Behold: the most frustrating game on the planet! It had wonderful moments. It had creative ideas. And it also made me want to drop-kick it off a balcony. Welcome to Syberia.
This is a pretty famous game in its genre. By the early 2000s, the enormous popularity of adventure games as a genre was on the wane, and this was one of the few to really stand out and be considered to “save” the genre with innovative new ideas and cutting-edge technology. Of course, that was a couple of decades ago, so my experience started with a dinosaur of a game scolding me because it couldn’t understand my computer’s massive raw processing power and assumed I didn’t have its required ½ GB of memory, but such are the struggles we face in this modern age.
The game is broken up into chapters. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they are of equivalent or even close to equivalent length. It’s more of a breakup by setting than anything else.
The opening cut scene for this game begins with a creepy marching metal man playing the drum, followed by a funeral procession composed entirely of robots carrying a casket. I mean, I’m in. You can’t say this game doesn’t fucking commit.
I’m playing Kate, an enormously confused lady who is watching this happen in the rain. Since she lives in a world that appears to be mostly analogous to our own and therefore was not prepared to see some sort of robot wake in progress, she just blinks at everything and then goes the fuck to her hotel, which is a reasonable decision given the circumstances.
The game sets itself up in almost the opposite of the usual adventure game way: where most games give you a quick recap of What’s Going On or The Story So Far and then drop you into the game to explore, this one gives you absolutely no clue what’s happening at all and then has the first chapter heavily exposit at you whenever you look at anything. It’s a little confusing if you weren’t ready for it, especially since your character doesn’t have the excuse of amnesia or a similar problem that some games use to explain why you have no idea what’s happening and the opening cut scene is the opposite of enlightening, but it’s more immersive and gets the player accustomed to the game’s method of providing information.
So Kate is a lawyer from New York representing a firm that is negotiating the sale of a local bespoke automated toy factory to a large toy company, and she’s here because she needs to get the owner to sign the finalized contract and apparently the locals don’t believe in fax machines. Kate is in a very real way a stranger dropped into a fantastic and bizarre world, because the game is about to give us a giant infodump of background on the setting, and it’s wild.
Basically, this is the fictional town of Valadilene (its name is intentionally ambiguous; it could be pretty much anywhere in continental Europe, although the scenery is reminiscent of France or Switzerland to me) and it is almost entirely based around the Voralberg factory, which exclusively makes automatons - humanoid and zoomorphic machines that act like they’re alive and do various tasks. The town not only has most of its residents employed at the factory - or did, because when the game starts it’s closed down and the town is dying - but also seems to have its economy and basic functions almost exclusively built around automatons. They are everywhere. The fact that the game goes out of its way to talk extensively to the player about how they’re designed and built made me think we might make some, but that didn’t actually happen (although there will be plenty of robot-tinkering, believe you me).
(Do you see this creepy picture of a 17th-century Voralberg with his sleeping, child-like creation? That's this game, all the time, FOREVER.)
It’s also stated up front that the automatons run on music. They use a similar mechanism to old-fashioned music boxes, where a piece of music is written and then modeled with different lengths of musical pins and combs that play the notes when the machine is turned on and moving. Here's an old-fashioned music box mechanism for comparison:
The cylinder turns, usually by being cranked and then winding with a spring, and each tiny nub on the cylinder pings a different note on the metal comb, each of which plays a different note. Each automaton, no matter how complex or what it’s doing, is actually a piece of music, and there’s our first hint that we’ve got a Phantom in the works.
This game is actually pretty coy about its Phantom influences. Having slogged through the whole thing, I’m pretty comfortable saying that the whole story is influenced by Leroux’s tale, not just the very obvious part (more on that in later chapters). Leroux’s Erik built automatons offscreen, used as shorthand to illustrate his genius and creativity and as a way to cement in the reader’s minds his almost magical skills, and we’ve seen a few callbacks to that idea in later media, from Lloyd Webber’s musicals and their creepy Christine dolls to the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film’s Phantom literally turning his victims into music-playing automated attractions, but this game goes all out on the idea. Automatons and related sciences are the heart and soul of this game and of its Phantom(s).
(By the way, either automatons or automata are both acceptable plurals for automaton in English. The game uses automatons throughout, so this review does, too.)
ANYWAY, it’s obvious that there are some mysterious shenanigans going on, what with a city completely infested with musical robots, a reclusive family that appears to have invented them single-handedly but now won’t see anyone and has closed down their factory, and the citizens one by one dying of old age or leaving town. So enter Kate, determined to Get Some Shit Done regardless of how many weird people with indeterminate accents tell her she’s being too serious about it.
Unfortunately for both Kate and me, who is driving Kate, the controls for the game are simple and streamlined, but they're not intuitive. Like other games in the time period, clicking on items in the inventory "readies" them for use, but clicking them again causes them to disappear from that state, which can be confusing. There is no message to let you know that using something on someone didn't work or was incorrect, so you may not even realize your readied item failed until you want to try again. Right-clicking takes you to the menu, where you can meddle with the controls, and it should be said that this game absolutely has great graphic and quality controls for its time. I played it on the highest possible quality settings, since I am using a computer from the Space-Age Future, but when it came out, you could have adjusted to make sure you could play without stuttering or problems no matter where your processing power was on the scale.
Clicking on places around you does one of two things: either Kate will try to walk there, or if it's something she can interact with, she'll go there and do that instead. Your icon does change depending on where it is on the screen... but not very much, so trying to figure out what you can and can't do is hell for anyone with visual issues. A plain circle means nothing/walk, the same exact circle with a subtle glow means interact, the same exact circle with a tiny tail to turn it into a speech bubble means to talk, and the same exact circle cut in half to make a magnifying glass means you can interact with something. It's very aesthetically elegant, but it's not so great for players.
I know I said earlier that Valadilene apparently doesn't believe in fax machines, but apparently they have them in every guest suite at their one and only hotel, mostly so Kate's boss can fax her and yell at her about making sure to finish the job she came for? This is extra funny because not only is nothing in writing here that Kate wouldn't already know, she also has a cell phone and her boss will call her on it all the damn time later in the game, so him faxing her his demands makes even less sense than usual. Maybe his secretary was told to contact and bully her and just did the best they could with what they had.
Did you suspect that Kate is currently representing an evil soulless monopoly corporation the likes of which you would see in a 1990s Disney movie about the true meaning of Christmas? If you didn't, they helpfully put it in writing in this fax, just for you. That secretary is subversive and I hope there's another game all about their office counter-terrorism versus Mr. Marson.
Yes, it's clumsy, but we'll forgive it because the game is actually very good at communicating via artifact and writing later. It's just here in the introduction that we get inundated with "As you know, Bob..." storytelling. (This is another reason that putting something in an intro or prologue to tell us what was going on would have worked better than just hurling Kate directly at the robots, but if there's one thing this game doesn't do, it's compromise its Artistic Vision just so players will be able to like, do and know things.)
The locals - all of whom, in this tiny secluded village, speak flawless and aggressively American-accented English - are super excited to see me, assuming that I'll save the dying town by completing the factory merger and thereby bringing back jobs and prosperity. Apparently they haven't seen the fax declaring our evil intentions. They're especially glad I'm here right now to fix everything because they know something I don't know: the factory owner just DIED like five seconds before Kate got here.
WELP. Since Anna Voralberg obviously won't be signing any contracts, since she was clearly the person being borne to her eternal rest by a herd of Mourning-Bots, Kate now has to figure out how to finish this sale without her. This game treads a super weird line, because it maintains verisimilitude and develops Kate's personality by making sure you understand her dedication to her job and the struggles she goes through to succeed in her career in extraordinary circumstances... but that also means that now I'm playing Paralegal Files: Robot Edition, which is not exactly what I usually look for in a gaming experience.
Kate learns, through talking to some of the locals, that there may or may not be a mysterious heir to the factory who she would have to get to sign off on this sale... so she's off to explore.
In case you wondered, yes, that automaton over the door does in fact bow and doff his hat to Kate when she comes back to the hotel, and yes, it's as creaky and creepy as you think it is. The game is absolutely fantastic about atmosphere; in fact, that's probably its greatest strength. Everything is like this, no matter where Kate goes or what she's doing there. Ceilings are moldering; buildings are run-down; factories and shops are closed and abandoned. She's visiting a dying world, massively different from the New York City bustle she's used to, where nothing is current and everything is centered around things that happened a long time ago and relics left from times that aren't coming back. All the characters in these settings know this, too; everything is a reminder of how their greatest times have passed and now all that remains is the long, slow entropy of watching them get further away.
It's not cheerful, but it is lovely. The game is concerned with the past: how it affects the present and how people can't let go of it to move on, and in a larger sense how momentous times and events can capture people permanently, no matter how long ago they happened. It's a game that tells the player to look at what's left after grandeur decays and lofty ideals fall - not just in the environments, but in the people, too, none of whom can escape.
Back where I complain about things, it turns out that in some screens, you actually can walk to the edge, which will cause the screen to smoothly scroll on, revealing a larger area to explore. This is not in any way signposted, so I unfortunately made Kate wander around the same three areas a lot before figuring out that she could, like, go left.
I've praised the game's themes and atmospheres, but here's where it really lets itself down: this is a game that pretends to be open-world and full of beautiful atmospheric detail... and actually isn't. Oh, the backgrounds are beautiful and the sound effects are great, but Kate is trapped in a solipsistic railroaded universe and that universe is called The Plot. If something is not plot-relevant, she cannot interact with it in any way. She can't look at things to learn more about them. She can't touch or try things that aren't The Next Thing She's Supposed to Do. She can't try out creative solutions and she can't explore in any way except for by walking.
This is obviously an intentional choice by the game developers; some games end up this way because the studio ran out of time or funding and couldn't succeed in their ambitious scope, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. The designers simply didn't see any reason to let Kate do things that weren't plot-relevant. On the one hand, that's a choice that helps the player out, preventing them from wasting time clicking on a million things that don't help them succeed and won't come up later... but on the other hand, it's a critical mismatch with the tone and theme of this game in particular. Syberia is all about exploration and discovery; it's literally a game about traveling to distant lands, exploring places no one has ever found, and finding environmental clues to tell you more about what happened before you arrived. Preventing the player from actually doing any of that is massively frustrating, leaving them wondering about a thousand details they'll never get any information about and activetly stopping them from interacting with the game world to learn more about it. It's a game about exploration that forbids exploring.
Most egregious of all, the game seems to every once in a while know that the player would want to do these things, but to refuse to engage with that: for example, Kate can click on every door in the hotel she starts on, but she'll always get the same boilerplate response: she says, "No point in going down there!" That's just the game developers blatantly telling you that the door is just there for show, but rather than engaging with Kate as a character at all - for example, having her give a reason she doesn't want to or shouldn't go in there - they look directly at the player and say no. It would even be better if the game were just consistent about the fact that Kate can't interact with things that she can't do or go to, so that nothing happens when the player clicks on a door; it would still be frustrating, but at least the player wouldn't be left wondering why they can click on doors but nothing else, and whether or not they need to keep coming back and trying said doors just in case they go somewhere later.
The artwork on the backgrounds remains stunning, though. There is nowhere Kate goes in this game that is not beautifully rendered and, for 2002, a pretty stunning technical achievement in 3D graphics.
Since we're not going to get any information about the game from its environment, we instead get a lot of it from talking to the characters, which is nice except for the clunky, kludgy dialogue interface that gives Kate a number of "topics" that she can ask any character about regardless of whether or not that makes sense, with them just being crossed out if the developer didn't feel like letting her ask about something to a character that they (but not Kate herself, who isn't allowed to explore or ask questions) knew they didn't have plot information about. There are also some obviously lazy points in the dialogue trees where no one bothered to change them based on game conditions, such as when Kate always ends every conversation with the hotel clerk by saying, "I'd like to see my room now," even though he already showed her to her room, she's been wandering around the city for hours, and he probably wants to throw the service bell at her face by now.
Kate manages to find out that Anna, the factory owner who just died, apparently had a younger brother who "died a long time ago" and "no one ever met", which should start those Phantom alarm bells ringing, but it's when she meets a young boy named Momo that she really gets to start investigating.
Momo is problematic, unfortunately. He clearly has a developmental disability of some kind, causing him to have difficulty speaking and relating to others as well as what looks like some physical limitations, and the characters are relentlessly ableist toward him. From the hotel owner being outright horrified by the idea when Kate asks if Momo is his son to the condescending way Kate interacts with him, it's disgusting, as are the various slurs that are tossed around to refer to him all the time. Momo was close to Anna when she was alive, but this just gives characters the opportunity to opine that she was mentally ill, because why else would she want to hang out with this kid?
Like most depictions of disability in fiction (especially older fiction, although 2002 is recent enough to frigging know better), you can see that there is definitely some attempt by the writing team to talk about it in a meaningful way that just keeps getting bogged down in the very ableism they're trying to address. Momo is clearly meant to be sympathetic and those who mistreat him are meant to be wrong - but they're not wrong to think of him as lesser than themselves, just wrong to treat him badly because of it. Kate is wrong to think Momo isn't useful to her, because he totally is, but she never does a single damn thing for him in return, because why would she? He doesn't really count.
This game actually engages with disability, especially mental disability, a lot throughout, and the struggles to try to be nuanced and sympathetic are there. But unfortunately there's always this oily sheen of ableist tropes laid over all of it, and while it starts here with Momo, he unfortunately won't be the last person to be affected. The game has time to be very clear about the fact that you should always call them "automatons" because "robot" is not socially acceptable and implies things about their functioning and purpose, but it still slings labels like "village idiot" unironically at Momo and apparently doesn't notice the irony.
At any rate, Momo explains that Anna used to be his friend and take care of him, and that she told him he reminded her of her brother, which is both sweet and lets you know that there's more story about the missing brother, Hans, than you might otherwise suspect. (It would be fun if Momo were Hans, but unfortunately he's much too young. I really enjoyed a working theory that perhaps Hans is "alive" because Anna built an automaton version of him after he died - maybe even Momo! - but that's because I'm cool and good at stories.)
In case you're wondering, that above is the notary's office. Because we're playing Paralegal Files: The Automaton Adventure, so notarizing documents will be an exciting feature of the game to come.
There's a neat bit as Kate goes in about how the notary looks through a telescope to see out of the lensed eyes of the automaton at the door without leaving his office, which suggests that not all automatons are, well, autonomous. This is actually one of the coolest things in the game: the notary explains that Anna equipped his office, as well as several other offices and houses, with automatons as disability aids. In his case, he suffers from a condition that makes it physically difficult and painful to move around too much, so his door automaton allows him to see visitors and allow them in without having to get up. We often get to see wondrous inventions in Phantom stories, but seldom are they explicitly compassionate inventions, and it's great to see that here. (Now if only we could get the game to be as compassionate about mental disabilities as it is about physical ones.)
The notary, who apparently has been in contact with Kate's boss and is therefore the only person in town who is actually helping her, is the first to say that he thinks that Anna's sudden death right before the sale was suspicious. Although the rumor is that she died of an illness, he doesn't think she was sick, which suggests that there may be Nefarious Doings Afoot. She sent him a letter two days before her death telling him that she was dying and shockingly claiming that her brother, Hans, is still alive; she says that his death and funeral were a charade perpetrated by their father, who didn't want to admit that his son had abandoned the family factory and left the city. Anna's letter also refers to an "accident" that befell Hans at some point, and she outright says that most of the most successful and impressive automatons were designed by him, with her just creating them and taking the credit after he sent her the plans from wherever he is. The notary says they definitely buried SOMEONE when Hans "died", though, and outright refers to him as a "ghost", which has nice Phantom overtones.
