Syberia II Preview

Microïds' Montreal studio has been busy working on a sequel to its hit adventure game. We take an exclusive in-depth look at Syberia II.

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Surprise hits don't come any more surprising than Syberia . The adventure game from Microïds may not quite have revitalized the flagging adventure genre, but it was a certifiable hit in both Europe and America last year. Stylish, surreal settings attracted the attention of casual gamers, and puzzle design that emphasized actual thinking over the frustrating "use everything in your inventory and see what happens" style of game brought a lot of lapsed adventure gamers back into the fold. Unlike so many of its recent predecessors, Syberia actually made sense. What's more, it wrapped those logical puzzles in a sleek package that featured an involving story and some of the most eccentric visuals seen in a mass-market American game since the very Euro-chic The Longest Journey arrived stateside in 2000.

Looking up at the Romansbourg monastery.
Looking up at the Romansbourg monastery.

Perhaps the only disappointing part of Syberia was that the game didn't really come to a satisfying conclusion. While erstwhile corporate lawyer Kate Walker may have found missing toy creator Hans Voralberg at the end of her travels, many plotlines were left unresolved. Anyone who completed the first game must have been aware that a sequel was in the planning stages, a suspicion that we confirmed with a visit to the Microïds development studio in Montreal last week. We were offered an exclusive first look at Syberia II and a chance to sit down with the project leads for a discussion about the upcoming game. The game's designers walked us through the new story line, showcased a number of enhanced features, and displayed a tech demo of some nearly completed locations.

"We've added a lot of new features in comparison with the original Syberia, changed some of the focus and improved the graphics so that we can do things like animated snow and ice, complex real-time shadows, and so on," said production manager Stephane Grefford by way of introduction. "We've also added more action to the story line. No arcade elements or anything like that, but we've made the story more dynamic with more exciting things happening to Kate. As you will now be living the adventure with Hans instead of following around after him, trying to find him, there will be more dramatic action, more people, more life in the settings. There will also be more interaction with the environment, similar to what we did in the Komkolzgrad world in Syberia."

 The snowy streets of Romansbourg.
The snowy streets of Romansbourg.

One thing that hasn't changed with the new game is its chief inspiration. While the game itself is being fully designed and programmed at Microïds' Montreal offices, the French novelist and artist Benoit Sokal (perhaps best known for his Amerzone graphic novel, which was adapted into an adventure game in 1999) is overseeing the project from his studios in Paris. As with the original Syberia, Sokal has written the script for the sequel and provided hundreds of concept sketches outlining his vision of everything from the "future gothic" architecture that made the first game so striking to the quirky facial features of the characters Kate and Hans will encounter during their expedition. Design team members keep in constant contact with Sokal, sharing ideas over the phone in lengthy conversations that take place almost every day. Sokal also visits Montreal for a few days every month, usually bringing along new concept sketches to be used in "brainstorming sessions" with the artists busy putting together Syberia II's new landscapes.

The Great North Passage

All these new regions will be quite different in character from those in Syberia. While the first game took Kate on a journey from her businesslike lifestyle in the USA into a steadily more surreal land populated by odd creatures like the C-3PO-like automaton Oscar, the new game takes place wholly in this strange new world. Fewer touchstones link Kate with the corporate world this time, meaning you can forget about having cell-phone conversations with your colleagues in New York. Much of the adventure will take place outdoors. According to project manager Marie-Sol Beaudry, the developers are moving the setting "steadily further north," so there will be more of an alpine flavor to everything. "Winter-type scenes" will be the norm, and these settings will be accentuated with the addition of animated snow that will either fall lightly or pound down as part of a blizzard, depending on the time and locale.

Shadow and lighting effects are major new features.
Shadow and lighting effects are major new features.

"It's been a real challenge to put these things into the game, but we wanted to really bring off the feeling of winter weather, as it emphasizes the new settings so well," Beaudry commented. "Even the snow will change depending on where you are, gradually getting heavier as you proceed in the game and go further north. You will still get the feeling that you're on a journey, though, as everything won't look the same."

Syberia II's winter wonderland will be divided into four separate regions. Kate, Hans, and Oscar get underway in a train heading from Aralbad, the last area explored in the original Syberia, to the Russian city of Romansbourg. At this point in the design process, the nearly complete city features much of the same architecture that marked places like Valadilene and Barrockstadt in the previous game, although it is considerably more complex and more ominous. Machinery turns in the background, people can be seen wandering the streets, and a mist covers everything. Graphic detail has been cranked up everywhere, to the extent that some scenes look almost photo-realistic. Layers of rust coat old scraps of metal and bridges, long shadows stretch away from almost every structure, and smoke can be seen rising over rooftops.

Your train to the Great North Passage.
Your train to the Great North Passage.

The indoor settings at Romansbourg have even more character. All the interiors have been marked with distinctive color palettes to set them apart from one another, something that's obvious in the red draperies of Romansbourg's tavern and the woody hue of the nearby general store. Toylike automatons are a significant part of the scenery as well. Mechanical horses, for instance, can be found on the stage of the tavern. But the most dramatic part of Romansbourg, and perhaps the one area in the new game that best shows off all the technical and design improvements, is the monastery. Situated high above the city, this massive structure recalls the majesty of Europe's gothic cathedrals within and without. Outside, you see tall spires and imposing architecture. Inside, you're treated to high vaults and impressive real-time dynamic shadow effects.

While Grefford freely admits that he and his design team "aren't making Doom III," they have put together some impressive special effects with lighting. Candles in the monastery create shadows that flicker against walls and character models. In the demo we were shown, two candles threw Kate's shadow in different directions, setting up an eerie atmosphere that wasn't possible in the first game due to technical limitations. The use of numerous light sources made the scene appear like something out a suspenseful movie, rather than a scene from an adventure game, particularly when you consider that most adventure games are infamous for their poor production values anyway.

