Have You Played… Syberia?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

The early 2000s were a wasteground of the worst of point and click adventure games, with only mainland Europe seemingly interested in investing in them, and the vast majority being drossy shite about hardened ladycops investigating grisly murders that inevitably involved psychic visions and memories of the death of her father. Good grief, there were a lot of them. In 2002, during this genre mire, came Syberia. It was handed to me for review by PC Gamer with the usual, “Ha ha, this’ll make him write swears,” but then…

It was rather lovely. It wasn’t great. For some reason the game has taken on a minor cult status amongst some, heralded as this masterpiece of the genre – that’s complete rubbish. But crucially, it wasn’t awful. Player character Kate Walker may as well have been a hardened cop (although in this case lawyer), and it was plagued with the godforsaken mobile phone that every game at that point was apparently obliged to have. But the story she was involved in turned out to be surprisingly lovely. She was tasked with closing down an automaton factory in the Alps, and ends up pursuing the mysterious inventor of some astonishingly complex and lifelike clockwork characters. It becomes a personal tale of self-exploration, at the same time as crossing from Western Europe to the snowy isolation of remote Russia, with some really delightful graphics, and a mix of decent and not-quite decent puzzles.

How it became thought of as one of the all-time greats I can only put down to my old adage for hardcore adventure gamers: to a heroin addict, it doesn’t matter how cut the heroin, so long as there’s the hit. It explains why those years of tortuous bullshit were so madly clung to, people pretending obnoxiously awful games like The Moment Of Silence were anything more than another needle of skag. But anyway, despite that, Syberia was pretty good.

Syberia II was fucking awful though.

45 Comments

  1. phlebas says:

    Peculiar. I liked Moment of Silence more than Syberia, felt a lot more freedom in it. Syberia’s very pretty but a bit thin as a game – more walkthrough-fodder than anything.

    At least we can agree on Syberia 2.

    • Deano2099 says:

      I enjoyed Moment of Silence too, but it’s a game that could have been great had it embraced it’s core mechanic, rather than hiding away from it. The idea of investigating and assembling events and scenes in order was great. But without a ridiculous memory or copious notes, you’d just lose track of it. Had they just built a bespoke interface for it, it could have been terrific.

    • horrorgasm says:

      Yeah, that’s what didn’t work for me. There wasn’t so much puzzles as there was a series of “there’s a lever that needs pulling. find it and pull it.” or “there’s a lever that needs pulling, but it’s broken. find it, replace it, then pull it.”

  2. XxBrentos9xX says:

    You might be my favorite writer at RPS.

    I felt the same way since I have been using the past year to more or less scrounge up a rough list of some old great PC classics, and this game has ended up on peoples lists more than once. While the story was somewhat interesting I simply never understood why people idolized the shit out of the thing.

  3. int says:

    Took-toot!

  4. FurryLippedSquid says:

    I was about to say, not if it was anything like the second game, which is why I’ve never tried it.

    • Canadave says:

      As a fan of the first game, I didn’t care much for the second. It lacked atmosphere and charm, the two things that really sold me on Syberia.

  5. Yachmenev says:

    It had:
    *An interesting story.
    *A couple of memorable characters.
    *Beautiful locations.
    *Great music.
    *And I liked the puzzles.

    So there’s much to like with the game, and not that much to dislike.

    Not sure how high I would rank it among the classics of the genre, but it’s definitely one of the more memorable ones in the genre for me. I wouldn’t put it in my top 5 of the games in the genre, but higher then games like The Longest Journey at least.

    Agree about the sequel being much worse.

    • james___uk says:

      Higher than the Longest Journey?! SHUN!

      • Oasx says:

        To me adventure game either need to be funny (Monkey Island, Discworld Noir) or be super pretty/interesting (Syberia), Longest Journey was none of those things. While i wouldn’t go so far as to say it was bad, it was just really mediocre. If a game deserves to be on a list of overrated adventure games it is that one.

