Whether she got lost in the wilderness or just fancied taking her time, it's fair to say Kate Walker, protagonist of the Syberia series, has been missing from our screens for quite some time. Though the first two instalments in the snowy point and click series were certainly popular, more than a decade has passed since Syberia 2 first launched way back in 2004, with the series having all but vanished in the time being, bar a few ports. Even this, the third game in the Syberia trilogy has taken its sweet time getting here. First announced way back in 2009, before bouncing around in development turmoil for the best part of a decade, we were beginning to wonder if we'd ever get to find out what happens to Kate on her Siberian-themed adventure of mammoths, automatons, and snowy peoples - but has the long wait and protracted development helped, or hindered Kate's third adventure?
Following on from the events of the previous two games, Syberia 3 opens with plucky ex-lawyer Kate Walker lying in the snow of Eastern Europe, shivering and close to death. Luckily for her, the nomadic Youkol tribe just happen to be passing by, and stumble across her shivering form. Through a combination of their shaman-ic medicine and a creepy hospital, the rural travellers somehow manage to save Kate's life. As a thank you in return, Kate decides to join the Youkols on their journey, accompanying them and their snow ostriches on the long trek to their breeding grounds - a tradition that happens only a few times a century. But with the Youkol trek being sabotaged at every turn (and with Kate herself being wanted by the authorities), her trip across the ice will be fraught with peril at every turn...
A more modern take on the traditional point and click adventure game, Syberia 3 focuses on puzzle solving, exploration and chatting to the locals, as the story of Kate and the snow ostriches unfolds. By carefully examining your surroundings, making good use of the things that you find Womble-style, and interrogating various people for useful information and favours, you'll work your way through umpteen puzzles. Whether it's forging a pass to get through a police checkpoint, mending a broken call button in a hospital, or using a mechanical bird to attract the Youkol's messenger, Kate will need to be resourceful if she wants to proceed. The Syberia-standard automatons return too - these complicated mechanical contraptions will often get in Kate's way, and you'll need to figure out how to use/fix them if you want to lead the Youkol on their sacred journey.
And this is all well and good. However, within hours of starting Syberia 3, you can't help feeling the game was a bit of a rush job; a little too rough around the edges. Swooping panoramic scenes suffer from slowdown and judder as they move, audio dialogue cuts off mid-sentence and often doesn't match the typo-ridden subtitles, while invisible walls and see-through outcrops soon become the bane of your existence, as you fight to get Kate unstuck from a tree, rifle through a filing cabinet, or even do something as simple as climb a flight of stairs. Some (albeit largely unimportant side scenes) are actually all but impossible to follow, being both completely devoid of subtitles, and with the voice acting totally drowned out by the music, leaving you to lip read whatever may or may not be happening instead.
Camera issues crop up too, with the viewpoint often switching to some immensely unhelpful angles, either cutting Kate off-screen completely, or, in the case of the foyer in the Valsembor clinic, positioning Kate directly in front of the sign you need to read to tell you where to head next. The worst part is that while none of these things are especially game-breaking, they all could have been ironed out with a few more months of care, QA testing and polishing.
While we're at it, it would be nice if some of the game's near decade long development had been used to put together some good tutorials, to help new players find their way around Syberia 3's weird control scheme. Tutorials at the start of the game almost literally amount to telling you how to 'look around' with the right stick, which is mainly actually used to flick between nearby points of interest, seeing as the overall camera angle is largely fixed in place. Once you're highlighting an important part of the scenery, a wheel of four different options will pop up, accompanied by hard-to-decipher symbols at the 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock positions - however, nowhere does the game deem it necessary to tell you how to activate said prompts, nor what they actually mean.
Only through repeated button mashing do you realise that each position corresponds to a different one of the face buttons, (on the Playstation controller: X, Square, Triangle and Circle) and that each roughly translates as the different actions you can perform: interacting on X, pulling an important item from your inventory with Square, examining an object with Triangle and so on. The general lack of meaningful prompts becomes even more of an annoyance when it comes to manipulating objects in puzzles - all too often you'll need to do something else along with pressing the X button to interact, whether you're rotating the left stick to remove a screw, flicking the stick down to pull open a drawer, or moving a wire around to reconnect it. But with nothing to tell you how you're actually meant to interact with the puzzles, you're left to simply fumble your way through, either mashing buttons willy nilly until something happens, or needlessly searching your environment for something you 'must have missed' in order to proceed.
You see, some of Syberia 3's puzzles border on being too random and obtuse - and this is coming from someone who's no stranger to point and click 'logic', cutting their teeth on the likes of Discworld and Monkey Island as a kid. Usually with puzzles in games like this, you can expect some kind of hint or document to point you in the direction of what you need to do next - yet often Syberia simply leaves you to flounder around randomly until you chance upon the solution.
Towards the beginning of the game, one puzzle requires you to rotate some parts of a dam to filter the oily scum out of the ostrich's drinking water. Unfortunately, a sign next to the dam was about as helpful as a chocolate teapot, so in the end we just resorted to rotating each section at random, until it clicked. Later, you'll find yourself having to administer some pills to an ailing eccentric clockmaker, via a cuckoo clock modified to make it into some kind of teasmaid-come-pill-dispenser hybrid, with your only hint of what to set the clock to being that he must have his pills "three hours before dinner" - although when Mr. Steiner generally eats is a bit of a mystery, leaving you to simply have to guess your way through once more.
Others require you to work through the puzzles in precisely the order the developers intended, shunning the traditional point and click trope of picking up anything and everything that's not nailed down, just in case it comes in handy later. Instead, you'll be forced to do a lot of backwards and forwardsing as Kate slowly catches on to what you figured out ages ago, and you try and second guess the order the game wants you to do things in.
For example, one such puzzle required you to inspect a broken stamp machine, which you'll need to be sure is fully up and working if you want to leave the area. Examining the machine reveals it's out of ink (an easy enough fix), and gets you a piece of leather from the base that's been slowly embossed over the years into the shape of the stamp. Unfortunately, the all important stamp piece is missing, as Kate repeatedly notes to herself. So what do you have to do next? If you said "make a stamp from the handy mould you've now got in the leather", buzz, you're wrong. In fact, you need to find someone who just happens to have a spare form lying around - and only then will the friendly Yokul smith suddenly decide he actually can craft you a replacement after all. Unfortunately, this kind of illogical order to the puzzles crops up a fair bit. Other puzzles rely on seemingly arbitrarily-placed objects which you'll need some serious observational skills to spot - or, failing that, blind luck to chance upon them with minimal fuss.
In all, we can't help feeling a little sad at how Syberia 3 turned out. The first two games were easily up there with some of our favourite games of the early noughties, yet Syberia 3 feels rushed at best, a disappointingly cobbled together tale that lacks much of the mystery and intrigue of its predecessors. The plight of the snow ostriches just isn't as engaging as helping kooky inventor Hans find his mammoths, often leading you to wonder how on earth the Youkol tribe managed to last as long as they have, given that they seem to run crying to Kate at the first sign of trouble. If you can forgive its myriad of faults, Syberia 3 is far from unplayable - just more than a little soulless. Syberia fans may still appreciate meeting up with Kate again after so long, but all in all, its a rather disappointing journey.
Format Reviewed: PC