When a beloved series heads in a different direction it can be refreshing. Diverging from the tried and true can breathe new life into an aging franchise, and when the gap between games is a whopping 13 years, a refresh is not only recommended, but probably required. After all, no one wants to see a repeat of Duke Nukem Forever.
Syberia 3 opens with a short sequence where our heroine, New York lawyer Kate Walker, is rescued from the washed-up boat she used to escape the titular island of Syberia in the previous game. Her rescuers are the Youkal, a migratory aboriginal tribe introduced in the previous game, and they are a driving force for the story in this chapter. Some indeterminate time later, Kate wakes to find herself confined within a Cold War-styled asylum presented as a hospital. Her first task is to escape, but it is made abundantly clear that the staff are rather intent on preventing her from doing so.
Here begins Kate's latest adventure, and my maddening descent into frustration, confusion, and near constant disappointment. Until this point, the Syberia games were traditional 2D point and click adventures with a focus on breath-taking art with a steampunk lilt. After more than a decade between sequels and a slew of development issues, the game that has made its way to eager fans is not what was expected.
Gone is the hand-drawn art, and it has been replaced with very out-dated and rather flat-looking 3D models and muddy textures. Also missing are the point and click controls, replaced by a rather ungainly controller interface. Mouse and keyboard are supported, but are so poorly implemented that they're rendered virtually unusable.
That makes KB+M only slightly less frustrating than the recommended controller option. Movement is sluggish and unresponsive, and Kate often gets stuck on the scenery. Navigating some of the more confined spaces becomes an exercise in frustration as you are constantly getting caught up on invisible barriers or edges of objects that seem to project further than the on-screen model. Kate's glacial movement speed and awkward animations certainly don't help, and all the while, all I could think about what how much easier this would be with a traditional point and click movement system.
The clunkiness of the controls carries over into what is arguably the most important aspect of any adventure game: the puzzles. They are by far the best aspect of the game, and had they been handled competently, they could have – in some degree – saved the game from itself. They are mostly well designed, with solutions far less obtuse than those in many adventure games.
You'll often need to repair or modify a mechanism of some description, and the issue here is in the execution, rather than the conception. Often the solution to a puzzle is clear, but because objects only allow interaction when you're within a certain distance or looking at an object in a certain way, you'll often not be able to complete a task. An additional barrier: you might not realise something is interactive simply because you aren't standing in the precise positon required to use it. There are some wonderful physics and logic-based puzzles in the game, but I did not enjoy a single one because the game's control scheme fought me every single time.
Unfortunately, the issues with Syberia 3 are not restricted to its mechanics. The storytelling, world building, and characterization are all well below par. The English language voice acting is unforgivably amateurish, but thankfully the game does allow you to change the audio. Once I switched it to French, the quality picked up significantly, and the facial animations now synched with the dialogue.
Sadly, even in French, the writing is rather poor. The English language translations are awful – so poor, in fact, that they feel like they were copied wholesale from Google Translate. But the primary complaint I have with the writing is that every character feels phoned in. It's not that they are generic – although they certainly are – but each is also devoid of personality, nothing more than a shallow one-note reinterpretation of over-played clichés. There's a sinister overweight nurse, a booze loving ship captain, a noble but primitive native.
All of this is highlighted by what should have been welcome evolution of the games dialogue system. Nuance and emotion have been added to Kate's response repertoire, giving the player the option to answer in more subtle ways by altering Kate's tone. Sadly, its painfully obvious that these options have no effect on the disposition of the target character, and ultimately don't affect the outcome of a conversation in any meaningful way. The story fares slightly better, but it often veers into the nonsensical, or jumps about as if some content was cut close to release.
I also have an issue with the game's use of the white saviour trope – something that is front and centre throughout. The plight of the Youkal and the bigotry they encounter from the denizens of the game world could have been poignant, playing on contemporary issues to provide a deeper emotional resonance. Sadly, this stuff played so clumsily that it loses any emotional weight, and just feels like a maguffin to give Kate some purpose.
Syberia and its sequel were visually compelling, but the move to 3D here has given the game a surprisingly flat appearance. Locations are poor reflections of the clockwork marvels that came before. There are some highlights – especially later in the game, when Kate discovers a derelict amusement park – but the bland character models and shonky animations quickly undermine things there, too. Ultimately, like every other aspect of the game, the 3D visuals just don't work.
Syberia 3 is an utter failure. It is the only game I have played in the past few years that I found no joy in at all, and the few things it gets right are almost instantly overshadowed by a mountain of irritation and frustration. To have this game wear the title of Syberia feels like a cruel joke, or a case of mistaken identity. Avoid.