy corporation that subjected him to a series of strange medical experiments. While the experiments gave him amazing powers of perception, they also fractured his mind and shattered his reality, and mysterious and frightening nightmares increasingly invade his waking world.

As a concept, “Past Cure” is fabulous: pulpy gunplay meets mind melting psychological thriller. You’ve got a haunted hit man as your main character, and some reality breaks that might be supernatural, a side effect of drugs or plain old insanity. For gameplay, you’re either solving metaphysics puzzles or shooting people. What’s not to like?

With stylish art direction and intelligent writing, a game like “Past Cure” wouldn’t even need that much of a budget. Well, the good news is “Past Cure” doesn’t look like it had much of a budget. The bad news is it doesn’t look like it had much art direction or quality writing either.

Ian’s world is divided into two realms: the waking world and the nightmare world. His waking world is blandly modern. It’s all generic parking garages and soulless office buildings. His house is pretty cool, but it doesn’t look like a place where someone who is hiding from the world–like a globetrotting killer with a vendetta against a corporate conspiracy, for example–would be hiding out.

The game is mysterious for the wrong reasons. Take that ultramodern house. Not only is it inexplicably avant-garde, but Ian and his brother live on top of an arsenal of guns, cool cars and blipping computers. There’s even a shooting gallery in their basement. Where did they get these wonderful toys? Who built everything? How were they kept quiet? The game never even attempts to hand wave it, and therefore, never earns it. As far as I know, Ian is just an itchy trigger finger with a tendency toward psychotic breaks. I guess he’s a multimillionaire too.

The nightmare sequences aren’t any cleaner. The first one is probably the best. It’s essentially a shooting tutorial set in what looks like an abandoned hotel. It’s trippy and it gets the job done, although it explains nothing about who Ian is. That’s fine. After all, it’s only the first sequence.

That lack of explanation becomes a problem in later nightmare sequences, set in sterile labs or rusty boiler rooms, where all we get are vague suggestions. Ian should have an idea, even a fear, of what’s going on. Even if he has trouble with his memory, the symbols in his own dreams should make sense to him. If they do, he’s not telling me. All he gives are cryptic hints, and that’s not explanation or even speculation.

If these sequences were structured like real dreams, they’d get crazier and more disconnected from reality with each encounter, but they don’t. Labs and boiler rooms aren’t that outlandish, even if they are spooky. In a good Silent Hill game, these locations would have some connection to Ian’s unique psychology. Here, they’re just spooky for the sake of being spooky, much like the shooting range was cool for the sake of being cool.

Maybe the game explains some of this in retrospect. Remember, I didn’t finish it. However, Ian doesn’t seem fazed by anything in the meantime, so I have no curiosity either. In fact, none of the characters, from Ian or his brother to the nameless thugs being stabbed in the back, sound excited to be in this game. One could blame weak voice actors or a shallow script. Take your pick.

Why didn’t this blog finish the game? Well, lemme tell ya. “Past Cure” didn’t foul up on the first couple levels. I was able to play through all the hand-holding bits just fine. Things really started to mess up when I hit the first level where things allegedly mattered.

It started OK, all crawling through parking structures and shooting at bullet sponges. But once I advanced beyond a certain load screen, all my ammunition disappeared. I restarted from the checkpoint, and I had negative ammunition. I restarted the level, and the room was replaced with a mysterious white void. Was I dead? Was Ian in heaven? Not quite. It was just a glitch.

I uninstalled and reinstalled the game. The system saved my progress, and the reinstall fixed the glitch. I was able to advance beyond the load screen through the shooty bits until I hit Ian’s nightmare realm, which was less shooting and more puzzles. The first one made no sense–how does jamming a crate into a wall supply an system of pulleys with electricity?–and the second one was worse. An endless wave of baddies, and the only thing to interact with in the room were a series of cages of unexplained origin.

Undeterred I looked up a couple walk-throughs of the game, only to find the level I was playing did not exist. Maybe it was a later addition, courtesy of some download, to make the game more “fun”? Anyway, I eventually figured out how to trap my pursuers in the cages, which made a kind of dream logic sense, I guess. I’m trying to cut you slack, “Past Cure.” You’re making me do all the work.

That puzzle was followed by an unskippable cut scene, which was followed by a boss who did not react to bullets or psychic assault, could not be dodged and killed me with one hit. The only way to return to this boss was to solve the puzzles with the cages again. And again. And again.

After half a dozen or so attempts at this, I said “no more” to “Past Cure.” I have nothing against unforgiving games and nothing against slow games, but those that are slow, unforgiving and suggest no psychological or artistic payoff are not for me.

I can’t say what happens next. Maybe Ian’s brother will end up betraying him. Maybe the woman in Ian’s dreams will end up being kidnapped, or maybe she’s already dead by Ian’s own hand. Maybe there’s some great revelation around the corner that will put everything into perspective. But I don’t have a sense of that now, and I have less of an incentive to get there.

When you strip away its thin plot and boring visuals, “Past Cure” leaves you with awkward shooting, an unsatisfying selection of guns, stiff controls and lame puzzles. Maybe I will finish it some day, but for now, I fear that “Past Cure” is beyond treatment.

I love cheap thrills: News July 2020

We here at Idols and Realities have noticed the days are grinding together too, Tonstant Weader. That excuses (if not forgives) any laziness in posting on this blog’s part, and it also allows for a nice transition to today’s news topic.

