Or, to give it its full cover title: Benoit Sokal's Syberia II. Now you don't need to know who Benoit Sokal is, but it's nice to know that the game you're playing has an author, and not just a committee of licensors, publishing execs, market analysts and (usually at the end of the line) designers.
One of the very few point 'n click PC games to be converted to the current generation of consoles, this sequel to the well-regarded Syberia continues and concludes the story of Kate Walker, a New York attorney who has been hired to track down the heir to a renowned automaton factory. Befriending this eccentric old toy-maker, she becomes embroiled in his one remaining goal in life: to seek out Syberia, a fabled land of mammoths. Syberia II charts the final stretch of the pair's travels, during which a series of (somewhat contrived) setbacks hinder their journey towards the titular land-that-time-forgot.
Unlike the genre's most high-profile game in recent years, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Syberia II has no pretensions to expand the remit of the point 'n click adventure or fuse it with elements of other genres, as Revolution had attempted with their "action adventure game." Developers Microids were proud to brand Syberia "a pure adventure game" upon the original's release three years ago, and it's a fact that both disappoints from an intuitive design point of view (having to point 'n click with the Dual Shock analog sticks is rarely less than clumsy) and satisfies from certain aesthetic angles (the beautiful, hand-drawn landscapes and lush cut-scenes make Syberia II look the way you always imagined a point 'n click adventure would in this generation).
The title elicits not so much old-school charm as an "olde worlde" charm, so contrasting are its story, setting and structure to other modern videogames. Indeed, as a fun, accessible console game it falls inevitably flat. Kate's movement is along severely restricted pathways, and the infuriating invisible walls that enforce them take some getting used to. Many players will find them simply too stifling to bear, especially if, as in my experience, they gang up all at once to trap Kate in the middle of an open-air environment. Indeed, Microids appear to have been curiously selective in which aspects of the game they decided to polish.
Thankfully, what the game lacks in innovation and console-friendly gameplay it makes up for in the bewitching otherworldliness of its European settings and the clarity with which they are presented. The snowy Siberian scenery can get repetitive, but that only makes it all the more evocative of the real place, building a strong sense of the vast, monotonous white of central Russia, and adding to the well-constructed sense of a strange, isolating no-man's land. Syberia II is the very definition of a game suited to "those long winter nights."
Its immersiveness, however, is a matter of perspective. Look close enough at the snow falling in the log-cabined town of Romansburg and you'll soon notice its constant, automated loop, and the stuttering loading breaks that fracture the illusion of nature by momentarily pausing snowflakes mid-fall. But if you step back and accept this fractured illusion for the technically flawed fiction it is, then that Russian snowfall, like the game as a whole, is graced by a peculiar purity and, occasionally, real magic.
Magic, however, is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the game's foremost gameplay element: the puzzles. Unfortunately, Microids do not seem to appreciate that there is a limit to just how obscure puzzles ought to be. Anyone can think up a difficult puzzle, but the best are those that allow themselves to be worked out by other people after careful consideration, not ones that baffle them into attempting trial-and-error solutions straight away. Admittedly, using the Dual Shock's left analog stick to act as a mouse pointer is hardly the most efficacious way of puzzle-solving in a game such as this, but the salmon-fishing and clock-winding puzzles later on in the game are simply some of the most excruciating and unfair problems I have ever encountered in a videogame.
Elsewhere—and everywhere—streaming breaks are severely jarring, most noticeably adding decidedly unnatural pauses to an already plain script. But even when conversations are laboured, and tasks and puzzles are repetitive and inelegant, the game can remain halfway captivating. It's hard to overlook a game's glaring deficiencies when they're staring you in the face, but it can be done, and it's a prerequisite for enjoying a game like Syberia II.
And there is substance here to enjoy, albeit not in conventional areas like gameplay. The incidental sweeps of a luscious musical score and the handsome and smoothly edited cut-scenes are in stark aesthetic contrast to the occasionally hideous game design, and there's just enough of a slyly humorous tone to stop things feeling too dour and dreary (as might well befit the setting). Voice acting is generally evocative and amiably naturalistic, and Kate Walker becomes a surprisingly likeable female lead in spite of her super-plain appearance and demeanour.
So despite the gameplay and scenario initially seeming limited, Syberia II manages to last the distance and weave an unusual adventure story that is worth seeing through to its conclusion. Unfortunately, that conclusion eluded me thanks to an execrable crash bug that made itself unwelcome just as I had completed the final, game-ending puzzle. Angry? Not really. Syberia II inspires neither the addictive immersion nor the visceral bond needed to raise the player's emotions to an intensity where they can spill over into anger.
No, Syberia II is a fairly unremarkable videogame by most traditional benchmarks. The time the player is willing to invest will be duly paid back—with a gently affecting, if rather timid adventure—but with little in the way of added interest. Even so, the tone and poise of its plain and sincere story are far enough removed from typical videogame fare to warrant valuing it among the few point 'n click adventures that have made it onto the current generation of consoles. Syberia II could not look more out of place sitting in PlayStation 2 collections alongside copies of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Burnout 3, but as a timely reminder that not all games need be brilliant to be special, it fills the gap rather nicely.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.