So, you know, BOMBSHELL. Kate is understandably more concerned about the fact that she now has to find this missing brother and ask him to finish this sale before her boss kicks her ass, but I have so many questions! If Hans' death was faked, was Anna's, too? Did Hans really leave, or was he here, Phantoming about the factory, building wondrous musical machines? Is there an automaton version of Hans running around, simultaneously dead and alive? Is Anna herself actually Hans, and we're looking at a trans woman's narrative with a surprisingly supportive dad who literally declared her deadname dead? (Sadly NO which is terrible because that would have been AWESOME.) Or is this one of those Dance Macabre plots, but with less Freddy Krueger? Only one way to find out (literally, in this game where we do things one way and one way only.)
An old man out in the city tells Kate that the town is dying and only the old people stay here anymore, because the young people had to leave town due to not being able to get jobs at the Voralberg factory anymore. While the factory has been shut down and that's the obvious reason, you have to wonder if it might also be partly due to automatons doing most of the work on the factory premises. For a game about automatons, largely in factory and industrial settings, you'd think there'd be more of an undercurrent of the popular "the robots are coming to take our jobs!" theme you get in so much vintage science fiction, but Valadilene's automatons are explicitly positive in this game.
As I mentioned before, Kate has a cell phone, which is a nice inclusion given that this game was made in 2002 and it would have been stretching credulity that a high-powered lawyer on remote assignment wouldn't have one. Unfortunately, like a lot of games that try to incorporate phones at the beginning of the mobile tech revolution, this one doesn't seem to quite know what to do with it; Kate does use it a few times, but it's never really directed to the player so that coming up with the idea to find a number and call someone (in one case, calling her boss from the number on the fax letterhead prevented the game from continuing until she had done it, only to get a brushoff) is not intuitive at all. By later in the game, the cell phone becomes basically a passive narration device so that characters can call Kate, impart information, and then disappear again, all without the player having any input at all. Maybe someday we'll see a good phone-integrated game (Gray Matter was close!), but it's not today.
Kate goes off to the church and graveyard where Anna's funeral procession went the day before, but the church is locked and, as always, every building on the way there and back just shrugs at the player while Kate says, "No reason to go in there right now!" Once again, everything is railroading her toward the plot and preventing us from interacting with anything on the way.
This is even more frustrating when you realize that, in order to get to the church and graveyard at all, you have to walk through several screens of beautiful, gorgeously rendered art... and realize that that is literally all they are. This game has tons of rooms and areas that have absolutely, actually zero interaction. All you can do is walk through them and look at the scenery (with your real eyes, because there is no way to engage a narrator to even describe any of it to you). These areas do a job: they give you the sense of traveling a certain distance and being immersed in the world visually. But they do this job the first time you pass through them, and after that? They are boring. They literally waste the player's time as they walk around, passing through this space to get from things they can do to other things they can do. There aren't even different things to observe; once you've seen that screen, you've seen it. It won't change.
Obviously, again, I don't think the developers were unaware of this. They knew the general rules of adventure games, one of which is to justify the existence of areas by giving the player things to do there, and they made a conscious decision not to follow them. Again, this is designed for the atmosphere and the sensation of exploring, but without the actual mechanics of exploring attached. It's an ancestor of the modern walking simulator game genres, where the main goal is to experience the environment and see what it has to offer rather than necessarily solving puzzles or defeating enemies... but again, it falls down because its hybridization with more common adventure game tropes like item-based puzzle-solving leads the player to become frustrated and confined, and the game's very plot, about searching the environment for clues, is stymied when the environment is specifically designed to not have any.
There are so many good things about this game, but the lack of content in so much of it is so FRUSTRATING. It feels like a tutorial level for an adventure game, except that's the entire thing, for hours and hours and hours. I literally thought it WAS maybe a tutorial for a while, wandering around Valadilene completely unable to do anything or interact with anything, but unfortunately that was not the case.
Here's another thing that's a little bit frustrating: the character models. In 2002, there was a world of difference between rendering a 3D background/world and rendering believable 3D characters who can walk around and be animated, so it's expected that the characters will be a little rougher, but they still have an almost unfinished look to them, as though in all the work on the world itself, they were forgotten. Kate is the best rendered, as our actual avatar, but she has a different problem: she's pretty clearly designed in a Tomb Raider-esque mold to be a supermodel-attractive eye candy character, which can be ignored some of the time when she's busy doing things but is especially noticeable in her idle animation, which causes her to do weird things like pop her hip, bend down to look around her, and so on. She may not be quite as egregiously designed to be salivated over as some characters of her generation, but she's not allowed to exist without being at peak attractive-to-dude-players, either.
Apparently, the in-universe justification for being in an entire town yet not allowed to go anywhere except for the notary and the hotel is that the shops are all closed on the mayor's order as part of a day of mourning for Anna's death. You don't find this out unless you talk to the one worker who's hanging out outside the closed patisserie, nor does it make Kate's boilerplate "No reason to go down there!" make any more sense when she's trying doors that lead nowhere.
Apparently Hans went to SIBERIA when he left? I don't want to go to Siberia! Kate doesn't want to go to Siberia! This is not what her contract at the firm promised!
It's neat that this game's conceit constantly makes the player question whether or not any people they meet or talk to are actually automatons. Granted, all the automatons so far have been very obviously not human, with steampunky visible steel plating and riveting and painted-on clothes, but theoretically, some of them could be human-looking with enough work. Is Momo an automaton? What about the hotel clerk? Is everyone in town an automaton, and Kate has been the only living human being in the city the entire time, unaware that she's surrounded by the unsleeping, staring eyes of the robot horde? What about Anna and Hans and their father, the factory owner? What if Kate is an automaton, and she just doesn't know it yet and is on a journey of self-discovery?
I'm going to spoil all that for y'all right now: nobody is secretly an automaton and all the automatons are very obviously visually not human. My bright-eyed imaginings about social echelons of automatons based on human-seeming level are for naught. But in playing the game for the first time, you get to wonder.
Speaking of letdowns, Kate gets a cell phone call from Dan, her fiancé back in New York. Don't expect him to be in the Raoul role; while we have multiple people wearing the Phantom mantle and some definite Christine action, this game is largely Raoul-free. (Or, to be more specific, Kate is kind of Raoul, which is great even though it doesn't lead to any romance!) Dan very obviously sucks. He acts like he's concerned about Kate on the phone, but all his questions are "did you finish yet" and "can you come be hot at my company dinner" and "why are you ruining things by being stuck in the Alps when I have a contract I'm trying to land", and also he interrupts her all the time, even when she's trying to say nice things to him. Dan is the one who should have to go to Siberia. One thousand dollars says he will not be Kate's fiancé anymore by the end of this game.
Moments later, Kate's boss calls and is also excited to be a jackass to her, although in his case he's probably more pissed off about the revelation of Hans' secret existence than he is directly at Kate. He does, however, tell her that she can't "set foot back in New York" until she closes this deal. Excuse me? You can join Dan in the gulag, sir.
Well, since no one living has any idea what's going on or where to go next, there's only one thing to do: start investigating the dead.
Once again, the backgrounds are lovely and I'm so sad and frustrated that there is absolutely nothing I can do to interact with them. Gravestones are such a great opportunity to add information or even just flavor to a game that they're almost a cliche in the genre, and it feels borderline criminal to not be able to even look at them here. What a waste of an opportunity.
The Celtic cross here is surprising, considering that we're in what I'm pretty sure is an analogue to the Swiss Alps. There certainly were Celts all over mainland Europe prior to the general bulldozing of the Roman Empire, but the design here seems pretty clearly Irish-inspired rather than Gaulish or Helvetic. Once again, if the game let us have any kind of flavor interaction, these questions could have been answered, but NO.
Now that I know what I'm looking for, it's not too hard to locate what is probably Hans' crypt. Along the way, the graveyard's mist effects are nicely creepy, and the background music often cuts out to leave just the wind and the cawing of crows, which helps distinguish the area as separate from and more eerie than the main town.
And speaking of the crypt, here it is, keeping up the level of creepitude we have come to expect from this game:
I think my favorite part is the little bird hanging out on the cross back there, intermittently preening and yelling at me whenever it notices I'm still there. Classic asshole bird. That's realism right there.
The fact that I have to stand right UNDER this giant automaton with its arm raised to try to get into the crypt is nerve-wracking all on its own, never mind that it takes forever because I can't get the grate open. Of course, it doesn't move or anything... YET.
So since this is a dead end, I'm back to exploring the rest of the graveyard, which remains as empty as the rest of the game. (This entire game is a graveyard; there you go, that's the pithy statement for the review.) It's more than the general frustration of not finding the next correct clue or action in an adventure game; it's feeling like Kate is wandering around in the void rather than a living world.
(Not to mention that making everything purely visual for effect and having no way to interact via sound or touch makes this game essentially unplayable for anyone with visual impairments. Lots of video games have that problem, since they tend to forget that people might not be able to find things just by looking at them, but this game went all in. I can't imagine bothering with this thing past the intro sequence if I couldn't see the backgrounds of all this nothing.)
Something that is neat, however, is the fact that Kate is becoming something of an automaton smith herself. Oh, she can't invent them and would be at a loss to make the musical cylinders that run them, but in the course of her adventures she's collecting springs, gears, and keys she finds and figuring out how to apply them to damaged or shut down automatons to make them run again. That's pretty awesome, even if she sometimes goes overboard on the intrepid results, like fixing an automaton with a spring she found and then GETTING IN THE RICKETY ELEVATOR IT CRANKS TO THE TOP OF THE CHURCH TOWER OH MY GOD, KATE.
Nothing to see here, just your requisite creepy automaton running your requisite Phantom pipe organ. Actually, while this looks like a pipe organ and you could be forgiven for thinking that it was since it's in a church, it's actually a series of steam and air tubes used to run machinery. There are several fake "organs" like this throughout the game, as well as a few real ones, which again makes it pretty clear that even if this isn't an explicit Phantom story, it has very strong influence from Leroux's novel (or, given the time period and imagery, more likely Lloyd Webber's musical) throughout.
Literally everything in this game is made of rusted iron or steel, even when there is absolutely no reason for that. If Kate ever gets a cut, she's going to get instant Super Tetanus.
Lacking the ability to do anything but be terrified by the idea of the automaton's giant arms coming to life when she isn't looking, Kate goes back downstairs and finally manages to sneak into the chapel via a back door... only to AGAIN not be allowed to look at or investigate anything. It's somehow still a disappointing shock every time I go into a new area, possibly because each new area has lots of cool details and it stands to reason that there would be a way to find out more about them, but NO.
But I don't have time to complain about how railroady this game is right now because I need everyone to stop what they're doing right now and look at ROBOT JESUS.
YES. The real, actual chapel of this town has an AUTOMATON JESUS on a metal cross in their real, actual place of worship. That's fantastic. This is incredible. There are so many directions this could go. I mean, are they atheists and this is their way of expressing that there is no God above their human works? Is this a sign that there's been an automaton uprising and this is THEIR church now and naturally they worship Automaton Jesus instead of the fleshy kind? Is this some kind of weird The Second Coming of Christ Will Be a Robot cult? What does the little sign above his head on the crucifix say (traditionally, it would be an abbreviation for "King of the Jews", placed there in mockery by the Roman soldiers who crucified him, but what is the robot equivalent)? That thing has ARTICULATED JOINTS which means it was designed to MOVE so what does it DO? The options are all so vastly tonally different and I NEED MORE INFORMATION.
And do you know what I'm not going to get? MORE INFORMATION. I AM LITERALLY NOT ALLOWED TO KNOW OR INVESTIGATE ANYTHING ABOUT AUTOMATON JESUS. THIS IS A CRIME.
No, the only thing we're allowed to do with Automaton Jesus here is move the crucifix aside to find stuff hidden in the wall behind him. I REPEAT. PEOPLE SHOULD BE SENTENCED FOR THIS.
In case I wasn't annoyed yet, this is about the point where I discovered that Kate just says, "This thing's jammed!" whenever a piece of machinery doesn't work, even when it clearly isn't jammed and is just missing a piece or intentionally locked or something. How can there be so much work put into so many details in this game, and then so much slack nonsense like this also present?
Disgruntled, Kate and I leave the most disappointing robot cult in the WORLD and finally manage to get to the rainy, abandoned factory, but since we're STILL not allowed to touch anything because apparently it's not time to go there yet, we manage to find the Voralberg mansion instead, where Anna lived until her demise a couple of days ago.
The game has gone to a lot of trouble to suggest Shady Doings among the Voralbergs, but I feel like the fact that every single window in the house has iron bars on it might also have clued me in by the time I got here.
It feels very accurate to human nature that Kate didn't really want to go investigate all the crypts and stuff, but she's extremely determined about breaking and entering into this dead woman's house. Of course, she is also being regularly yelled at by douchebags in New York on her cell, so she's probably feeling the heat, too.
Hey, we've got a hedge maze! I love hedge mazes!
Hedge mazes (well, mazes of any kind, really) are a staple of adventure games and also very visually appealing, and the game's strong emphasis on atmospheric visuals definitely delivers here. Of course, most games' hedge mazes don't have robot heads poking out of them in the distance, but that's how you know you're playing Syberia.
With a little wandering, Kate manages to locate the gardener, who is hilarious and definitely the best character in the game to date (maybe ever, given that most of the characters you get to meet kind of suck). She's full of complaints because this massive, extremely geometrical hedge maze is normally maintained by an automaton designed to do garden work, but it broke down, and now that the factory is closed and Anna is dead, there's no one with the know-how to repair it. She's in an endless loop of weeding and suffering because there aren't any other gardeners, because there was never a need for other gardeners, and she'll weed until she dies. I'm sorry, lady, because I wish I could help you but Kate sucks so I won't.
I have a lot of questions about this, now that it's come up. Why is it that no one can repair any of Valadilene's automatons? Were Anna and Hans and their father the literal only people on the planet who knew enough about how they worked to fix them? How is that possible? How on earth could they ever have run their business that way? What were all those people who used to work at the factory doing all day? Do they have no craftspeople, no specialists of any kind in the one thing that this town is known for? EVERYONE who knew a cog from a sprocket left town, and no one who's lived here their whole lives ever picked anything up?
It doesn't add up, but in this case I'm pretty sure it's a failure of writing, not an intentional clue. Having Anna and Hans be the only people who are able to build and repair the automatons underlines their specialness and gives them a sort of genius status, as well as kickstarting the inevitable decay, Ozymandias-like, of all their works once they've left and died. It doesn't make any sense for no one else to have any idea how to do any of this, but making sense would have gotten in the way of the narrative's goals.
I stared at this screen in confusion for a minute before realizing why it looked so strange in context of this game: that might be the only non-automaton statue there is to be found. That just begs more questions: why this statue, and no others? Christ on his crucifix was an automaton, but this serene lady in a garden is not - why? Who is she? What does she represent? Who's the brash bastard who swaggered into Valadilene and was like "I'm going to work in stone and not iron and you can all bite me"? Or is it that she is an automaton, but her metal joints and gears were where the missing limbs and face were, rendering her a sort of automaton corpse?