Prettied Up for a New Adventure

"We want to use these special effects to create more drama, to do things that are more cinematic," Grefford explained. "Light effects should add more depth to Kate, the different backgrounds, and so on. We've also been working with more cinematic camera angles. In the monastery, you'll get panoramic views that show the arches of the building and peek in on things through an ornate grill."

Benoit Sokal's sketch of a house in Youkol Village.
Benoit Sokal's sketch of a house in Youkol Village.

From Romansbourg, the trio ventures into the Great North Passage. This wilderness corridor--which is also nearing completion, if the quality of the demo scenes we were shown is any indication--is set almost completely in the out-of-doors. If not for a rustic little fishing shack, the area could be a nature preserve. These forest scenes are packed with snowdrifts and icy mountain streams, and there's a great deal of variety between locations. New visual effects are also present here. Kate now leaves footprints in the snow as she trudges from one scene to another, trees blow in the wind, shadows play across the ground as clouds move in front of the sun, a light volumetric fog drifts across the top of the forest, dynamic reflections can be seen in icy water, directional water shows the current flowing in a realistic fashion, and background scenery moves at a different rate of speed than the foreground. The latter was shown to great panoramic effect in our demo when Kate walked along a path with a mountain range in the distance. Overall, you should get more of a realistic feel from everything in the wild this time out, as the added graphical touches root Kate in the setting. This was never fully pulled off in Syberia, where Kate often seemed to be standing before static backgrounds that were unceremoniously dropped in behind her.

Microïds wants to keep much of the latter portion of the story a surprise, so the developers didn't get into specifics regarding the final two worlds. They did let us know that the Great North Passage would lead to Youkol Village, a small settlement that Hans has always wanted to visit, and that your final stop would be Syberia itself. That final destination was as mysterious after our visit as it was before, as Sokal doesn't want to give anything away regarding this "mythical" land of "forgotten mammoths." Grefford did confirm, however, that this will be the end of the Syberia saga--although he cryptically added that this would "not necessarily be the end of Kate's adventures." So even though Sokal will satisfy people by wrapping up the story this time, he is leaving the door open for an ongoing adventure series with Kate Walker as the star.

Kate's polar bear cub friend.
Kate's polar bear cub friend.

Perhaps in part because of this, Kate has received a makeover for Syberia II. Her character model has been gussied up with extra detail and new outfits for every world, including a parka for the frosty environments. Other characters have received similar attention. Sokal has given most of the main figures in the game comic-book visages of sorts, accentuating certain facial features almost to the point of caricature. Two sinister-looking types who will stalk the trio's every move have the bushy eyebrows and bulbous noses of comic-book villains, while a polar-bear-like cub Kate meets in the Great North Passage has the kind of huge eyes you might expect from a Disney character. The other characters we were shown weren't so brazenly stereotypical, although they all have certain characteristics that you would expect to find in adventure game characters. An old priest from the Romansbourg monastery, for instance, has the weathered face you'd expect to find in an ascetic, although he lacks the features that would make him out instantly as a good guy or a bad guy. Which is probably just the way Sokal wants it.

Old and New

Of course, visual elements only go so far. Providing puzzles that can actually be solved without turning to an online walk-through is a hallmark of Syberia that the design team is taking pains to preserve in its sequel. Grefford says that the challenges awaiting Kate will be of the same character as those in the previous game, in that they will always be carefully woven into the story. Obstacles will be more "concrete" now, which will provide an opportunity to show off the technical improvements and give players more of the action elements that the developers stressed at the beginning of our interview. Kate, Hans, and Oscar will also be directly opposed by some "unsavory characters," so that the developers have even more opportunity to create interesting puzzles that tie into the story.

Sokal's conception of the Great North Passage fishing lodge.
Sokal's conception of the Great North Passage fishing lodge.

"Our first goal is to integrate puzzles with the story," Grefford said. "This is no Myst, and it won't play like that. Puzzles will consist of multiple steps, leading the player from point A to point B to point C in a logical order. There will be some button and switch manipulation stuff, but not much because we don't want to take the player out of the well-integrated story. We'll have the same puzzle quality as we had in Syberia, though with many more dynamic elements that make things more lifelike and exciting."

Grefford promises that the biggest story and puzzle differences will center around the changes in Kate's life since she left New York to oversee the purchase Voralberg toy company. She now has the opportunity to "live the dreams" of Hans, a childlike toy creator who will bring a very different character to everything that the player will be asked to do in the new game. Grefford says that a focus of the plot will be Kate's ongoing personal evolution as she further rejects the life of a corporate lawyer. The surreal aspects of Syberia should get more and more pronounced the closer that she gets to Hans' chosen destination.

No such changes will be noticed by gamers concerned about system requirements. Despite the many technical enhancements, Microïds is holding the line on hardware. If your machine met the minimum requirements for Syberia, it will work just fine for the sequel, added lighting effects notwithstanding. About the only change from a technical standpoint is the decision to make DirectX 8.1 mandatory, a move that cuts off Windows 95 users. The interface has also been left untouched, as Grefford wants those who played the first game to be able to seamlessly move into the follow-up without having to learn anything new.

Preliminary artwork showing monastery machinery.
Preliminary artwork showing monastery machinery.

"It [has] been a great challenge to introduce all this new stuff and keep the system configuration the same," Grefford said. "Still, we thought it was necessary so that people could stay with us from the first game to the new game. Also, you will be able to enable or disable the new features, just in case."

Check back with GameSpot for more coverage of Syberia II in the coming months. At present, Microïds expects to have the game in stores by early October.

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