        • Stragman says:

          I tottaly agree. Longest Journey is a total artsy fartsy over the top pretentious amount of garbage, with nice graphics. The hole series is a terrible amount of pretentious “Christopher Nolan way” shit!

        • edgepixel says:

          The Longest Journey was both pretty and interesting, with an intoxicating story that completely drew me in; I couldn’t stop until it was over and felt sorry that it ended. A breathtaking journey that I will always remember fondly.

  6. Katana-Bob says:

    What I remember best about it was the fantastic atmosphere in Valadilene. The road being wet from the recent downpour before Kate arrives. The low hanging clouds and mountains in the background. It made me want to move to the Alps. And the music of course (link)! link to youtube.com

    • Buggery says:

      Definitely. It was, and remains, one of the most beautiful pieces of world building in a game. Popping the game on, on a rainy day is still a lovely bit of escapism. The university town had its own unique ambiance (though even at the time felt under populated), the factory town was unnerving, and I think I fell in love with the ruined old Russian resort.

      The puzzles were middle of the road guff and the story, though interesting, had some absolutely terrible characterisation and writing. But I still love the game for just how real it felt.

      It’s a pity that Syberia II was a bit pants really. I’m hoping that they can make some memorable environments in Syberia III, even if the puzzles are still guff.

  7. icarussc says:

    It was a very divisive game in our household. My wife still loves it, but the more I played, the dumber I thought it was.

    • Jekhar says:

      This exactly. Kates transformation from coddled city girl to free spirited adventure heroine, just because of few phone calls was handled particularly bad, in my opinion. By the end, i just played it for the sights the nicely rendered backgrounds provided. I can’t even recall the puzzles.

      • edgepixel says:

        Syberia was a really immersive setting with some pretty sights and overall shite puzzles. I both loved it and was annoyed by it.

  8. Baf says:

    For what it’s worth, the more recent ports eliminate a lot of the original’s hunt-the-hotspot frustration. Because the iOS version doesn’t have a visible cursor, it can’t change the cursor shape to indicate when you’re over something clickable. So it just puts icons on all the clickable things instead. And the GOG/Steam port is a port of the iOS version, so it inherits that.

  9. Zhivko Yakimov says:

    At the time the two Syberias were released (2002 and 2004), decent games in the adventure genre were very few and many said the genre was dead. In fact, I have just browsed through the list of games released in both years, and honestly I cannot find a better adventure game in either year, which speaks a lot. By the way, since the term “adventure game” could be stretched a lot, I apply the definition in its strictest meaning, namely games with no or very limited action sequences and a lot of puzzles.

    To be honest, both games have their flaws – the second more so than the first – but I have a soft spot for the series. I liked the characters and the puzzles, and there was some great art in both. It’s probably more of a nostalgia than anything else, I admit, but it’s all pretty subjective anyway.

  10. Jeroen D Stout says:

    One of my childhood sweethearts, I do think. I think the journey of going from hardened lawyer to someone who starts ignoring people phoning her to ask when she “will come home” is very smartly chosen. It is that increasing reckless behaviour which pays off at the end.

    Sometimes I wonder if the ‘walking’ genre was really what some of these games (Syberia, Zork Nemesis, Riven) were working up to. In Syberia at some points the puzzles are quite scarce and really what you are doing is walking around pretty places talking with interesting characters because that is nice. There were adventure games which were about the puzzles and there were those where the puzzles were just there because it was part of the ‘genre’.

    I do miss that sense of place and endless nostalgia from these in-game worlds; where you could tell a door-handle was explicitly designed because that it had to look right.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I don’t remember much about this game, but I think I mainly liked it for the atmosphere and sense of wonder, mainly due to all the wonderful automatons and mechanisms you encounter.

    I remember two things about The Moment of Silence: The main character’s voice actor was the German voice of Bruce Willis and the final puzzle was utter bullshit.