Can you guess what I'm going to say? THAT'S RIGHT. WE DON'T GET TO FIND OUT AND THERE WILL BE NO LOOKING AT OR TOUCHING OF ANYTHING BECAUSE SHE'S NOT PART OF THE PLOT SO GET FUCKED, PEOPLE WHO WANTED TO KNOW MORE.
Obviously I should not go alone into the trackless, no longer even upkept maze, but also I definitely should, so off I go. In keeping with this game's refusal to actually allow exploration, you can't actually get lost in this maze, so I find a key in a dry fountain and then there's nowhere to go but back out again, which is a crying shame with all this lovely atmospheric artwork and feeling. It's all very Burnett's The Secret Garden, except it's not, because you're not going to discover its secrets because that won't win you the game, loser. So back out to the main area we go.
See, THAT statue's an automaton. Grumble.
I think part of the reason this rubs me the wrong way so much is the game's tone in approaching it. Having the game not only bypass the character to speak directly to the player but also bluntly say things like "There's no point, it's locked," or "There's no point in going there," is not unreasonable; those are things a person might think when exploring for a variety of reasons. But the tone feels a lot like the game developers scolding the player, as if to say that it is pointless to want to do things other than the path laid out for you and you're annoying them by trying, and that's not a feeling you want your players to end up having. Again, I'm baffled by why some things are uninteractive and others can be interacted with but only in order to scold the player for doing it - why the lack of consistency? Why, if the game wanted to focus on a certain kind of experience, put in these things that seem like a different one and actively annoy your players? Was there a communications breakdown between the art team and the hotspot team and the plot team, or something?
Anyway, Kate can't get in any of the locked doors to the mansion, so naturally the thing ot do is activate the gardening ladder to climb into the window of the attic, FOUR STORIES UP. WHATEVER THEY ARE PAYING YOU, IT'S NOT ENOUGH FOR THIS, KATE. LOVE YOURSELF.
Finally, we've made it into a creepy cobwebbed attic, a requirement for all settings in which there is a Mysterious Family Secret! The attic is absolutely full of junk and items in storage and the detritus of peoples' lives, and this was the point at which I hit critical mass in my frustration because WE ARE ALLOWED TO LOOK AT NONE OF IT. NONE OF IT. This is such a BEAUTIFUL opportunity for storytelling in conjunction between art and writing and it's being utterly SQUANDERED. What kinds of books did these people read? Whose bicycle was this? What's in these storage boxes? Who is painted in these old oil portraits? We'll never know. They didn't want to tell us. Those things are irrelevant, because this is about completing tasks and winning the game, not about telling a story at all, which is frustrating beyond measure because the game clearly DOES want to tell a story.
I'M JUST YELLING AGAIN.
The one thing we are allowed to look at is Anna's diary, which we find up here in storage. There is no explanation for why it's here, given that she only died two days ago and it's weird she'd pack it away, but whatever, finally we're going to get some information. And it is a LOT of information; Anna's diary is the sole vehicle for learning about at least half of the entire plot.
The first entry is dated May of 1930, when Anna was just a child, and includes a picture of Hans, her brother, a blond boy of about ten years old. She describes how they found a prehistoric cave in the mountains, and that while exploring it, Hans saw an artifact of some kind (she calls it a toy) and fell while trying to climb up to reach it, striking his head on the cave floor. He didn't regain consciousness for a full week, and Anna, the older sibling, blames herself, poor kid. The diary chronicles Anna's thoughts and feelings as her brother recovers, calling for her whenever she's out of sight when he regains consciousness and seeming terrified to be separated from her.
It's fairly clear to the player that Hans has suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of his fall, even if young Anna in the 1930s doesn't know how to describe it. Hans speaks much less often and in fragments, has difficulty with motor control, and is slow to respond to stimulous, often sitting blankly. His only activity is an obsessive desire to draw all the time, and while his scrawls appear to be meaningless scribbles to everyone else, Anna recognizes that he's trying to draw what he saw in the cave, an image of a mammoth.
The rest of this story just gets sadder and more awful as it goes on. Hans is eventually pronounced recovered, but he never regains all his faculties; Anna says when he turns eleven years old that she feels he lost five years instead of gaining one, an ableist way of referring to such an injury but one that makes sense for a child in the 1930s trying to describe the change in her brother. The doctor pronounces Hans permanently mentally and physically "stunted", and their father immediately starts using the slur "r****d" for him, which is unfortunately only a prelude of what's coming. Their father becomes more and more abusive and angry, seeing his only son and heir as "flawed", and Anna begins to have to try to protect Hans from him full-time as he tries to force the poor kid to take up his mantle anyway.
Poor Anna, who was only fourteen when the accident happened, blames herself for both Hans' injury and their father's hatred and abuse, which gets worse as he starts forcing Hans to go to the factory and work every day, demanding he train to take over even though the noise and movement of the machines and people terrify Hans and he obviously can't handle his father's finances. It's a sadly touching scene when, a couple of years after the accident, Hans successfully makes his own first few little automatons: tiny mechanical mammoths that can raise their little trunks, which Anna accepts as a gift from him and writes triumphantly in her journal is proof that their father shouldn't have used that awful word to describe him.
If you're wondering about Hans' perspective in all this... I'm sorry to say that you won't get it here. Like Momo, Hans is an object: his disability is studied, discussed, pitied, abused, but he is not treated as an individual. We don't get to find out what he thinks about what happened or what he remembers of his accident. We don't know how he adjusts to his new circumstances or what he thinks about his career and his talents. The only things we ever find out about Hans are filtered through other people, Anna here the first: they'll tell us about what a genius he is, how he doesn't deserve to be mistreated, how weird and confusing he is, what things make it obvious that he's disabled, what his most obvious passions are, but we'll never actually get to hear what Hans might have to say.
This is what I mean when I say that this game tries so hard to engage with the idea of disability, but it misses the mark. It's clear that Hans' father and everyone else who mistreats and abuses Hans are in the wrong - but the narrative ignores and erases Hans himself, too, as if his perspective and thoughts don't matter anymore because of his injury. He's a plot device instead of a person; we know more about the emotions and journey of his sister and father, both dead before the game begins, than we do about him. Like Momo, he is treated as an object to be acted upon and investigated, but never as a person in his own right, and that's both sad and frustrating.
There's also an ugly undercurrent of disability exceptionalism running through this game, typified in Anna's triumph over the mammoth toys. There's a strong idea that Hans might have changed because of his accident, but he's still worthwhile because he's a genius - see, he can make these wonderful things and do these amazing tasks! This suggests that if Hans weren't a savant, if he had suffered a TBI that made him incapable of taking over his father's legacy or making these beautiful things, if he had been unable to do anything that his family considered valuable, that he would have been a burden, unsalvageable, as if as a disabled person he has to present an argument for why he still matters and should be treated well. When Anna says, "Aha, see? He can make these amazing automatons, you shouldn't have called him that slur!", the implication is that if Hans hadn't been able to do amazing things in spite of his disability, then the slur would have been justified. In other words, Hans is a "good" disabled person because he can still do stuff other people are impressed by, and that means those who aren't... well, we don't talk about them, do we?
Combined with the way his father treats him, the game treads perilously close to suggesting that abusing a disabled child is understandable if they really are "useless", in spite of its efforts to say the opposite, and that is something you REALLY do not need to put more of out into the world.
As Anna notes above, Hans' genius appears confined to doing the things he wants to do: he'll make mammoth automatons of increasing complexity, but he won't do anything else, culminating in his father assaulting him in a rage and beginning to force him to do "gainful" work at the factory instead. The lack of information about what Hans is going through is really stark in this section; Anna keeps saying things like "it seems like it worked" when Hans suddenly begins complying with his father, leaving us wondering what happened, why he changed his behavior, and whether we're not wishing insufficent horrors on his shitbag of a father yet. Hans starts working in the factory and promptly redesigns its entire assembly line system because it's inefficient, which suggests that his facility with machines is broad in scope, just narrow in interest.
Anna's father wants her to go to college, now that she's eighteen and just knocking around his house, and it's heartbreaking to watch her torn between wanting to escape this misery and experience new things but also being terrified about what might happen to Hans (now fifteen) if she's gone and no longer able to help protect him from their father. When she asks Hans about it, he says nothing, but the image of her coming back to her room later and discovering that someone has broken the little mammoth he made for her is especially heart-rending.
And then when she goes to college, she stops writing, picking back up four years later in 1937, and once again, holy shit, the fact that we have no idea what happened to Hans or what he thought or felt or how he coped during this time is GLARING. (So is the fact that we don't know what happened to Anna during this time, either. I don't even know what she studied at college. If Hans is invisibled because of his disability, Anna is treated as an adjunct to this story; her only job is to tell us about Hans, so her life and thoughts separate from him don't matter and aren't mentioned. We'll never find out who Anna actually is; she's Hans' sister. That's all.)
In her absence, Hans has been doing some more compassionate engineering, fully outfitting their kitchen with automation so that their cook and nanny don't have to work so hard, and he now spends all his time at the factory, not surprising when he'd otherwise be alone with their father at home. After seeing that Hans' inventions are revitalizing the place, Anna starts doing the paperwork at the factory for her father, once again falling right back into her role to insulate the two from one another; it's painful to see her feel that, for the first time ever, the three of them are really a family, united through the factory even though they almost never interact.
In 1938, Hans tells Anna that he wants to leave. She's shocked and betrayed, but understands that he's about to turn eighteen and this is finally his chance to escape their father's oppression once and for all. She tries so, so hard to break it safely to said father in a way that won't cause an explosion, but that doesn't work on abusive parents, and he flips out and has Hans literally imprisoned in his workshop, refusing to let him out until he agrees to stay permanently and run the factory.
It's a beautiful little Phantom-flavored aside when Anna receives a music box from their nanny, who smuggled it out of the workshop for Hans to give to her. It allows him to write her songs which are messages, causing the little automatons on the box to act and speak differently depending on which cylinder she inserts; in a very real and concrete way, Hans can only communicate through music, and he does so only to Anna, his sister and the one person in the world he trusts. Every automaton he makes her is literally a song; every piece of music he writes is literally for her and her alone.
We've seen Phantoms who were a father to Christine or at least in the father role (the 1943 Lubin/Rains film is the most obvious), and we've seen Phantoms who were purely interested in her romantically, but this is the first time we have an obvious analogue to the Phantom and Christine who are brother and sister. Hans, hated and mistreated and misunderstood because of a disability he cannot control, is an obvious parallel to the Phantom, creating mechanical marvels that literally run on music, offering his music and his creations as the only things he can do that a hostile world doesn't revile him for, giving them as gifts to the woman who is his only link to humanity and whom he loves above all others. And Anna is an obvious parallel to Christine, receiving his gifts and holding them in trust, creating beautiful music herself - the automatons she builds from the plans he gives her - that came from him as the original source, and acting as his "voice" to a world that wouldn't hear him otherwise.
In other words, it's beautiful. This is an absolutely gorgeous interpretation of that relationship at its best moments, and although we'll get the horrifying off-the-rails version later, it's separate from this one. The game in effect gives us Hans and Anna as the Phantom and Christine at their most beautifully symbiotic, in a relationship where neither is being hurt by the other, and peels off the controlling, terrorizing problems of the original relationship for a later pair that will parallel it for us as well.
Anyway, Hans plans his escape as if it were just another game, a puzzle to solve like a machine's interlocking parts, and he's gone within a few months. Anna's father blames her, even though she didn't break him out, and continues being an absolute nightmare by deciding to hold a funeral for his son less than a week later. He convinces everyone in town except for her that Hans died of his weak constitution and buries an empty casket, and Anna isn't even allowed to attend the fake funeral, since her father knows she could blow the secret. Although Anna is often conflicted about her father - in fact, she had already decided not to tell anyone Hans was alive because at this point she's afraid her father would commit suicide if she exposed him - the narrative doesn't try to pretend that literally anything he does is okay and that's for the best, because I would have gone supernova. He is an excellent portrait of an abusive parent who is abusive more than just physically: from his confinement of his son to his financial and social control over their situation to his emotional abuse of both his children, he's the fucking worst.
And that's the end of the diary. It's 1938, and Anna is twenty-two years old, and she never left home again. She thought briefly about escaping, but as her father deteriorated, she decided to stay and run the factory for him, and in the end, she knew that Hans would send her his songs which are machines which are messages, and she couldn't bear to leave and miss receiving them at the one place he knew she'd always be. Anna's entire life is a tragedy, destroyed by her brother's accident in their youth and then her father's unrelenting abuse, and the game actually feeds into that by pointing out that it's sad but remaining complicit in it, never telling us what else she might have wanted, who she was, or anything about her that wasn't centered around the men in her life.
So... at this point in the review, I have written more about this diary than about anything else, even including my dislike of the game's mechanical style. That's because the diary is the only part of the game that has been truly engaging so far, bringing us Anna's well-written and heartbreaking story and acting as a deeply interesting mood- and plot-setter that doesn't tell the player too much.
But here's the problem: that's a book. We just read a book. Pull it out of this game, read it on its own, and how much did you really lose of this experience? Not much. The background scenery is nice, but you don't really get to engage with anything. Yeah, I now know this very attic was Anna's refuge from her father (so that's why the diary is up here!), but I still know nothing else about her and I'll never learn it. There is no interaction.
I LOVE this diary. I want to find out more. But if I'm just going to read a story, why am I playing a game? What is the game adding to that story by letting me reach out and be a part of it? And that's where my complaints about the game's lack of interactivity come in again, because if I were able to examine and explore this world, I might feel more like I already am a part of it. Instead, I feel like I'm a person sitting at a computer, trying to push the right buttons to be allowed to read something I would have enjoyed more if it had just been available in print in the first place. That's a design failure.
ANYWAY, back to the game, where Momo pops up in the attic - I guess he can get in and out of the house, as Anna's friend/ward - and we have to suffer through some more excruciating dialogue with him in which whomever was writing it had no idea how to write dialogue for a developmentally disabled character and clearly didn't care. His most interesting statement is when he says that Anna is "on a journey", which supports my theory that she might be still alive, having finally decided to sell the factory, fake her own death, and go looking for Hans. I want this to be true. I want Anna to get to determine her own goddamn fate, even if she waited until she was an octogenarian to do it.
Momo, I suppose to remind the player that he's meant to resemble Hans, demands that we draw him a picture of a mammoth before he'll show us the way to his "secret", whatever that is (I'm uncomfortable). Thankfully, the game lets us find a carving of a mammoth on the wall to rub charcoal over.
Trust me, as a person who is wildly drawing-talent-poor, I appreciate that they didn't say, "Just fucking draw a mammoth with your mouse." That is a thing that could have happened and I was spared.
Once we do get Momo his drawing, he runs off and we get to follow him through, again, a lot of screens where you can't do anything but look at the scenery as we look for him. He only pops up at areas that are crossroads with more than one direction to go, which really just highlights how many other screens are single-destination, move it along, player. Momo unlocks the gate at the edge of town to let me go over the canal bridges and up into the mountains, a direction previously closed to me.
Man, you KNOW that in 2002 they were SO PROUD of that water ripple and reflection effect on this 3D engine. That was cutting edge at the time.
Kate now gets to climb a mountain, which the game does a good job of showing off with vertiginous angles of trees and a LOT of stairs and inclines.
Which is all really nice! The art has a lovely fairytale, storybook feel to it, as if Kate were climbing out of Valadilene and into the pages of the Grimm brothers' horrific tales.
