‘Syberia: The World Before’ review: a heartfelt and compelling point and click adventure

Coming in from the cold

One of the joys in point-and-click adventure Syberia: The World Before is toying with mechanical contraptions. The moment, for instance, when you’re presented with a strange metal ball clad in sliding plates, little buttons and switches that suggest there’s something wondrous hidden inside. Or when you’re standing in front of an old steam furnace, craning your neck to study valves and levers that might need adjusting to get it roaring at full blaze.

This kind of amateur handymanning is at the heart of an adventure series that, when you boil it down, is all about insatiable curiosity, a need to understand what’s out there, how things work and what connects people. The World Before runs with that lust for knowledge with more gusto than ever – certainly more than the lacklustre Syberia 3 – with these intricate machines but also a tightly-woven mystery that demands to be unravelled.

As ever, you accompany perennial protagonist Kate Walker, now an investigative drifter who stumbles into intrigue and turns it into obsession. In this case, in the process of escaping enslavement in a Russian salt mine (where she ended up after the events of Syberia 3) and learning of the death of her mother, she finds an old painting of a girl who looks quite a lot like her. For our anchorless hero that poses a question which can’t be left hanging.

Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.
Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.

The plot of The World Before is split across two timelines, with Kate in 2005 attempting to figure out what happened to this young woman, Dana Roze, and segments where you play Dana herself, starting in pre-war central Europe. Much of the story for both characters takes place in and around Vaghen, a fictional city in a fictional country somewhere between Germany and Switzerland. Kate visits locations frequented by Dana over 60 years before, seeking clues in any remnants and memories that endure.

Thankfully, this quaint old town has been fairly well preserved, clinging on to its early 20th century Parisian style, and wealth of ornate automatons. For the uninitiated, the world in Syberia is largely the same as our own, aside from a smattering of made up places, legendary creatures and clockwork technology. Vaghen is full of the latter, revealed in all its glory early on as Dana plays the piano in the grand Musical Square, accompanied by robotic violinists and a display of mechanical swans.

One of the game’s strengths, then, is the way it asks you to interact with these inventions, and other more ordinary objects. The World Before is very hands-on, not so much a point and click adventure as a point, click, drag, turn, dial, shove, etc. adventure. Whether you’re poking your way around one of its machines, fiddling with switches and intricate locks, or scouring an abandoned bedroom rifling through drawers, you’re always pushing, pulling, twisting. The camera helps by being delightfully nosy, zooming in on areas of interest so you can pan around to the sides or back, getting your fingers dusty digging through old belongings.

Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.
Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.

As a result, the puzzles you have to solve also feel more grounded and detail-oriented (and less obtuse) than in many classic point and click adventures (Syberia games are generally strong in this respect). Many solutions are based around experimenting with mechanisms or tests of comprehension, rather than item matching (although there is some of that) and oblique dialogue clues. Since something as simple as switching on a machine can become a series of puzzles on its own, you don’t need a luggage-sized inventory.

There’s ingenuity here too, with some perspective hopping solutions where you have to switch back to see how Dana did something in the past so Kate can do it in her time, a bit of code breaking that has you cross-referencing uncovered documents, and sometimes an almost disarming demand for everyday common sense. In one scene, where a parked van is blocking Kate’s access to a machine, there’s something satisfyingly logical about phoning the owner and asking him to move it.

Indeed, when it comes to Dana’s sections, many ‘puzzles’ are really daily routines in disguise, such as serving the right drinks in a bar. This is a smart way, I think, for The World Before to spend quality time with its characters and story, as opposed to directing everything towards advancing a wild adventure. As such, I would almost call it a kind of visual novel, not in the sense that there’s loads of reading to do, but that it develops the kind of epic saga that would suit a book.

Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.
Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.

In fact, one of the qualities I like most in The World Before is that it doesn’t feel a need to hurry to hold your attention. It’s willing to linger on views, expressions, thoughts as Kate zig-zags across the postcard town on quietly efficient automated trams, pondering her life and Dana’s. Moments set aside for optional ‘introspection’, meanwhile, aren’t merely a convenience to recap events with internal monologue, but punctuation points that create space for events to breathe.

In side objectives, too, which prompt you to interview characters or rummage around more thoroughly, the aim is purely to learn more and add context. It’s refreshing for a game of this type, particularly one with so many mechanical parts, to not present the world merely as a series of useful things, or problems with discrete solutions, but as a place to observe and comprehend for its own sake.

The story benefits from this care. Dana’s tragic love story caught up in rise of fascism is more intimate than most adventure games manage, giving her purpose and determination that the grieving Kate hungrily latches onto. Not to mention for the most part it’s a tightly plotted and directed mystery that gathers momentum throughout.

Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.
Syberia: The World Before. Credit: Microids.

It’s a shame then that some of the narrative’s power is sapped by underwhelming production values and some clumsy delivery. Visually Vaghen’s scenery is evocative, reflecting the town’s evolution through good times and bad, and its population look convincing enough when they’re standing still. The animation and the way they interact with objects is less able to maintain the pretence, however. It’s not quite true to say that sometimes it’s hard to tell the humans from the automatons, but there is a certain puppet-like stiffness and weightlessness about their movements.

The script also, while not bad overall, does drop in some anvils of clunky exposition, and the voice acting is uneven. It’s particularly jarring the way almost everyone in this German speaking country speaks with nice received pronunciation English accents, occasionally remembering to call you ‘Fraulein’, as if that makes up for it. Then one Belgian character inexplicably goes full Hercule Poirot with his accent, as if mocking the whole charade.

There are a few stumbles in the story and plot, too. It’s bookended by a couple of questionable turns, the first contriving to give Kate a romantic relationship with a fellow salt mine prisoner only to despatch her quickly and predictably like an unfortunate motivational footnote, the second, one of the big final reveals, stretching credulity by revealing information that surely Kate would have known all along.

I’m also not sure why the lore needs to offer up an alternate version of the World War 2, where Hitler and the Nazis are replaced by a fascist organisation called the Brown Shadow, which sounds like an unpleasant Marvel supervillain, and the main victims of their persecution are referred to as Vagerans instead of Jews (although one note explains that the Vagerans are Jewish). It all feels a little too vague, as you hear talk of “nasty times” and “people like us” rather than historical specifics.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, as much as The World Before advances from past point and click adventures, it still carries some old baggage in its systems. A few puzzles seem like they’ve been wedged in forcibly for the sake of giving you something to do, while mouse control remains as inadequate for directing a character around a 3D space as it is ideal for everything else. Plus, when all’s said and done, you still spend a lot of time scanning scenes for hot spots.

But that’s the nature of the beast, and won’t deter genre fans, while any dropped story beats are made up for by the overall rhythm of a compelling plot. And ultimately, the game’s heart is there, not in its machines but in those human stories, in Dana and especially in Kate. It’s her curiosity and longing for meaning that drives this series, and precisely what we need for a good adventure. The World Before allows her to shine, and long may she continue.

Syberia: The World Before launched for PC on March 18

The Verdict

Syberia: The World Before takes its time to craft an intertwining pair of personal stories with strong protagonists at their core, while its relatively simple, tactile puzzles are a blessing for the genre. Its visibly low production values can get in the way at times, but not enough to spoil the experience.

Pros

  • The two timelines are neatly plotted and woven together
  • A good cast of characters, especially the protagonists
  • Varied and inventive puzzles that mostly make sense
  • Interacting with machines and scenery is wonderfully tactile

Cons

    • Not exactly a cutting-edge productions
    • A few story elements don’t quite work
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