  12. Michael Fogg says:

    Well, the fairly grown-up story, poetic setting and lack of usual slapstick and bullshit typical of adventure games is what gave Syberia the cult status. I remember enjoying the first one, even though at my young age probably most of the themes (the east-west divide, musings on what’s important in life etc.) flew right over my head. In Syberia II however I got stuck quite early on a bullshit water-vessel puzzle (after barely solving a bullshit find-the-code for a vending machine puzzle) and never returned to it.

  13. Carra says:

    I got the game through a humble bundle. Been wanting to play it but never got it…

  14. tomimt says:

    I remember when I played it the first time. I was awed by it. The graphics, the settings, the plot. For years I thought it was among the best of its kind.

    After a more recent re-play though, I must admit the game hasn’t stood the test of time that well. There’s huge flaws in its design which make the game kinda annoying. There’s a lot of scenes that have no other function than to work as eye candy. You can’t exmine your surroundings, the voice acting is kinda meh.

    It’s not a bad game, but it certainly isn’t among the best of the genre. It’s better than most of the advenenture games that came out in the 2000’s , but all in all I’d say it’s just passable. Then again, none of the Benoit Sokal games are that great.

  15. Pharaoh Nanjulian says:

    Yes I have, I and II. I played both with my brothers when I was about 16, taking turns to use the mouse as we all sat around the computer. I thought it was brilliant, from the music to the marvellous places that felt like they were just hiding behind the next mountain to villages you’d visited on trips to the Continent.

    Atmospherically I thought it was fantastic. Some of the puzzles were irritating, I remember, but we hadn’t much experience with the genre. Windswept beach health resorts, automata, Cossacks who are logs, the ability to delete all contacts from your mobile ‘phone and never call Mother at the Hamptons again…Between this and Arcanum many hours were invested.

  16. james___uk says:

    WOAH WOAH WOAH! What’s wrong with Syberia 2??? I liked that game nearly as much as 1!

    Also yeah what a nice little game Syberia is, it’s under the radar so you look at it and wonder what it is, if it’s good and it is, it’s one of those games that gives you a superb amount of atmosphere and has these neat settings

    • phlebas says:

      Out of interest: Did you use a walkthrough, or solve the puzzles yourself?

  17. james___uk says:

    ALSO, Syberia 3 is in the works :)

  18. ansionnach says:

    I started it once but got distracted by something else. It seemed promising but I only played for about an hour. The graphics really caught my eye when it was released. Maybe I was expecting it to be a hidden gem like The Longest Journey, which I found in a bargain bin after reading a glowing Underdogs review. Along with many other games, it’s been on a mental backlog for quite a while. Funny thing is, the less of these I play, the easier I can find reasons not to bother with them. Ultima V, VI and the two Worlds of Ultima games are among the few that will only drop off the list when I finish them.

  19. Binky the Boojum says:

    I liked the clockwork train in Syberia and the murderous penguins
    in Syberia 2. But, they are odd games.

  20. somnolentsurfer says:

    I’ve still never played more than the demo of this, so the best thing I can say about it is that it led me to discover The Longest Journey.

    It was 2003, and I’d played and loved KotOR. It was the first time I’d played an RPG, but mainly it reminded me of the those old LucasArts games I played as a child that involved lots of walking about and talking to people who had entertaining things to say. So I went googling for modern adventure games, and found the rave reviews of Syberia. I was primarily gaming on Xbox at the time, so I never played it. But the specialist adventure were all hyping this game called Dreamfall. They led me to Tørnquist’s blog and concept art, and I fell in love.

  21. Little_Crow says:

    If nothing else the Syberia games were absolutely gorgeous. I was an avid fan of any adventure game, and I’d agree they were the best of a bad bunch at the time.

    Syberia 2 was quite a jarring departure from the fairly grounded original – but to date they’re still the only games my missus has shown the slightest interest in.