But do you notice that I'm not saying anything in between all these beautiful screenshots of lovingly designed landscapes?
That's because there's nothing to say. This is five entire screens of empty scenery that cannot be interacted with in any way except visually, and in which there is no input from the game whatsoever. You're just walking. You just walk between screens. And now that you've done it once, welcome to the frustration of waiting through all these screens every time you need to walk back down to the goddamn town.
Momo has led Kate to a cave in the mountains - THE cave, the one where Hans suffered his childhood injury, which obviously Kate needs to investigate for reasons that are not clear in her lawyer goals (but, I mean, I do want to, so I'm not going to argue with her). There's some definite tugging at the heartstrings when Momo tells Kate that he's showing it to her because she's nice and not angry with him all the time, suggesting that he gets a lot of abuse from everyone else, but his characterization remains a conglomerate stereotype and Kate's lines are all condescening bullshit. There's a creek between the shore where Kate is standing and the cave, and apparently she's afraid of getting her feet wet, because even though it's still and slow and clearly not very deep, I now have to figure out how to divert the damn thing before she'll agree to cross to it.
I remain hugely unamused when Kate asks Momo for help turning the mechanism to open the dam and he promptly breaks it, yet another ugly stereotype about developmental disabilities and people with them having unmoderated brute strength. Come on, game. But that was just priming me to get truly pissed when Kate finds an oar to replace the lever, but then won't pick it up because it's disgusting and covered in mud and algae... and then MAKES MOMO DO IT FOR HER. "Be a good boy and carry it for me"? WHAT THE FUCK, KATE.
He then immediately fucks off as soon as he's gotten the dam open for her, I guess because he's no longer useful to Kate and that's all we really care about with Momo, and I honestly am too full of rage to even care because that's better than watching Kate continue to use him like an item in her inventory. For fuck's sake. Adventure game protagonists frequently bamboozle, trick, or threaten characters into helping them - it's part of the genre - but there is such a thing as context and this was just ugly all the way around.
So now I'm left at the entrance to the cave of Hans' misfortune.
This looks exactly like the kind of place that children should not go because they will be eaten by a Brian Froud troll.
Weirdly enough, what's getting to me in here is a lack of atmosphere? We lost the main music of Valadilene when we went up into the mountains, and while silence is a reasonable stylistic choice, for this area I really feel like there should have been some kind of subtle musical theme.
There are indeed cave paintings in here of people riding mammoths, and you can see the similarity to the one that Hans etched into the wood in his attic! That's really cool! Do you know what else would be cool? LETTING ME LOOK MORE CLOSELY AT THE CAVE PAINTINGS THAT STARTED ALL THIS OR IN FACT ANYTHING ABOUT THIS CAVE but guess what, I can't.
I appreciate that the column supporting the cave looks kind of like a mammoth's foot, and also that we find the toy mammoth Hans was trying to get all those years ago, but I'm too grumpy to appreciate it much.
Considering that the mammoth effigy was on top of a column and that's why Hans fell, trying to climb up to it, I'd like to know why it's now lying on the ground in this cave, but no one is ever going to tell me. It's not like someone else would have left it there. It's a prehistoric artifact. I guess maybe the implication is that Hans knocked it to the ground when he fell and in the ensuing chaos, it was just left behind? And then no one has ever been in the cave again since then, even though the adults of Valadilene would have had a great deal of motivation to at least close it up so kids wouldn't get hurt in there again and Momo has obviously been here before?
ANYWAY. Kate gets a phone call from a fellow lawyer and friend at her firm named Olivia, which is nice to give us some context about Kate herself - she has lady friends, she likes to go shopping at Bloomingdale's - but it's slightly undercut by the fact that Olivia is apparently only interested in travel and shopping, despite also being a lawyer, and has a very stereotypical bubble-headed voice. Also the fact that it's more passive storytelling, triggered without me even doing anything, and that's annoying at this point.
I tried to be responsible and lower the dam again after leaving the cave, since the locals clearly wanted the stream dammed and I could be fucking with peoples' electricity and stuff, but the developers didn't think about that so instead Kate is just being That Asshole American and leaving it where it is.
This is the point where I would honestly, legitimately have quit this game if I weren't playing it for this review. Which is really sad to say! I love games like this! And there are so many nice things about it - the ambience! the diary! But I was stone BORED by now, and life's short. I was literally sitting at my desk reading other books while waiting for Kate to slowly walk around static, uninteractive screens to get to actual objectives. (Naturally, the game has no walking speed controls. Sigh.)
To add insult to injury, when Kate has used something, the game doesn't bother making it uninteractive to make it clear that she can't use it again. It just has her say, "I don't need to do that again," like she has any fucking idea what's going on or how any of this works.
Anyway, we're finally at the Voralberg factory!
Interesting font choice for an industrial factory making automated people and inventions. Very "we hired a consultant at some point in the 1990s and they said it would make us look more hip and friendly."
The inside of the factory is even more terrifying-looking than the rest of Valadilene, which is saying a lot. There's some sort of horrific bird-faced battering ram staring out onto the floor. There are silent automated production lines filled with staring robots everywhere you turn. I am super all for the automation of labor whenever possible, but what on earth am I looking at?
Something's going to activate and grind me into meatpaste any second. Kate, they cannot POSSIBLY be paying you enough for this at your firm.
Unfortunately, I'm doing a lot of cheating in these areas by hovering my mouse over things just to see if it lights up, indicating something interactive, instead of trying to see what looks interactive. The color schemes and rendering inside the factory are all shades of very similar brown and grey, which makes it hard to not only distinguish things from each other but to even identify some of this stuff.
I mean, the automatons that could at any moment spring to life and murder me are fairly easy to identify, but everything else.
Somewhat dissonantly, a lot of this factory seems designed based on a Rube Goldberg principle of machinery. At one point, Kate has to pull on a chain, which causes a GIANT AUTOMATON HAMSTER to emerge from wherever it was, I don't know, doing whatever robot hamsters do, to begin running on a giant wheel, which started the waterwheel from the stream that started the factory having power again. Why not just have the chain start the waterwheel, you say? Because then we wouldn't have a GIANT AUTOMATON HAMSTER. At least we know Hans got to troll the shit out of his father when he was here.
It would be cosmic justice if the waterwheel didn't work because Kate left the dam open like an asshole, but of course this doesn't happen.
KATE. You are going to die a grisly death due to standing in places that are obviously designed for giant machines to smash you into goo. THAT'S A BAD PLACE TO STAND, KATE.
We have to pause in our terrifying adventure because Kate's mother is calling her, which is legitimate since moms do have a Worst Time to Call sensor in their brains. Apparently her mother is overbearing, but she's also FABULOUS. She's excited that Kate is in Europe, where she apparently loves to go on vacation, and is hearing absolutely none of this "I have to work, Ma," nonsense out of someone who could be seeing all the sights. She also wanted to tell Kate about how she's started dating a Russian opera singer who is going to take her all kinds of fancy places and basically, she's the best and I want her to call all the time. Kate does not, because she's in a nightmare factory right now.
After Kate starts operating factory vehicles without a license and we get to see a cargo-lifting automaton with a humanoid head, four arms, and nothing below the torso that will feature in my nightmares, we find THIS:
This game is not only slam-dunking us into the Uncanny Valley over and over, it's also really bringing in some body horror terror, since half these automatons look mostly human but then have like, missing body parts or something that LOOKS like a mutilation even if they're metal and don't care.
Kate is the worst decision-maker ever, because do you know what she did? She BROUGHT THAT THING DOWN, and then it SAT UP BY ITSELF ON THE TABLE AND IS JUST WAITING FOR HER TO COME CLOSER
Now that I've slightly calmed down, please meet Oscar. He's the most advanced humanoid automaton in existence, he tells us, and was only just recently designed by Hans and built by Anna, but she died and thus he's been hanging here with no feet since then. That's not horrifying at all, no sir. He just saw Anna 72 hours ago and now I have to explain the concept of death to an automaton and this is not what was on the frigging LSATs.
Oscar explains that automatons aren't robots, again, because automatons have an additional "soul auxiliary" that robots do not. This is just dropped into his conversation and never touched on again, but once again, I have SO MANY QUESTIONS. What the fuck is a "soul auxiliary" and how does someone build one? So they basically have souls and emotions? But then why do all the ones Kate has ever interacted with act completely blank and soulless? And automatons ALL have soul auxiliaries? So... all the ones surrounding us, right now, in this factory, are all ALIVE? They're just sitting here rusting away forever, welded to their assembly lines, with thoughts and feelings of their own? Why doesn't anyone care if this is common knowledge? How could Hans and Anna let this happen to their creations if they knew they were living? So can automatons have MORALS, then? Does this mean there can be good and evil automatons? Can we circle this back around to Automaton Jesus?
You can't just drop "automatons have souls" into the narrative and then LEAVE, writers. That affects the ENTIRE SETTING. I realize that it's probably just intended to humanize Oscar here and a few other automatons later with whom Kate will have conversations so that the player feels emotionally connected to them, but did no one think about what an actual HORROR STORY that makes this whole thing?
I'm even more mad about the lack of information on Automaton Jesus when Oscar says that, since he was created by Hans, he would "experience great metaphysical satisfaction" if he ever got to meet his creator. The robots have METAPHYSICAL CONCERNS but no, they're also fine being doorbells and no one has to think about this.
After fucking around with the control panels in the factory, because why not possibly cause a massive mechanical disaster especially now that I know that all these automatons may or may not be ALIVE AND HELPLESS TO STOP ME, I convince one of the assembly lines to spit out some feet for Oscar (after about a ZILLION TRIES because it's obnoxious and I can't tell if I did it right until he rejects them), and since I'm not about to make cautious choices about him now, I give them to him. Thankfully, he does not immediately get up and murder me as the opening salvo in the Automaton Revolution, but frankly I'm a little disappointed in him for that at this point.
I manage to find Anna's office in the factory, too, which in keeping with what we already know about Anna is a sad place. There's an unsent letter on her desk addressed to Hans, in which she calls him a genius and mentions she hasn't been feeling well, and she definitely menitons both working on Oscar and planning on selling the factory so that she can "go with the train". The train in question is a massive clockwork invention, again from Hans, that she's apparently been building and is almost ready to go:
I'm not going to lie, those blueprints are cool. I suspect train travel is in Kate's future.
There's also a pile of bills from various companies, some of them almost 100,000 francs in total, showing that the factory has been in the red for some time; Kate is shocked to discover this, because apparently the toy conglomerate buying the place had no idea. (I'm not going to feel sorry for you, evil toy monopoly.) I spend the rest of the time in Anna's office being torn between being pissed that I can't examine the giant portrait hanging over Anna's desk (it's probably her father, but I'll NEVER KNOW) and discovering that her music box player, the one Hans made for her, is still sitting on a shelf. Kate steals it along with a cylinder for it, which is terrible but at least Anna is dead so she can't be upset that someone is stealing her only means of communicating with her lost brother.
Anna notes in her writing, for the second time now, that Hans is averse to the written word; he doesn't like reading or writing and refuses to do either except in dire need. It's likely that this is a symptom of his TBI, which might have caused serious learning problems or difficulty in deciphering written letters. Instead, Anna makes her own songs to send back to him, the two of them exchanging cylinders over the years, so that he hears her voice mirrored back to him in the automatons just as she hears his in his gifts to her. Again, it's a lovely idea, Christine giving the Phantom back some of the music he gave her, and the idea of a Phantom who can only communicate via music is a potent one (and in line with Leroux's original, whose handwriting was childish and hard to decipher); but in the context of this game's story, it's also an all-too-easy handwave to justify never having to present anything directly in Hans' own words.
Naturally, I want to know more about this train, and Oscar explains that he was literally created to be its engineer - he's the last piece, and the train is ready to depart. Except, of course, for the fact that Oscar requires a ticket for the train, and also notarized permission that it has been inspected for safety and is ready to leave the station. Someone looked at the game market and thought, "Transportation notary persmissions sagas. That's what the people want!"
This is the first time Oscar will be absolutely aggravating, but it's not the last. In an interlude that is supposed to be cute but is far too annoying to pull it off, he leaves the train, sits around in the ticket booth as the ticketmaster, makes you properly buy a ticket from him, then gets back on the train and makes you properly present the ticket to him, but only after the train has permission to leave. It's a comedy bit that falls flat due to the massive annoyance the player feels being constantly stonewalled into figuring out what's missing, and while it obviously prevents the player from leaving Valadilene on the train when there are still things they're supposed to do there, it doesn't provide enough information or entertainment to justify itself. The player is just as bored and annoyed as Kate is, especially since there's no variation in the delivery or voice acting to actually make it funny.
After a LOT MORE WANDERING POINTLESSLY ABOUT, Kate finds the hidden confession of the priest who officiated at Hans' "funeral", which reveals that Anna told him that her brother wasn't dead and he feels bad about going through with it as a result. The really interesting part of this is when he mentions that Anna only told him in confession because she was in an accident at the factory and was nearly killed, something Anna definitely has not mentioned in any of her writing. So was that Anna's turning point, when she finally decided to leave, realizing she didn't want to die here? Did Hans come back when this happened, and if so, where is he now? What happened to her, and did it contribute to her death - or is she really dead at all?
Once again, I'm a foolish fool, because y'all, THERE WILL NEVER BE ANY FOLLOW-UP TO THAT. It was just a throwaway justification for why this priest could know when Anna refused to tell anyone, so please join me in being EVEN SALTIER THAN I ALREADY WAS.
Anyway, ringing the bells next to the organ-like tubes in the chapel tower (remember those?) plays some ominous music... and opens Hans' crypt. Naturally, as a lawyer, I should definitely physically go down there.
KATE, this is obviously not a normal crypt, and I wouldn't like going into a NORMAL crypt. What are you even doing?
The answer is that she's doing some graverobbing in the line of duty because OBVIOUSLY.
So yes, obviously, Hans' body isn't here because he clearly didn't die and his funeral was a sham. There is a voice cylinder in his coffin, however, which plays the story of the day he fell in the cave and was injured, which is a poignant thing to put in the coffin that buried the version of him that his father wanted. It's very neat that the game allows Kate to watch the cylinders play as they were supposed to, experiencing the communication that Hans sent to his sister, and that you can replay them on the train whenever you want in case you want to see it again.
This is a family crypt, by the way, which means that all the Voralbergs are buried here - including Anna, whose drawer is right above Hans'. I DESPERATELY want to open it and see if she's actually dead and if not what's in there, but this is Syberia, so instead I can't so much as get a message telling me not to for any reason, because fuck me and the spirit of adventure and exploration.
To add a little more insult to injury, which is something this game does well, I tried to push the coffin back in but, like the dam, the designers didn't anticipate anyone bothering to do that, so I guess Kate and I will just be leaving the crypt open with a yanked-out coffin wide open and looted so that the people of Valadilene can be aware of just how much Kate is the MAXIMUM AMOUNT OF AWFUL.
What the fuck ever, I'm getting on the goddamn art deco train. Oscar finally accepts my properly punched ticket and appropriately notarized border permissions and we're getting the hell out of here.
...or ARE we? Actually, hilariously, we travel a little while, and Kate falls asleep because it goes on forever (with oddly inspirational music, I think because Kate is On an Adventure), and I realize that Kate left her luggage at the hotel in Valadilene until the train stops. And we have finally arrived at...
