Adventure games depends tremendously on their presentation, as well as the deliverance of their themes, story designs and characters (if there are any significant ones) for success; after all, games of this genre don't have any other mechanics that reward the player for having invested his/her time in them. Few adventure games manage to achieve this feat, which is in no way easy, but fortunately, Syberia is one of them.
(This review has to mention that an apparently esteemed author, Benoît Sokal, had provided the writing and designs for the game's themes and story, though this note is not to be considered anything more than a note; this review is not meant to be an endorsement of said author and anything that he has a hand in, after all.)
Syberia doesn't exactly start off with the more pleasant of its offerings. The player is introduced to American lawyer Kate Walker, who has been assigned to cement the sale of a French toy factory to yet another faceless USA-based corporation that is hinted to be typically lacking any conscience.
Kate even expresses her discontent at having to travel so far just to facilitate another corporate take-over job, and her boss's constant minding through her cell-phone doesn't help her either. That she soon steps into the quaint (and fictional) village of Valadilène further reinforces the impression that her persona and the high-stress, high-income lifestyle that she belongs to is out-of-place with the rest of the game.
But then, the player would find out that this is but a plot device, namely one that is used to present the personal conflicts that Kate will have as she - and the player - learns more about the people involved in the deal and the history behind the peculiar products of the toy factory and the enigmatic man who founded it. Players who do not like her modern backstory getting in the way of a tale that otherwise involves wondrous (and fictional) themes would not be happy with the interruptions, though this plot device also helps drive the story forward by placing pressure on Kate to know more about the intricacies of the deal and the history of the person that she has to track down to seal the deal.
Kate isn't the only character in the game. While she won't meet so many people in the game, she meets enough to know what she should be doing next, and these characters also shed light on the motivations of the person that she has to track down and his achievements that (somewhat) benefited the game's fictional version of Siberia.
More often than not, these characters have eccentric personalities or astonishing physical qualities, or both, which make encounters with them a very entertaining experience, especially when contrasted with Kate's character designs; Kate herself will express amazement at meeting such peculiar and interesting people. A character of particularly noteworthy mention as an example is Oscar, who is a diligent train attendant that looks human from a cursory first glance when he is first encountered, but who is definitely not one.
Yet, that these characters have designs that make them so much more interesting than the generally down-to-earth protagonist also happens to make Kate the blandest of the characters in the story. Perhaps the story-writer had intended the player to have a connection to Kate, but players who would rather be fascinated by wondrous characters one after another would not appreciate being reminded of Kate's "normal" status among the roster of otherwise refreshingly different fictional characters.
Nevertheless, the game will somewhat redeem Kate through pivotal decisions that she (but not the player) would make, but to describe these is to invite spoilers. It should suffice to say that once the game ends, any player is not likely to be left frowning at Kate and what she has done so far.
In addition to interesting characters, there are also exotic places to be explored in the game. The person that Kate needs to find happens to be very far away from Valadilène, and this is a great reason/excuse for her to travel from one location to another. All of these locations happen to be accessible in a consecutive manner, despite being situated in the very rough and bleak region of the world that is Siberia, thanks to the highly ingenious efforts of the wonderful person that Kate is trying to find.
The means by which Kate travels these lands are perhaps the most representative of the wondrous things that she will find; a full-sized locomotive that runs on clockwork and derive its energy from wound-up springs is not something that even a player that is very experienced in adventure games would have come across. The train is not the only stupendously advanced clockwork inventions; there are plenty more, such that Kate herself will make an exclamation about how remarkable they are (and makes a convenient comparison about how amazing they are from even modern technology like her cellphone).
These inventions also contribute to the artwork of the game: their steampunk nature is almost immediately obvious, except that an observant player will notice that they are not as severe- and austere-looking as the typical steampunk objects found in associated works of fiction. In addition to apparently not running on inelegant steam or smoke-belching engines, they have aesthetic refinements that make them far more pleasing to the eyes and not stand out so much from their surroundings; hence the reference to art nouveau in the subtitle of this review.
Although these inventions are ultimately fictional, the story-writer has made some effort to reduce the incredulity of these inventions. For example, at every location that the train stops, it will require careful maintenance of its tremendous number of mechanical parts and the re-winding of its torsional springs. Kate will also need a ticket to the next location. This gives Kate (and the player) an excuse to explore said location and find more information and backstory that the player would likely find interesting.
The locations that Kate will go to are intractably situated in Siberia, so there is more fog and mist floating above hard, frozen dirt than a player would care to look at. However, the stations that the train stops at are also connected to or even integrated into places that are beacons of civilization in otherwise bleak and hostile tundras. Most of these places are of course fictional, whose presence in the game is only justified due to the (fictionally) advanced clockwork technology that one of the pivotal characters has brought about.
Nonetheless, these places extend the hybrid themes of art nouveau and steampunk further and reward exploration with wondrous sights. For purposes of illustration, one of these is a (fictional) Soviet missile-testing site that do not exactly make use of rocket technology and whose gantries consist more of gears, racks and cogs than static trusses.
Of course, being an adventure game, there are obstacles, hurdles, complications and puzzles that need to be solved/resolved. Many of these involve clockwork inventions, and most of these in turn are logic puzzles; solving these will result in FMV animations that may entertain even a jaded player (or at least bring forth memories of fabulous mechanical contraptions in earlier adventure games). However, most of these eventually leads to the procuring of a ticket and/or special repair of the train, which can be an excuse that becomes somewhat tiresome.
The game makes use of hand-drawn and -painted images that are stretched over environments with simple 3D frames and hitboxes, and then includes the 3D models for characters in this environment to give a semblance of three-dimensions. For the most part of the game, this graphical illusion is believable, though it fails when these environments are supposed to contain locations with intense lighting; the hand-drawn parts of the environment will reflect this lighting well of course, but not necessarily the character models; the latter will have colour-tinting, shading and shadowing that fit the current screen that they are in, but these are applied regardless of which part of the screen that they are in.
The game also makes use of a camera perspective that is almost always far enough from the on-screen characters such that minimal animations appear to be enough to furnish their voiced-over lines and express their body language with. However, the camera is not able to hide the sparse lip-synching, which can be a bit disappointing.
Being an adventure game, there aren't many non-dialogue sound clips to be heard in Syberia; that it is set in Siberia and that certain plot themes and devices also serve as reasonable excuses for having most of the places that the player will go to mostly devoid of ambient noises. Thankfully, sound effects do accompany FMV animations, such as the aforementioned ones for the completion of puzzles, which make the experience more satisfying.
The soundtracks are perhaps the best facet of the aural designs of the game. Many of them are stirring orchestral tracks that augment the sense of wonderment that the player would feel when entering new places for the first time. Yet, they are also tinged with a subtle hint of tragedy, which the player would find quite appropriate as Kate discovers that the achievements of the person that she is trailing are as much successes as they are failures.
To summarize this review, Syberia is perhaps one of the best crafted adventure games to be had by its time. Its out-of-place protagonist may be the game's biggest weakness, but she also helps bring attention to the other, contrastingly more brilliant and amazing content that Syberia offers.