In an effort to help the economy in these troubling times, this blog went to the website of a certain unnamed video game supplier (it’s Gamestop. They won’t give me anything for mentioning them, but it’s Gamestop) with the intention of both pumping some credits back into the system and picking up a few games at the same time. Except we didn’t want to help the economy that much, because, you know, the wallet is only so thick.

Since we like nothing more than placing arbitrary restrictions on ourselves, this blog decided to only buy games that were, first, under $10 and, second, impulse buys–only games I had no intention of buying until I saw them, whether I knew about them beforehand or not.

Recounted alphabetically (to be fair), the games this blog ended up with were: a psychological thriller/third-person shooter; an atmospheric adventure game; a survival horror/walking simulator; and “Vermintide,” a dark fantasy hack ‘n’ slash from the Warhammer universe that requires an Internet connection. Well, my Internet connection sucks, so it might be unplayable. Wish I’d known that going in. This blog will leave it at the bottom of the list for now. Maybe I’ll end up figuring something out. Or maybe I’ll end up exclusively having helped the economy, which is its own reward, albeit not a very fun one.

Either way, that’s three or four weeks of review fodder. First on the chopping block will be “Past Cure,” which bill itself as a cross between “Silent Hill” and “Hitman.” I have my own thoughts on that, but you’ll have to wait a week to get them. If you like your thrills cheap and in video game form, stick around.

Strangely at the door: A critical review of “Turn of the Key” (2019)

If the last book was shooting for Agatha Christie, and the one before that was trying for Ira Levin, is this is Henry James? We’ve got a governess, a creepy house and something turning in the title. Everything checks out.

Anybody who knows me know that I hold “The Turn of Screw” in high regard, possibly the highest regard possible. It is one of the best ghost stories, horror stories and psychological stories every written. I have decades of literary critics to back me up too, so I’m not just a crazy weirdo defending some random pulp this time. “Turn of the Screw” is the real deal. So entitling something “Turn of the X” is a promise. How well does Ruth Ware’s “Key” fulfill it?

The novel begins with a series of increasingly pleading letters to a lawyer before plunging into the story of a young woman, Rowan to her friends, who takes a job as a nanny in Heatherbrae House. Heatherbrae is a Victorian mansion remotely located in the Scottish Highlands that’s outfitted with the latest smart house gadgets. Everything from the light switches to the shopping list is connected to one’s phone.

It’s all a bit unnerving for the new nanny, and it must have been for her predecessors too, since few of them kept the job more than a couple of weeks. But their reasons for leaving have as much to do with tricky and invasive tech as they do with the sinister history of the estate and the unusual family that lives there now. We already know at the start of the book that we’ll end up with at least one body. It’s just a question of how and when.

Gothic horror is a tricky one. It’s built out of a lot of cliches, just like any genre, but its cliches are older and more familiar than some other genres. In fact, it’s almost expected you’ll do some overwriting–a little hand-wringing here, a little gnashing of teeth over there. However, I am happy to report that Ware doesn’t overdo things much. She strikes a balance between good and over-the-top Gothic.

For example, one chapter ends with two little eyes shining in the dark before seeming to close shut. It’s a solid image and it’s well played. I’m less fond of another chapter that concludes with Rowan haranguing her past self, and methinks the lady doth protest too much:

“I look back, and I want to shake that smug young woman, sitting in her London flat, thinking she knew it all, had seen it all. I want to slap her face and tell her she doesn’t know what she’ s talking about. Because I was wrong, Mr. Wrexham. I was very, very wrong.”

Get that, Mr. Wrexham? She wasn’t just wrong or very wrong. She was very, very wrong.

That passage was actually so hysterical it made me stop and think: Hey, she’s composing this letter like a novel, with foreshadowing and dramatic pauses for chapters. People don’t normally do that, do they?

Although, to be fair, “Mr. Wrexham” is a pretty killer name for a lawyer in a Gothic novel.

There are also some good Gothic images, like mysterious sounds from the ceiling and a garden of poisonous plants. Also, the loss of privacy in a house with that much tech is considered, although surprisingly not as much as one might expect. There are some some twists doled out carefully, all of which follow a flow and logic that should satisfy the psychological thriller reader at home.

That said, there is one particular problem I have with the book. It’s purely subjective, but it neatly answers the question of how “Turn of the Key” compares to “Turn of the Screw.”

I won’t get into specifics, but as the novel drew to its conclusion, I started mentally noting the things I wanted explained; the things I’d be frustrated if I didn’t get explained; and the things I’d be OK with never getting explained. Guess what? They all got explained.

Along with its iconic setting and powerful prose, one reason “Turn of the Screw” is still relevant more than 100 years later is it plays things way too cool. It is probably the most successfully ambiguous ghost story in the English language; in fact, the only piece of media I can think of that’s comparable is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Enough is explained so that we can talk about something, but enough is left unexplained so that we can bring something of ourselves to a discussion.

The setting of “Turn of the Key” is clever and the prose is certainly readable, but the book has no interest in being impressionistic or interpretive whatsoever. Add in the lack of deeper themes and, in the end, “Key” is all Gothic dressing without much psychological depth. It’s fine for a pulp thriller but don’t expect to be haunted.