THAT WAS ALL CHAPTER ONE.
Thankfully, the rest of the game's chapters aren't nearly as long as that one. Valadilene made up more than half of the playtime I spent on this game, even though there are five more chapters left, and the others move along more briskly, with more plot-relevant interactions and fewer screens that literally do nothing. Maybe there was just less excess concept art for the other areas that the team felt the need to shoehorn in.
The train has stopped in a station at Barrockstadt University, which is also located in Weird Not Quite Europe but probably pseudo-Germany or pseudo-Switzerland from the name and accents. Hilariously, it didn't break down, nor did it run out of fuel. It's a clockwork automaton train. It just... wound down, like an old-fashioned watch. It has to be wound up again. That's the world Kate is now living in. She's optimistic about it, guessing that maybe this stop is scheduled and Hans might have once lived here, or even still be here for her to try to get hold of.
Oscar, not wanting to give up being annoying, refuses to help with anything, claiming that the humidity here would cause him to rust. He's right in that it IS very humid since the train station is also in an aviary (I'd say that'll be explained later but to be honest, it's just happening; you'd think someone would have pointed out what bad design this is, since the iron girders and stuff are visibly rusting and the rare birds are prone to getting hit by fucking trains), but he's also a punk.
It turns out that there's a lot of giant mechanical winding stuff here in Barrockstadt, which gives Kate hope that maybe it won't be too hard to find some way to wind up her train after all. You know, that made sense in Valadilene, where the entire economy was built on automated machines, but what's this place's excuse? Who the fuck designed and built all this and why did the locals not stop them?
The answer, of course, is that Hans designed and built it, but the second question will never be addressed.
It's also weird that the university has the same feeling of being rotting, broken down, slowly decaying and falling into disrepair that Valadilene had. Again, the town had lost its entire economy and most of its citizens, but what's Barrockstadt's excuse? This is an active major university with a full faculty. We'll meet a lot of them, and some of the students, too. The game's concept of the entropy of time and the slow falling away of all built things is definitely neat and evocative, but I don't understand what it's doing here, as opposed to the other settings in the game. All three of the other places Kate goes have in-universe explanations for why they're the remnants of a bygone age, but the university here is just... underfunded? Unloved?
Weirdly, it almost seems like the university was actually defunct in some versions of this game's plot, and the result didn't quite match up the different versions. The stationmaster talks about it in the past tense, referring to its zoology, botany, and archaeology programs as if they no longer exist and asking eagerly if Kate is a student as if he doesn't see many of those, but later there will be other people around, including students. There's definitely a skeleton crowd compared to what a normal university would need to keep operating, but then again, how does this university operate? Does it have an endowment? Is it for-profit, which is much less common in Europe, and suffering due to low enrollment?
Basically, choose your own adventure, because the game won't tell you. Sometimes the setting work in this game is absolutely gorgeous, but sometimes it's this and also some robots having souls maybe. (Oh my god. Does the train have a soul? Is this train stuck sitting here, brain-dead while I look for a winding mechanism? This game is STRESSING ME OUT.)
This segment of the game is definitely the weirdest in terms of its logic, too, making me wonder if it was worked on by a slightly different team from the rest of the game. Some of the puzzles don't make much sense, such as the one in which several birds about the size of Kate's hand are hopping around at the foot of a ladder, and that means for some reason she can't climb the ladder until she gets rid of them. They're small and not apparently particularly aggressive, so there doesn't seem to be any reason she can't just flap her arms at them and shoo them off, but apparently it's more important that we APPEASE THE BIRDS.
Before getting to the university itself, we meet its first employee in the stationmaster, who is in charge of the train station full of birds and jungle wildlife and looks like a grizzled old sea captain, none of which is especially coherent. He's clearly up to something, since he gets weird and uncomfortable when Kate mentions being a lawyer investigating something, but the plot meanders a lot so that it's not clear what his problem is until much later. He seems to have both no experience or skill in dealing with the jungle or the birds of the aviary in spite of being in charge of it, and no idea how to operate half his own train station, and neither of those things is going to be addressed, either. I guess we just have to suspect some secret train station nepotism or something.
Since he clearly isn't used to seeing trains actually come to the train station and his job appears to primarily involve dealing with birds without any actual wildlife training, he doesn't fill the player with much confidence. It's very obvious that his explanation about the hardest part of his job being keeping interspecies harmony between a bunch of birds that apparently do not normally occupy the same biome is a setup for later puzzles, and the whole thing is not among the most satisfying segments of the game. (Some of this may be because a lot of this section is actually referential to another game, which is really fucking confusing when you haven't played that one, but we'll get to that in a minute.)
Anyway, after he finishes complaining that the automaton eagle the station has to hunt parasites and prevent cuckoos from destroying other species' reproductive rates is out of service, Kate gets tired of the guy and moves on, although not before he tells her ominously that she needs to move this train and that his "superiors" aren't going to be happy with her. There is a LOT of buildup about the leadership of the university, implying that it's dangerous to upset them and that some sort of shadowy cabal politics are going on that Kate won't want to run afoul of.
Down at the end of the station, which has a large watercourse running through it, Kate runs across an old couple in a barge, who are apparently delivering cargo to the university. Kate's attempts to convince them to use their barge to move her train for free are mostly overshadowed by how completely baffling it is that they are the only people in the entire game, which is set in Europe, who do not speak English; the wife translates for the husband, who doesn't appear to speak any English at all, and the wife herself speaks only brokenly. What's confusing about it, though, is that they're speaking bits and pieces of a whole bunch of different European languages. The husband says some lines in German, then others in Dutch or Portuguese, while the wife talks back to him in obvious Russian, and their accents are indeterminate stews of what Americans think of as vaguely Eastern European. This was SUPER confusing through the first half of their conversation, until I realized that it's another bit of the game's attempt to set everything in a nebulous pseudo-Europe that draws random bits of culture and language in without being firmly set anywhere in particular. It's still weird. Couldn't y'all have used Esperanto or Sim-speak or something?
It's a shame because the conversation deserves attention, because the barge-people are hilarious and possibly the best characters so far. When Kate says she's a lawyer, they respond by assuming she must make a lot of money, and when she tries to pull that classic upper-middle-class nonsense of "Oh, no, I don't make a lot of money...", they just make fun of her until she shuts up. Kate. They work on a barge. They haul crates and clearly live on their boat. You are a zillionaire compared to them and they are absolutely correct to make fun of you for arguing that you don't count as rich because you don't have gold-plated toilets.
Even better, they decide to charge her a hundred dollars to haul her train with their barge, which upsets Kate to no end. She has the gall to complain that it's not fair that they're going to charge her, because they already have the barge right next to the train and they could have just done it for free, and of all ridiculous things tells them that they should do her this favor out of "solidarity". They exercise great restraint in not throwing their cargo at her and just point out that as an American lawyer, a hundred dollars is chump change to her and they make their living off this boat so fuck off with your "solidarity of the people" bullshit. I love them and their willingness to be the only people in this whole game who will call Kate out on her bullshit.
Disgruntled, Kate stomps off to the rest of the station, where she encounters the command console that controls the locks and canal levels that allow barges in and out of the station.
The signs and information here are all in German, which just makes it more obvious that Barrockstadt, which has a clearly German name, is meant to be in Germany. So why put all that effort into having the voice actors speak European Stew if you're going to then put everything in German anyway? I'm begging you to make sense, worldbuilding.
At any rate, the console is broken, but it has a service number to call so that the game can use its cell phone mechanic again (as a side note, how is Kate charging her phone? It's 2002, that sucker will not last for days of travel on a train that is explicitly not electric or fuel-driven). That's all well and good, except...
...that the player is now experiencing the hell of an automated customer service line in real-time. I'm not kidding. It's complete with annoying menus full of choices that require you to hit buttons to get to other menus and a robot voice that (bewilderingly in English) neither hears nor cares what we want to do. And after struggling through all of that, the final result is that the automated voice tells Kate that the service line is out of operation and she'll have to wait 48 hours to be contacted for a follow-up.
I mean, I can't fault that as far as being a realistic depiction of what calling an automated help line is like, but I'm baffled about the decision to include it. Like the interlude where we had to figure out how to notarize documents before we were allowed to leave, I can't help wondering what was going on in that pitch meeting. Who was out there thinking, "Yes, what the people want is the experience of calling fucking Toshiba replicated lovingly in their entertainment and leisure time"?
ANYWAY, now that I can never get that part of my life back, it's time to leave the train station and go into the rest of the university.
I realize that this is another one of those moments when, as developers of an adventure game, people had to make sure that you went to the areas they designated for interaction and not randomly in directions that lead to the void of unscripted nothingness, but the fact that the entire university is surrounded by ominous black iron spike fencing, allowing people who leave the train station to go only into the university proper and nowhere else, is concerning.
They were visible from a distance, so it was obvious that we'd come to the right place, but the mammoth statues outside the university really are stunning. Behind them, you can also see a distant view of the saber-toothed lions that flank the front doors.
I'd like to talk about how this is an improbable university, since entire massive universities dedicated solely to one academic discipline, let alone one as niche as archaeology, really aren't particularly feasible, and about how the visuals of Kate at about a realistic size compared to the prehistoric monsters are really neat, and even about how this is a neat way of slowly easing us into the realization that Hans' interest in mammoths extended into his adulthood, far beyond his childhood drawings and toy-making. But I can't. And do you know why I can't? Because I'm being SEXUALLY HARASSED NOW.
Yes, Kate is sexually harassed at random by a student next to the front doors of the university, repeatedly and blatantly, if she talks to him or tries to engage with him in any way. He calls her demeaning names and propositions her, and aggravatingly enough, there aren't even any dialogue options; the player just has to sit there and read through him doing it, with no option to respond or end it early. I can hear people coming to defend this writing decision in the distance: Anne, they say, sometimes characters are unpleasant jerks, and characterizing him this way is part of the worldbuilding, too, so chill out, will you?
But I will not chill out, and there is a very good reason for it: there is NO REASON WHATSOEVER FOR THIS TO HAPPEN.
Arguably, there often isn't a great reason for readers or viewers to have to sit through women being sexually harassed in media, since it's not like it's showing anything groundbreaking or interesting and all too often just crosses the line into being gross titillation for male audience members and/or traumatic for female ones. But in this case, I mean it literally: there is no reason whatsoever for this to happen. I have now finished the game, and I can tell you that this dude outside the front doors doesn't matter in the slightest. He has nothing to do with anything. He has no relevance to the plot. He provides no information or contributions to any puzzles. As I noted above, you can't even talk to him, just be passively harassed. He literally exists for one reason and one reason only, and that's to sexually harass the female main character.
Hey, developers? Don't do this. At best, it says your imagination is so limited that you can come up with an alternate-Europe adventure romp where mammoths have survived extinction, but not a world where people aren't assholes to women for no good reason. At worst, it says that you think it's important to harass women even in fiction, either because you want to cater to gross people who do it in real life, remind women of their place, or both. There is no good outcome.
ANYWAY, now we're in the university and pretending that didn't happen as hard as we possibly can.
This place is suspiciously steampunk-y for not being Valadilene. Like, this is not a city with its economy and social structure built around robotics, so what's with the creepy industrial vents and weird fetish for building everything out of rusting iron?
The university hall looks more like a museum than a university, with prehistoric animals' skeletons on display everywhere, except that it would be tragically poorly laid-out for a museum, too. There's barely any room for human beings to walk without accidentally running into or knocking over these priceless skeletons, which even if they are reconstructions would be a massive tragedy. Look at those ungulate skeletons above; there are rooms in the walls RIGHT NEXT TO THEM, meaning you have to literally squeeze past them just to go about business as usual. This is a terrible way to design anything.
As you can see from the ground where Kate is standing, the logo of the university is literally the exact same drawing of a mammoth that Hans left in his attic, which was the same as the ancient cave painting in the mountains. This actually suggests that Hans himself might have founded the university, which would make its weird eccentricities and laser-point focus on ancient megafauna make fractionally more sense (although then we have to confront where on earth Hans got the money to endow a university of this size to keep running for decades), but later we're going to discover that that isn't the case. So... the logo is the same as the cave painting only Hans has ever seen just... because. Yeah, yeah, it's a visual motif in the game, but I'd still like it to make some in-universe sense. I suppose the same culture could have left similar cave paintings elsewhere in Europe that have been discovered and studied, and Hans happened to come here because he just happened to discover a university with the exact drawing that has defined his life as its logo? But even for The Lawyer Limbo: Do Androids Dream of Electric Lawsuits, that's a pretty big stretch.
I have now finally found the rectors of the university, who appear to be a ruling body of three old dudes with improbable moustaches who are sitting in state on a dais in their ceremonial robes, staring down at Kate like she's here to defend her thesis. They are pissed off at me, which is somewhat understandable considering that I landed a massive solid iron train on them and am refusing to move it on the grounds that I don't know how it works and have no plans for how to proceed. While they're weirdly aggressive about Kate not doing what they want and refer to this more than once as "deviant behavior", which is all sorts of red flags, they turn out to... not actually matter in the slightest? These dudes are not dangerous. They're annoying and you have to sit through long conversations with them where they argue amongst themselves in what I again assume the developers meant as comedy, but the promise of a shadowy, frightening authority that we got from the station master's fears is utterly squandered. There are no time limits and no consequences, they never make any credible threats, and Kate is more annoyed with them than afraid, which makes two of us.
In fact, the rectors are so over-the-top ridiculous that I wondered if they were the secret automatons I kept expeecting this game to deliver, squabbling and ridiculously attached to the rules but ultimately impotent. Unfortunately, no, because that would have been cool and there's nothing cool about these knuckleheads. Every scene with them is agonizing, making it almost not worth it to slog through it all to get the few clues about Hans having once been a student here. There's apparently a law school somewhere at this university (for... archaeological law?), which they encourage me to enroll in even though I JUST SAID I'M ALREADY A LAWYER. I HAVE A LAW DEGREE. I PASSED THE BAR.
The rectors dimly remember Hans as the student who enrolled, went to every lecture on paleontology and listened raptly, but also never passed a single exam and eventually left as mysteriously as he came. That tracks with Hans' aversion to the written word and special interest in prehistoric animals, and so does the fact that he apparently paid for his tuition in engineering, building the mechanical eagle in the aviary as well as a now broken-down automated bandstand for the university in exchange. It's neat to get some insight into Hans' activities after he left Valadilene; like most college students, he went to this university and seems to have used it to learn more about what he wanted to do in life, finally free from the shadow of his family and home. I could have done without the rectors fighting over whether Hans was a genius or a <insert ableist slur here> for half the conversation, though. I get it. He's a savant and isn't it just fascinating how he can be so incredible at some things but so deficient in others?! You're not helping your game be less of a mess on these issues right now, writers.
Hilariously, Kate does eventually manage to convince the rectors to pay the barge owners to move the train on the condition that she figure out how to fix the broken bandstand, which is a pretty good deal for them since it both restores their musical curiosity and gets rid of the train they're so annoyed about being stuck here. They all admit that most of Hans' inventions have broken down and that no one at the university has any idea how to operate or fix them, so they're just rusting away into infinity. Consider building in less obsolescence in your designs, Hans.
The rectors also talk on about the aviary some, confirming that ornithology is one of the university's specialties and name-dropping an "Alexandre Valembois" and some mentions of a poisoned chalice that are painfully obviously references to some other piece of media. It's not so much a cute Easter egg for fans as an annoying confusion for everyone else.