    • phlebas says:

      Best of a bad bunch? Well, maybe. For context:

      Syberia came out the same year as Dark Fall: The Journal and Rhem, both of which I enjoyed more. But also Simon the Sorcerer 3D, which I did not.

      Syberia 2 came out the same year as Moment of Silence (which I liked but John didn’t), Myst 4 (which I deeply loved but John didn’t), Sherlock Holmes: Case of the Silver Earring, Dark Fall 2, Return to Mysterious Island… so there were more and better adventure games coming out by then. But (other than Myst 4) they weren’t as pretty as Syberia.

  22. tnzk says:

    I view Syberia I & II as a whole, rather than one being the sequel to another, really. Doesn’t necessarily lift either game, because they suffer the same thing as a JJ Abrams movie/Damon Lindelof screenplay: mysterious, mesmerising openings followed by flatter-than-expected second and third acts.

    That being said, I like it more than The Longest Journey and Dreamfall for different reasons: Dreamfall, because the Syberias have more enjoyable gameplay, and The Longest Journey, because the Syberias aren’t over-epic fantasy pastiches that are far too self-aggrandizing to be enjoyable.

    I prefer Benoit Sokal’s childlike wonder than Ragnar Tornquist’s childish arrogance.

    • edgepixel says:

      Maybe you are right and I am wrong, and Syberia is better than The Longest Journey. We all go through life and accumulate experience in a different order. At the moment in life that I played The Longest Journey, it was amazing; I had no previous experience to even remotely compare it with.

  23. draglikepull says:

    I loved the setting, the atmosphere, and the story, but I eventually quit playing because I found the puzzles rather too obscure.

  24. kalirion says:

    I loved the first Syberia game, except for one part where I was stuck for a long time before finally looking up the solution, and it turned out I missed an exit on one of the screens (the exit being in the dark in the middle of a room).

  25. malkav11 says:

    I liked the first one well enough and it had some genuinely lovely bits, but I bought it because so many people were speaking of it in the same breath as The Longest Journey and my word was it not even close to being up to that standard. The bit I remember finding particularly lacking was something I demand of all truly quality point-and-click adventure games: something interesting or amusing to say about every item and interactable bit of scenery (and ideally, plenty of the latter). The Longest Journey was an absolute motherlode of this sort of thing. Syberia pretty much didn’t bother.

    I don’t know how many other people care about that particular aspect of things, but it’s one of my biggest pleasures in the genre.

    • Butts says:

      This is also something great about Katamari Damacy. Every item you roll up appears in a menu, where you can view it and read a small, often funny little description written in the voice of the King.

      Granted, it’s not an adventure game, but it’s a nice feature to find in any game, I think.

    • phlebas says:

      Yes. The ability to examine and interact with peripheral things, and getting intelligent reponses if I try the ‘wrong’ thing, is something that greatly adds to the reality and richness of the game world. If I try a key in the wrong door and get told that I’m an idiot (or if I’m simply not allowed to try the wrong key) that jars me out of the world; if I’m told ‘That’s the wrong key’ instead, it’s real. Games like Syberia and Secret Files put a lot of work into everything that’s in the standard walkthrough, but don’t flesh out the world with detail and systems beyond that.

  26. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Ah Syberia, I remember one publication (maybe PC Format?) making one of the first ‘Citizen Kane of games’ banalities I’d seen regarding it.

  27. Icon0fSin says:

    So well written.

  28. Zetetik says:

    I swear at some point the ‘Adventure’ genre and RPGs are gonna hook up and have some truly exceptional children….
    There’s just so much room for creative evolution in both spaces if they were to inter mingle their “things” (now the worlds CPUs n GPUs have got the necessary grrr) so many interesting possibilities for new manners of interactive mechanical and narrative depth….And, well, both genres at large are looking pretty flamin’ tired and threadbare atm from wherez I’m sittin (with notable lone standouts of course – like LA Noire / The Witcher3 etc).