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.

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