The library has an absolutely gorgeous design. From the sunburst stained-glass window to the golden Latin letters to the use of shadow and light, it creates a beautifully hushed and academic environment through visual art alone. The letters in the stained glass are the cardinal directions - in German, because again this place is OBVIOUSLY SET IN GERMANY but we're pretending that it isn't - and the Latin phrase Natura non facit saltus translates to "Nature does not make jumps", a phrase used a lot in the study of evolution to illustrate that changes to species come gradually over time rather than in sudden leaps and bounds. It's appropriate for a university dedicated to the study of ancient life forms and their progress. I wish I could tell you what the other Latin phrases around the library say, but while Kate can walk around and change angles, we never get all of them, so all I can say is that animi means "spirit" and doctus means "learned".
What Kate discovers in the library is not anything that seems like it would be related to what she's doing, but instead a book about exotic South American fungi, which is of course important because this is an adventure game and linking things together improbably is part of the genre.
Unfortunately, as you can tell if you squint at the screenshot above, it's also pretty profoundly racist, treating the native South American people like weird test subjects and attributing supernatural powers to them based on what mushrooms they eat. It's like all the worst racist parts of the Tarzan or Tintin stories distilled, which is unfortunate because I can see that the game is going for an old-fashioned adventure narrative in that style, but doesn't seem to be capable of pulling one off without also insisting on the colonialist framework of treating all distant countries as an exotic locale in need of the civilizing influence of white people and all native people who live there as savages requiring rescue and/or domestication.
By this point, it's inescapable that the game is obviously riffing on something else, which is really frustrating if, like me, you don't know what the hell it's referencing. I finally broke down and searched for it, and it turns out that this, as well as the rectors' references and various others scattered throughout the text, is a reference to the 1999 adventure game Amerzone: The Explorer's Legacy, which was developed by the same company a few years before. Just like this one, it's set in a world that is largely the same as this one but just fudged enough to mess around with, and the "Amerzone" is an obvious pseudo-Amazon Rainforest allowing the game to send its protagonist, the name-dropped Valembois, out to do jungle adventures.
This all kind of sucks, because I really like references in adventure games! They're absolutely one of the joys of the genre, which has always been kind of tongue-in-cheek and humorous about its own foibles. The problem here is that, unfortunately, the referencing has been done so heavily and with so little integration into the world of Syberia that it achieves its goal of delighting players who are familiar with the other game, but it confuses and alienates the ones who aren't. Amerzone and Syberia were not designed or conceived of as a series, so unfortunately their edges don't mesh very well and it shows.
So, similarly, Kate discovers that the annoying birds who won't let her climb the ladder are Amerzone Cuckoos and that they mostly eat Sauvignon grapes, which confusingly turn out to be a rare species of grape that grow only in the Amerzone and not, you know, actual Sauvignon grapes. (It's extra super duper confusing because they're also used to make wine and this is a major plot point, so I guess in this universe Sauvignon wines actually come from the Amazon? I DON'T KNOW.) So, obviously, it's off to find some grapes and get some birds drunk so I can go up a goddamn ladder. This game is so long.
The university really is mostly deserted; there are a few students in the library and the punk outside who harassed me, but it's largely dead, and the few we do see, like the sleeping fellow above, clearly aren't full of academic rigor. You can't argue with how beautiful the graphics are, though, especially for being a couple of decades old.
Kate finally manages to locate a faculty member, Dr. Cornelius Pons of the paleozoology department, whom she manages to insult in several ways because for a lawyer she really does not have the best social skills in the world. It is truly incredibly that she managed to find the guy in charge of the entire department of most relevance to her search and was then an ass to him, specifically.
Thankfully, he puts up with it, and we learn that he remembers Hans fondly (although not fondly enough to not call him "an odd ageless r****d", for fucking fuck's sake) and that they bonded over their shared interest in mammoths. He's extremely distressingly ableist about Hans beyond the slur, making it pretty clear that if Hans didn't make them useful machines and specifically share his special interest, he would never have deigned to be friends with him. He mentions that Hans talked about a mammoth doll a lot, which he didn't particularly understand but which we know is a reference to the one he tried to get right before his accident. Kate, not to be left out of being an asshole, gets in on the ableist fun by questioning whether Hans might have made all this up or been delusional, even though she is LITERALLY CARRYING THE MAMMOTH DOLL ON HER RIGHT NOW. OH MY GOD, YOU PEOPLE.
If that all wasn't enough (and it is MORE THAN ENOUGH), Dr. Pons insists on repeatedly using the word "evolution" instead of "growth" or "development" when talking about Hans, which the writers probably thought was clever but which just has the gross effect of suggesting that, due to his TBI, Hans is actually less evolved than everyone else and therefore literally sub-human. Ugh ugh ugh.
Dr. Pons also talks about "the legend of Syberia", the title of the game, a lot here, which is obviously a place, but which is confusing for the player because people also talk about Siberia and it takes a while to figure out that they're meant to be two entirely different places. (For the record, this is never actually explained; you just have to eventually figure it out.) Once Kate finally reveals that she has the prehistoric mammoth fetish, the professor takes it for study and promises to return it after inviting her to come to his lecture on the subject later, which we can only hope will finally have something useful in it.
ANYWAY, after escaping from that nightmare of a conversation, Kate goes to ask the station master about whether or not he knows about any Sauvignon grapes growing in the area, which causes him to get super weird and defensive and could not make it more obvious that he was making bootleg wine out of them if it were literally spelled out. It turns out that he, Dr. Pons, and the rectors have a small side business making the wine, which they insist is just for private consumption and therefore okay even though they are drinking one of the few examples of this critically endangered plant on the planet (apparently in this universe, Sauvignon grapes are vanishingly rare) and it is most definitely internationally illegal. Somehow, Kate the lawyer doesn't get anything out of discovering this except access to the grapes to feed them to the cuckoos, even thought she threatens them with litigation and being reported to the authorities, so we still have to work for our hundred dollars. It is amusing that the rectors end every conversation by declaring that it's time for tea, though. It's probably just lazy scripting, but it gives the player the impression that they just have tea eleven times a day, like hobbits.
In case things weren't preposterous enough yet, Dan calls again to whine some more about Kate not showing up to his business dinner because she's trapped in Germany with a broken train, and then her boss also calls wanting to know what is taking so long with her contract, and she's like, can't talk right now, brosephs, I have to repair a bunch of robots!
After finally managing to bribe the birds into letting her up the ladder, Kate finds the mechanical eagle that is supposed to be preventing the cuckoos from causing avian chaos throughout the aviary. Ironically, it's not working because birds have started nesting in its machinery, and of course the cuckoos have also sneaked some of their eggs in with the original ones, as cuckoos do. Kate steals one of the eggs, which weirdly turns out to be the key to Hans' broken-down bandstand, which implies that Hans himself put it up there at some point, which... doesn't make sense? I guess that the birds could have stolen it from wherever it was and put it up there, but why would they collect a heavy-ass metal egg and put it in a nest they were building for their own eggs? No, it's just nonsense writing, which is disappointing in a game that has a lot of really nice puzzles. This game really can't decide whether it wants to be immersive or weird, humorous or dark.
You know what else is disappointing? WE DON'T GET TO FIX THE EAGLE. The one automaton that has an important ecological function, and we just leave it there! You can't unjam it, remove the nest, or in any way help out the station master and his cuckoo-related woes. We can fix five thousand other robots over the course of this game, but not the eagle. This is avian discrimination.
No, that's not a Dalek in the basement of the bandstand; it's a gigantic music cylinder, the one that, when turned, causes the automaton musicians in the bandstand above to move and play. (I'm still kind of freaked out about the whole soul auxiliary thing, by the way. Have these musicians been sitting there, defunct but aware, for decades since Hans left? This game is one short step from being absolute nihilistic horror.) Once fixed, the bandstand doesn't play the usual sort of bandstand music, instead playing a melancholy violin song very in keeping with a machine built by a Phantom who hasn't been here in a while. It's lovely, but also somewhat questionable - this isn't exactly the sort of vibe most universities want in their public squares, is it?
Also, the game does not halt the background music when the bandstand starts playing, so any time you're in the university square, there's an even chance of a mildly clashing cacophany. Hilariously, the rectors proceed to pay Kate for repairing it entirely in coins.
I am ashamed to say that I KEPT talking to the fucking sexual harrassment guy because it was so wildly unreal to me that he was there just to be horrible for no reason. Surely not. That was clearly impossible. There had to be something he was actually for, some way that talking to him would be relevant to the game or that he would have something to help solve a puzzle. But no. I just listened to him spew gross garbage out of his pixellated mouth over and over again.
Kate's mom interrupts by calling her cell again, and the saga of her torrid affair with the opera singer is one of my favorite things about this game. Kate doesn't appreciate it, since she's still stressing about the train, but her mother is happily gushing about how she and the opera singer are definitely an item now and he took her to a fancy gala and he pulled her up on stage with him when he did his encore and she's just having too much fun for words. Considering that Kate is currently trying to figure out how to call this help line again in order to properly undo the locks on the canal to allow the barge through, it sounds like a lot more fun than what we, the players, are stuck doing. If you wondered, the answer to the puzzle is to listen to the choices offered in the phone menu, then to manually input them via the command panel here, which is somehow even less riveting than it sounds. Kate's mom fussing at her to dress warmly and find a nice vacation date is much more delightful.
I haven't complained about it in a hot minute, but another consequence of this game's insistence on including a whole bunch of screens of nothing but scenery is that guessing what to do next after solving a puzzle is agonizing. In this case, I had to try to figure out if I was supposed to go talk to the barge folks or Oscar the automaton first after getting the canal set up, and because I guessed wrong, I had to spend ten minutes walking back and forth through giant, cavernous areas of uninteractive wasteland. It punishes players for doing exactly what they're supposed to do in an adventure game - walking around and investigating - by making doing so a long, boring ordeal.
And speaking of punishments, stairs are the bane of my fucking existence in this game. You can speed up getting around a little by double-clicking to run instead of walking, but any time Kate encounters stairs, she abruptly stops and then animates walking slowly up them, pausing the game until she's finished. Every. Single. Time. And when you have an environment like this university, where there are ten staircases and you have to go up and down them all the time to get to various rooms, it's torture. The game has sacrificed ease of use for advanced animation of Kate, but unfortunately she doesn't look nearly good enough climbing the stairs to justify how tiring it is. I literally screamed with frustration several times when an errant misclick caused her to go up stairs I didn't even want to go up, which of course meant waiting through that and then also waiting through her climbing back down again.
Thankfully for my fraying patience, Dr. Pons is finally ready to give his lecture and explain what he learned from examining Hans' mammoth doll. Unfortunately, he does so by continuing the pulp adventure racism theme we've already touched on several times, this time by talking about the Youkol people, a northern Siberian people who are described in annoyingly exotified terms and are of course only attested in the writings of a white exporer who encountered them about a century ago, because god forbid we consider them real people or hear from them in their own words. The main point of introducing them is to explain that they are the people who left behind the cave paintings and mammoth fetish when they once ranged across much of Europe, and that if their artwork is to be taken literally, they tamed mammoths and used them as mounts and livestock.
The professor insists on describing the relationship between the Youkol people and the mammoths as symbiotic, which he should know better than to do as a frigging Ph.D. That's not what symbiotic means. The mammoths aren't getting anything out of this; they're being domesticated, not living in a mutually beneficial relationship where both use the other to survive. I'm pretty sure the mammoths were doing fine just pursuing their mammoth destiny.
I'm also severely offended by Dr. Pons' shitty, shitty anthropology. This man got his degree on the internet. He asserts that obviously the Youkol artwork depicting people riding mammoths means that they must have domesticated them, because "prehistoric man had no imagination, he could only depict what he saw," because, as everyone knows, the human imagination was invented in roughly 500 CE. Attesting that an entire ancient culture was clearly incapable of conceiving of things that weren't in front of them is not only racist because it's being applied to an indigenous northern Asian culture by a bunch of white scholars, it's demonstrably unfuckingtrue, as evidenced by all the other ancient cultures we know about. Homo neanderthalensis was holding funeral rites for the dead that clearly show signs of a concept of a theoretical afterlife three hundred thousand years ago. I need this game to shift gears into writing academic papers savaging Dr. Pons in scholarly journals for the rest of its play time immediately.
The plot here is obviously progressing toward the idea that the Youkol still have living mammoths that escaped extinction somewhere in the northern wastes of Siberia, even though Dr. Pons is advancing what he thinks is a more reasonable theory that they just have a large store of frozen mammoth carcasses that they've been mining for ivory and mammoth meat to export (???), but I can't focus on that because I've gone temporarily blind with rage due to the discussion of Youkol shaman religious leaders being "tribal charlatans" who are obviously full of ignorable shit, because obviously "primitive religions" aren't worthy of any respect or important or meaningful to the people who believe in them. This is so blatantly racist and offensive that I actually don't know what to say about it. I'm glad the Youkol people are an invented group for this game and I'm not watching this be applied to a real-life ethnic group, but that's barely a consolation when it's so clear that they're an intentional stand-in for actual real cultures that the writers clearly think these things about.
So, finally, the "legend of Syberia" is explained, which is basically that Syberia is a mythical island off the northern Arctic coast of Siberia where the Youkol have their cultural center and are keeping the last living mammoths, in case they were also missing an appropriate amount of Magical Primitive Culture markers to round out this horrible potpourri. I honestly don't know why the place is given the same name but a different spelling; that part is never explained. This could have been cute in a different format, maybe, or if the story actually did something with it? But as it is, it's just confusing and annoying.
There's an attempt near the end of the lecture at cultural sensitivity when Dr. Pons mentions that the Youkol are victims of Russian colonialism and have mostly assimilated at this point, losing their cultural connection to their ancestral practices. This is painted as sad in a general way, but it isn't engaged with, and the utterly tone-deaf ensuing labeling of the mythical Youkol of Syberia as the "last true Youkol" is especially egregious, assigning as it does cultural legitimacy only to literal folklore while outright attempting to take it away from people who have been affected by colonialism as if they no longer count or have any culture of their own.
Finally, the lecture draws to a close, and we are left breathless by how incredibly awful it was. You could be forgiven for literally thinking that it was an intentional satire on racism and colonial bullshit in anthropology and historical scholarship, but the entire thing is just played straight and I think part of my brain is actually bleeding.
Kate doesn't seem to notice any of this, but at least she decides it's finally time to leave, although she doesn't get far before Dan, still being the worst, calls her from New York again. She makes the interesting but questionable decision to tell him all about how she's traveling in a wind-up train engineered by a sapient automaton named Oscar, and predictably he thinks she's either cracking under the strain of her job or intentionally trolling him. Kate is getting noticeably tired of Dan's bullshit, but her response is to serve some right back at him, and now the player is just sitting around wishing they would hurry up and break up faster so we can stop watching this car crash in slow motion.
Speaking of Oscar, he's here to make sure none of us get any ideas about him not being a giant pain in the ass now that the train has been towed to get wound up and we're finally back in action. Would you like to know how far the train manages to travel before stopping this time? Would you?
ABOUT FIFTY FEET.
Yes, the train drives barely past the university grounds and then stops because there's a big fucking wall in its way at the border, and now we can't move on because Oscar is ONCE AGAIN insisting on the proper paperwork for liteally no one and the player is returning to the hell of getting administrative tasks done because they're playing a game whose idea of fun is navigating international customs with an undeclared robot.
I'm fairly certain Oscar's stubborn refusal to break any rules is meant to be endearing, even adorable. I am sorry to say that it is not.
The only way to get by is to get the border guard to sign off on it, and he's at the top of the wall, so it's time for Kate to climb into an ancient black tower where she is almost certainly going to die and no one will ever discover what happened to her.
VERY NORMAL AND CHILL, THANK YOU.
This game is usually pretty good about its graphics, but I literally could not find the border guard for a while. I actually couldn't see him because he was almost the same color and texture as the room he was standing in, and because he was busy staring motionless into the distance so there was no movement to alert me.
We've got more confusing timeline nonsense here when the guard, Captain Malatesta, tells us that he's been here at his post for thirty years and his father was there before that... but Hans clearly built, if not the wall itself, at least certainly some of the apparatuses attached to it such as the train-winding mechanism and telescope. It would be nice to theorize about Hans being some sort of actual supernatural Phantom, but we know he isn't, and when everyone is already being gross about his "lack of aging" due to his TBI having caused him growth abnormalities, it's not even as fun as it usually would have been.
So... the problem here is that the guard won't let me past because he won't let anyone past because he sees a bunch of lurking enemies - heavily coded as Cossacks but of course we're being vague because this is Sorta Europe - in the distance. When Kate looks through the telescope, however, she realizes that there are no enemies and he's seeing driftwood that kind of looks like it has the shape of a horseman, and the poor guy has broken his glasses and isn't aware that he's not looking at a real threat. This is sad, and it's especially sad because the game, in keeping with its abysmal track record when it comes to disability, seems to be trying to play this guy's nearsightedness and the fact that it's caused him a huge amount of anxiety and fear in the past for comedy.
So what is Kate's response to this? Well, it's logical. Obviously, she should butter him up by pretending she thinks he's of a higher rank than he is, hit on him, convince him to drink wine with her, and then fucking DRUG HIM by slipping some of the magic mushrooms from the university into his wine.
I don't know what the worst part of this is. Is it the baseline awfulness of drugging a man without his knowledge so that he'll do what she wants? Is it the fact that her ability to do so is based on the pseudo-magical ability of the mushrooms to give those who eat them supernaturally keen sight, which I complained about back when it first came up and was used as part of a shitty "magical primitive natives" trope? Is it the fact that she casually fucking wrecks this guy's perception of reality, forcing him to realize that he's been terrified for years for no reason, and doesn't give a single shit because she just wants to get her paper signed and in fact gets him to apologize to her? Is it the fact that the player is forced to either be complicit in this or quit forever, never to advance?
Or is it the fact that Kate knows perfectly well that the effects of the fungus are temporary? That's right. She drugs this man to temporarily restore his sight so that he'll let her pass, and then she leaves, knowing full well that the effects will wear off some time after she's gone and that he'll wake up with his sight impaired again with no warning or understanding of what's happened. And she doesn't give a shit. She doesn't even acknowledge it. She drugs him, she gets her paperwork signed, and she peaces right the fuck out of there, never to look back. She never tells him what happened to him, and she won't be there when it abruptly un-happens to him, either.
I REALLY HATE KATE SOMETIMES. WHAT THE FUCK.
The worst part is that this didn't need to happen, at ALL. The guy's broken glasses are right here on his desk - the player can see them! Why didn't Kate offer to repair them, something she should have been able to do easily (perhaps with Oscar's help), thus also helping him in the long run? Why didn't she try talking to him about what she saw through the telescope, like he was an adult who knows he's nearsighted instead of some kind of obstacle who had to be navigated around? If the fungus was truly the only option, why didn't she offer it to him, telling him how it worked, so he could decide to do it of his own free will?
The answer is that the game developers didn't care about any of that, so Kate doesn't, either. They wanted to have a more "fun", exotic puzzle involving a magic mushroom instead of a more "boring" one about fixing a pair of spectacles, so they made the solution to the puzzle unnecessarily complicated. They wanted to reference their previous game, so they brought in unneeded relics from it. They thought a man with a visual impairment was funny and that drugging him would be funnier still, so they encouraged the player to do that. They didn't think about the guard being a person in the context of the game, one who didn't deserve to be mistreated because of his disability, who didn't deserve to have his agency taken from him by being manipulated and drugged, and who didn't deserve the distressing consequences of the careless aftereffects of the situation, so Kate never thinks about that. He really is just an obstacle to the developers and so Kate treats him as such.
That's a tragedy, especially in a game that is trying so hard to have something to say about ableism.
And with the indefensible abuse of Captain Malatesta, we finally bring the second chapter of this game to a close.
I hope you're ready to embark on Cold War Anxiety Adventure: We Love Iron Automatons, Not Iron Curtains, because that's where this game is about to go. It quite literally dives directly into it by opening this chapter with Kate's train driving between the legs of a colossal automaton that straddles the railroad tracks, wielding the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union, and from the second she steps off the train onto the horrifying dark, dismal, and ominous industrial city of Komkolzgrad, you know this game is going to lean heavily on the idea of Soviet technology and industry as frightening and dangerous. I realize that the game is doing everything but having Communist Russian soldiers literally chasing Kate with guns to make the place seem hostile and horrific, but I actually really dig the aesthetic. In keeping with the rest of the game's focus on the crumbling remnants of defunct empires and forgotten technology, the remains of the collapsed Soviet Union here seem not only ominous but also sad, another example of a place where reaching for the stars failed and the resulting abandonment represents not just progress but lost hope.
Naturally, Oscar immediately refuses to leave the train and help out in any way, this time complaining that the "heavy metal miasma" of the place is so polluted that he's worried about corrosion to his delicate inner workings. I suppose this could just be part of a pattern of Oscar being a hypochondriac, but he doesn't seem to have any problem sending Kate out to figure out how to get the train (run down again) working again. Oscar, organic people also don't respond well to literal poisoning. Kate does not appear to notice this possibility at all. I'm starting to have doubts about her competence as a lawyer.
As we might expect, the Communist colossi - one at either end of the complex, both straddling the railway - are in fact enormous automatons built by Hans, who worked here for some time years ago when the factories were in full swing. This brings with it a lot of questions: why did Hans choose to work here? Did he have a choice? What are Hans' political leanings - did he believe in Communism and want to support the Soviet Union, or was this just a convenient place to tinker to him? How did people treat him? And, perhaps most pressingly of all, I really need an answer to this looming question of soul auxiliaries because I need to know exactly how freaked out I should be about the two silent iron giants staring down at me actually being alive.
In fact, this is the most important question in the universe as soon as Kate pulls a lever and I realize that the colossi are on wheels and with a shrieking groan like unto the horrific death pangs of an ancient beast one of them begins rolling down the railway toward me, slowly and inexorably while I try to figure out how to stop existing due to terror. (It turns out that Kate is able to climb up in to the titan's head and pilot it around, which is absolutely terrifyingly cool but I cannot understand how no one thought that piloting a decaying titanic automaton across an abandoned Soviet industrial landscape was going to be anything but pants-soilingly frightening.)
Of course, the places to go away from the monstrous sickle-wielding giants are not a lot better. Sure, Kate, let's get into that ancient and obviously dilapidated elevator down into the earth. Why NOT?
(This is why not.)
Finding some of Hans' blueprints for the colossi confirms that yes, he did work here willingly for the Soviet Union; he was designing automatons to take over menial labor jobs so that citizens didn't have to do them, which is pretty amazing and exactly the sort of idealistic project that the guy who preferred building toys and disability aids to more "useful" projects would be attracted to. It's interesting to see this little bit of pro-Communist sentiment in what is otherwise a very obviously anti-Communist, anti-Soviet segment of the game, reinforced around here by literal imagery of dictator Joseph Stalin as Kate worries that Hans might have been in danger being here. I can't tell if it's an attempt at a nuanced look at the politics of Communism both in theory and in practice, or if there was dissension among the ranks of the writers.
Kate is now in an ABANDONED MINE beneath an ABANDONED FACTORY and while her fiancé Dan is still obviously a turd, it's hard not to be on his side when he calls her, she tells him this, he panics, and then she just tells him she's busy in a weirdly blasé sort of way and then HANGS UP ON HIM. Kate, I know Dan sucks, but I feel like telling your fiancé you're in mortal danger and then refusing to talk to him any more afterward for no other reason than that he's inconvenient, leaving him to stew in terror, might be a bit much.
In perhaps the only developer trick to stop Kate from exploring things that I actively bless, she can't go any further into the mine without figuring out how to get some light in there because it's too dark, so for once I don't mind the foray into the oh-so-fascinating world of amateur electrician skills.
Kate actually gets the train wound up fairly quickly, which is a nice narrative choice; you'd think that means she's ready to leave... except it absolutely does not, because as she goes to re-embark, a shadowy figure, hunched and concealing something, runs out of the train and disappears into the factory. EXCELLENT WAY TO DISCOVER SHE IS NOT ALONE IN THIS ABANDONED HORRORSHOW, THANK YOU.
At first, I thought it was Oscar, about to embark on whatever nefarious automaton uprising plot I always knew he was planning. Then I thought perhaps it was Hans; was it possible that he never left the factory, remaining here, brooding in the dark, for years?
But it's definitely not Oscar, because the game doubles down on its continuing habit of presenting things that are absolute nightmare fuel and then pretending like they're no big deal and reveals that Oscar is bound and gagged on the train, and that we're not going anywhere because the mysterious figure HACKED HIS HANDS OFF AND STOLE THEM. OH MY GOD. Somehow, Kate responds to this by being aggravated and pissy with Oscar like she's auditioning to be the villain in a movie about human beings being assholes to robots until the inevitable revolution, and for the first and only time in this game I am intensely supportive of Oscar when he finally calls her out on it. An intruder just attacked him and SAWED OFF HIS HANDS, KATE. I don't care if he doesn't feel physical nervous system pain, can you muster like one ounce of sympathy for the incredible body horror and existential dread of that?
Oscar unfortunately didn't get a good look at his assailant, who he describes as having "metal teeth" and "scaly skin", which implies that it's perhaps another automaton. This part of the game is tailor-made for the horror of a rogue automaton, probably corroded and maybe whatever the automaton equivalent of traumatically ill is, left behind when the factory closed and raiding other robots just to try to keep itself running. Once again, this is absolutely a horror game that somehow its marketing team, designers, and fanbase insist is actually about adventurous explanation and action and not about the chilling dread of now searching for an unkillable, possibly murderous sentient being created by someone else that is prone to removing body parts for its own secret reasons.
THINGS ARE GOING GREAT HERE IN PRETEND RUSSIA.
They really do not improve on the upper floors of the factory, which Kate manages to get into via a very neat and clever sequence of having to climb up the legs of the giant colossi and use metal shears to rip open the wall on the second floor before crawling inside. Everything looks like that image up above. It's all abandoned, industrial, horrific, and shadowed so that there could be anyone or anything around any corner.
Being Kate, she reasons that the empty factory is way less fun than going back down into the trackless mine, so after fixing the electricity - which also causes a closed-circuit television array to turn on, crackling with static, which I'm sure will in no way be a plot point later - she heads down into the underground. In the distance, she sees another one of those arrays of steam-pipes that keep popping up that look like organs...
...but this time, it doesn't just look like an organ. It is one.
This chapter of the game is where the Phantom influence becomes really overt, and oddly enough, it also doubles itself, introducing a second, more obvious Phantom-related plot that overlays the story of Hans and Anna. I can't decide, even via guessing, why this happened. Did the designers feel that Hans' and Anna's story wasn't overt enough and needed a more explicit retelling to offset it, bringing its themes forward? Did the team have two different interpretations of the Phantom story and just decide to go, "Fuck it, let's do them both!"? Was this admittedly very episodic game originally more than one game and the two were smushed together for reasons of budgeting or studio politics? Are the Phantom themes in Hans' and Anna's story completely concocted by me, a person used to analyzing media in such a way as to look for connections to that particular story?
I really don't know, but we have an underground pipe organ played by an automaton and things are only going to get more obviously based on the Phantom story from here on out. Please join me in marveling at how creepy it is that the organ-playing automaton never moves or acknowledges Kate's presence, once again leaving us questioning whether it is ensouled or sentient or just a hollow shell, and what either option means. (You can also join me in being grumpy about the fact that this screenshot above is, with the exception of the very obviously-placed screwdriver for Kate to pick up, completely for visual flavor only. There is no way to interact with or attempt to learn about it in any way except for looking at it. SIGH.)
And then Kate finally finds the control room, where she encounters an automaton that is sitting alone, its back to her, nodding and rocking while it watches all those CCTV monitors, a singularly horrific image. And then it turns around and starts talking to her, and she's met the Phantom.
So, here's the thing. This is Serguei Borodine, and he is, apparently, actually not an automaton. Or maybe he is. It's actually very difficult to tell, which you'd think would lead to some interesting things but, like many other possibilities in this game, ends in frustration. He is wearing a mask that appears to be as iron and riveted as any other automaton's face with glass goggles in place of eyes, but he claims to be the "director of the city", the foreman who was in charge of all of this when it was still operational and valuable, who never left when it was abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. He's been living here alone, he says, in a city with no food or commerce or contact with the outside world, for decades, converting the factory into what he calls a "magical theater", using its massive array of steam pipes and mechanisms to make the entire building into one mammoth pipe organ.
So here's the question: is Serguei human, or is he an automaton?
The game doesn't engage with this at all. It treats him as if he is human, with Kate never explicitly calling him an automaton, and given the 2002 graphics (and the generally poorer quality graphics of the moving character models, at that), it's very hard to tell if he's visually supposed to look like a human or an automaton. His chin looks kinda fleshy, but his hands look like terrifying metal talons. He has technical know-how that could come from being the director of a factory, or could come from being an automaton himself. You could argue that if he were an automaton, he shouldn't have the soon-to-be-revealed overwhelming obsession with an opera singer that is going to ruin everyone's lives, but on the other hand, Oscar explicitly told us that automatons have their "soul auxiliaries", and Oscar himself seems to have some sort of emotion and concept of the metaphysical. You could argue that he couldn't possibly be alive decades after the factory collapsed and the entire place was abandoned far from all other human beings, living alone with no way to sustain himself, but on the other hand, the writers have demonstrated that they can't be bothered with things like logistics (anyone want to know how often Kate eats or showers over this multi-week journey of hers? it's never). You could argue that he coughs and clutches his chest sometimes, indicating he's a human being with a human ailment, but on the other hand, Oscar already pointed out that the poisonous atmosphere of the factory could cause similar problems for automatons. You could argue that nothing says that the director of the factories had to be human and he might be an automaton that ran the place still doing his job, but on the other hand, it's hard to imagine the Soviet Union leaving a robot in charge of an important industrial site without human oversight.
We don't know, so pick your poison. Personally, I think the story is more poignant if Serguei is an automaton. It puts a face on the technological decay the game has used throughout, bringing in the idea of the automatons as having souls and asking the difficult questions of what that means for them if they outlive their "usefulness" or humanity otherwise abandons them, and what kinds of passions such a being might have when left to their own devices. It also follows the themes of Leroux's novel closely, positioning the Phantom as a character created in his villainous form by the cruelty and neglect of other people who considered him beneath them, and makes his reaching for his Christine, a representative of the best of humanity that he knows he can never be part of, all the more heart-rending.
But it could go either way. It could even be that Serguei is an android of sorts, having begun grafting automaton parts onto himself somehow in his decades of isolation at the factory, although I don't think that's as likely just because I can't imagine the game developers including a human/automaton hybrid in this game and then not commenting on it. Serguei is in many ways an unfinished character; we also never find out why he's wearing his bizarre mask or who he was before he became the head of this factory city. His existence begins and ends with his role as the Phantom - which is, of course, another parallel to the novel he's based on.
For every Phantom there must be a Christine, and we know one is coming because Serguei cannot go five words without referring worshipfully to a mysterious "her". Everything he has done is for her. The theater was created for her and no one else to sing in. The great organ was created only to accompany her. She is the world's greatest singer and oh, to hear her sing one more time! It's all very familiar (although not to Kate, who justifiably doesn't know what's going on or want any part in it).
"She" is Helena Romanski, it turns out, a world-famous opera star of some years ago who once visited Komkolzgrad in its heyday and sang for the workers as a grateful thank you from the people of the Soviet Union to those who were laboring to help support them. Serguei passionately insists that hearing her "saved his soul" and is the only reason his life has any meaning (again: isn't that neater if it comes from an automaton experiencing its first emotional awakening and going apeshit over it?). He spent the rest of his career trying to perform so well at the factory that she would return to sing for them again, and when Komkolzgrad was abandoned, he refused to leave, spending the intervening years turning it into a shrine in her honor and her ultimate stage, dedicating his life solely to preparing for her to come back and sing for him one more time.
This is obviously different from Leroux's story in one key area: Helena has no idea that she has her very own factory ghost out there, spending years and years obsessing over her and building things in her honor. She never did. She performed here once, as she probably did at countless other sites during her storied career, and if she remembers being here at all, she probably wouldn't remember the director. And that's assuming that she's even still alive and active; Serguei assumes that she must be because his entire universe would collapse if he didn't, but he has no information about the outside world and no idea where she went or what she did after the city was shut down and he no longer had access to the news.
In a way, this is actually even more terrifying than the original setup. Imagine that someone is unbelievably shrine-buildingly obsessed with you after meeting you once thirty years ago, and now imagine that their existence and any possible actions they might take are a complete mystery to you until the exact moment that they crash into your life. At least Christine was already somewhat comfortable with the idea of the supernatural and knew there was someone she was talking to and interacting with. Helena is just out there trying to live her life somewhere.
So now that we know all this, that's where this utterly bananas plot is going: Serguei is the one who stole Oscar's hands, because he needed the most advanced automaton hands in existence in order for his organ-playing automaton to be able to do the instrument, and Helena, justice. (He outright says he isn't a good enough automaton engineer to figure out how to make any on his own, so sorry, everyone who was banking on Serguei secretly being Hans, that theory's shot now.) He'll happily give them back... but he can't until after Helena comes back and sings for him, because obviously, otherwise there would be no point. So if Kate will just go find Helena and bring her here for him, he'll give back the hands afterward and she can leave with her train.
KATE AGREES TO THIS.
KATE. WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING.
This is an even bigger and more bafflingly awful version of the earlier interlude with poor Captain Malatesta. I can understand Kate agreeing to get this obviously dangerous and frightening person she's currently trapped alone with to let her go, but she actually means it, and furthermore will go through with this plan later when there is no pressing reason that she has to. It's not like she doesn't have options here; Seguei will provide her with a way to leave Komkolzgrad and go somewhere with actual people, so she could have done any number of other things. She could have rescued Oscar and taken him with her, hopefully finding him replacement hands in the interim while they look for his creator, who could almost certainly make him perfect new ones (or, if Oscar wouldn't accept that as he might not considering how he rejected several of Kate's attempts to make him feet, she could at least be understanding of his new trauma and disability and try to help him however he wanted her to). Once she was out among other people, she could have gotten the authorities to come and retrieve Serguei, who clearly needs help and, even if he doesn't, is also obviously trespassing in a highly dangerous condemned area, accosting travelers and stealing their property. She could even have called it quits here; this is WAY beyond the scope of her assignment for this toy company, and at this point it would be easy to tell her boss that, having done her due diligence and ended up STRANDED IN PSEUDO-RUSSIA as a result, for crying out loud, he could either declare that the sale can go through as planned now that Anna is dead or tell their client to start proceedings for declaring Hans to have relinquished his claim when they literally couldn't find him after ludicrous attempts to do so.
But Kate doesn't do any of those things. She doesn't even consider them. Instead, she decides to leave Oscar handless and alone in Komkolzgrad so that she can go find a retired old woman and drag her back here under largely false pretenses to be at the mercy of someone who is clearly dangerously obsessed with her. And she does this not because she has to, or because she's afraid of the consequences if she doesn't, or because she genuinely thinks it's a good idea. She does it for the purely selfish reason that she wants this train to go wherever it's going so she can see whatever's there. She long ago gave up really giving a shit about the toy company merger. She just wants her adventure, and she's willing to ruin Helena's life - perhaps even end it - to get it. Once again, the game's writing team wanted this to happen, so they wrote it as if it were a simple set of moving-pieces that lock together into a simple puzzle; but this puzzle is about a person's life and safety, and in ignoring that, they have completely destroyed their main character.
I realize that I've repeatedly opined that Dan sucks, because he does, but Kate is an amoral monster and he needs to dump her more for his own good than hers, at this point.
Naturally, Serguei has a creepy shrine - sorry, "personal museum" - to Helena in the depths of this abandoned factory, so Kate goes there to join him in being utterly creepy by stalking her once-removed in order to find out more about her and how she can kidnap her on his behalf. I have more questions, like how Serguei got hold of so many of Helena's CLOTHES, but I also kind of don't really want answers to them. I do want him to stop calling Kate "sweet lady", though. She may be an asshole, but that's no excuse for being gross to her (and to me, the player, by extension).
Kate sits around in here reading entire scrapbooks on Helena. She's going to know more about her than she does about anyone except for Hans when she finds her, but it all feels so much creepier than it did back when she was reading Anna's diary, because then she genuinely was trying to do her job and find a guy so she could give him his inheritance, and this... is not that.
You know what I really appreciate? Helena is not given a classically beautiful character design. Oh, she's very attractive and I love her, but she's given strong, classically Russian features, with a large down-turning nose, jutting chin, and wide ears, as well as being too skinny to be particularly voluptuous. It would have been easy - and lazy - to make her a standard video game bombshell in order to both "explain" why Serguei is so taken with her and also do some pandering to the player, but instead, she has a compelling, interesting, and more real-seeming character design that emphasizes that it really is her voice that the Phantom cares so much about. (Helena, when we meet her, also has a badass personality, but I don't think we need to spend much time pretending that's what he cares about.)
Included with the scrapbook are also over one hundred letters written by Serguei to Helena, each one returned to him unopened. This actually makes this even worse. Serguei has already been harassing this woman remotely for years, and she's already had to deal with that for all that time (whether or not she personally deals with any of that or is used to this kind of treatment due to being a celebrity is irrelevant; he's still fucking harassing her). Kate is now in the position of willfully helping a man harass and kidnap a woman he's been stalking, which means the player is required to do that in order to advance the game.
Game developers, I cannot stress this enough: if you are forcing your players to harass and/or assault women in order to win the game, you are writing a bad game.
The last entry in the scrapbook makes it unclear, after Helena's retirement, whether she's even still alive or if she is, if she's able to sing; like many other physical attributes, voices change and can become fragile or less flexible with age, especially now that she's retired and no longer constantly exercising it. It also mentions, however, that she often performed with a good friend and fellow opera singer named Franck... and that's one of the best ties between the character work and the actual plot in the whole game. Hey! Kate's mom is dating an opera singer named Franck! It's totally a ridiculous coincidence, of course, but at this point, who cares?
So Kate calls her mom on her cell phone (waking her up, because ha ha, time zones) to ask if she can find out if this is the same Franck, and indeed, it is! He says that he does know Helena, and that she retired to a seaside city named Aralbad to spend her twilight years, as she was in ailing health last time he saw her. The clues are the useful part, but the really delightful part is the interaction in which Kate's mother tells her to hang on and she'll wake Franck up to ask him, and Kate's brain bluescreens for a minute before she says, "...what?" Kate, your mom is a walking episode of Sex and the City and the fact that you haven't yet accepted this isn't doing you any favors.
Kate gets right on cementing my dislike of her by promptly telling Serguei where Helena is living; predictably, he's not really inhabiting reality about the whole situation, telling her about how Aralbad used to be a fancy spa resort city for celebrities but now it's run down and clearly Helena would be much happier here in his nightmare abandoned factory with him.
Perhaps sensing that Kate has overtaken him in my bad books, Dan calls again at this point, and while I appreciate that he opens the conversation with apologies for yelling at her in their previous conversation, he says a lot of douchey things about how she "put him in that state" and he doesn't understand because she's "usually so delightful". Get bent, Dan. Kate's friend Olivia (if you don't remember her, she's the fellow lawyer who loves to go shopping) calls shortly thereafter and the writing takes a sharp turn when it could not possibly be more obvious that Olivia (who tells Kate she's spending lots of time with Dan and asks her to stop "being so hard on him") and Dan are about to start having an affair if someone outright said it. Unfortunately, Kate doesn't appear to notice this, which doesn't say much about her acuity. This comes out of left field and is pretty clumsy from a writing perspective; it's an obvious move to sever Kate's ties to her life and home back in New York so she can continue gallivanting around Fake Europe without reservations, but there was no setup for it and poor Olivia will come off as increasingly shoeboxed into the situation.
I do have to pause to talk about something else in that conversation, though: Olivia tells Kate that she's changed. When Kate asks how, Olivia is vague, but she says something about how Kate is more confident and badass and so forth.
This is setup for the end of the game, but it's also some awful writing, and it's personally saddening to me because it's trying to do something good and just not actually executing it. It's clear that the game wants to position Kate as becoming more her authentic self over the course of her adventures; she's supposed to be gaining confidence and strength, realizing that there are things she cares about more than her job and Dan, and becoming an adventurous, self-reliant, powerful character. (As a nice side effect, the player gets to feel that way, too; since we're the ones piloting Kate around, we get to go, hey, yeah! I am awesome at problem-solving and investigation and confidence! Go me!) Those are great goals, and I wish we were in a story that actually accomplished them; that is, I wish the game actually showed us Kate becoming all those things and growing into herself as a character.
But it doesn't, and that's a tragedy. These are all informed attributes. Olivia says Kate is more confident, but Kate is the same amount of confident she's always been; she wasn't any more timid when she was talking to the people of Valadilene, fresh off the plane from New York and wide-eyed with culture shock, than she is now. Kate appears to be more independent and take-charge if we squint at her impatience with and eventual decision to ignore her boss, but her boss has been set up from day one to be an overbearing pain in the ass who asks the impossible, and we haven't gotten to see any progression in how she deals with him - she just does what he says until she decides one time not to, and that's it, no connective tissue in between to show us her inner journey. Kate is arguably more creative now than she was when she started, but at the same time she's frustratingly hidebound - yeah, she'll just bolt-cutter a wall open to investigate now, and that's cool, but she'll also whine about being asked to pony up $100 for a service and never once tries to come up with any other solution besides that one (and she can't, because that's not how this kind of game works). And, worst of all, Kate is actively becoming a worse person than she was to begin with, treating characters like the barge owners with disdain, abusing Captain Malatesta, and now conspiring to kidnap Helena, all for her own personal gratification.
So I guess you could say that Kate does, in a way, experience character growth that makes her stronger. The problem is that the game seems to think that she's becoming heroic, and in fact she's turning into a villain. We're not watching a woman throw off the shackles of her humdrum life and discover a world of freedom and adventure; we're watching her abandon her life because she realized she doesn't care about anyone in it and discover that if she starts treating people like objects and doesn't care about the consequences of her actions, she can do whatever she wants.
There are games out there that do this on purpose, and some of them are very cool, inviting the player to think about what they are complicit in as the controller of the character and whether or not the format of the game itself is something they need to engage with ontologically. But Syberia isn't doing any of that. It just hasn't noticed what a colossal, unbelievable, selfishly immoral jerk its main character actually is.
Yeah, Olivia, you're right. Kate really has changed, and I'm not enjoying playing her nearly as much. Which is a shame, since pretty much everywhere in this game besides Valadilene is more interesting than its beginning.
Anyway, if you're wondering how Kate is supposed to get out of here and go kidnap an opera singer when her train is stuck, the answer is that the Phantom has a secret monorail that goes to what he refers to as the Cosmodrome. That's all the explanation you're going to get, so just accept that it's what's happening.
The Cosmodrome, it turns out, is a nearby aerospace engineering factory and laboratory complex, also maintained by the Soviet Union and also now largely abandoned, with only one aging staff member remaining there to look after the place by himself. If you're wondering what he's like...
...he's another opportunity for the game to sexually harass Kate for no apparent reason, so there's that. I just honestly don't know. He refers to her as , among other things, "sweet pea", "babe", "sweetheart", "honey", and "pretty lips", and I'm too tired to even bother explaining why no, the fact that he's drunk due to depression over being stationed in the middle of nowhere forever and never getting to go to space is not a good excuse for the writing to do this.
Boris' story would be tragic if he weren't pissing me off; he was supposed to be a Soviet astronaut, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, his project was scrapped and he was left assigned here, never to leave planet Earth, never to have the career he trained for, never to really even see other human beings all that often. (He's aware that Serguei is still down the road in Komkolzgrad, by the way, but he avoids him and suggests that Kate should, too.) He copes by spending most of his waking hours in a drunken stupor, which the game suggests by not only presenting him as incredibly drunk, so much so that he passes out shortly after Kate meets him, but also by having various bottles of vodka scattered around the area to indicate alcoholism. As with so many other parts of this game, his suffering is intended to be comedic and Kate treats it like a personal inconvenience rather than the desperate cry for help that it is, so that's tiring, too.
In exploring the Cosmodrome, Kate discovers that Hans worked here as well, which is more surprising than in most other areas - there's a lot of machinery here, but none of it has that trademark steampunk-automaton look that most of Hans' products do. There's a reason for that: unlike the project with the automatons in Komkolzgrad, this isn't one that Hans volunteered for, with the implication being that he was drafted by the Soviet government to contribute to their spaceflight program as a result of his obvious mechanical genius. (Interesting, isn't it, that everyone in the western European countries has to say nasty ableist things about Hans to counterweight his skill and genius, but the Soviet areas of the game just note his skill and don't say anything else? What do you suppose that's about?)
The machinery seems to mostly still be working, but the console is demanding a BLOOD SAMPLE before it'll operate, so I was deathly afraid that Kate was just going to go steal an unconscious drunk man's blood to pour it into a machine. I legitimately believed that she would. Thankfully, she went for the slightly less cruel option and rerouted the industrial pipes to dump a half ton of cold water on poor Boris, after which she asked him for a blood sample and he gave it to her. The kicker? Boris actually thanks Kate for this, since it sobered him up, and is deferential to her for the remainder of his appearances.
In other news, Kate finds the paperwork detailing the cessation of Hans' spaceflight program, which has a lot of interesting details:
It appears that, as of 1979, the Soviet Union was tired of Hans' insistence on only creating clockwork, automated, non-fueled technology and did not believe he could successfully achieve spaceflight with it, so work on his mostly completed rocket was abandoned and the Cosmodrome permanently closed. This makes sense, since "spring-loaded rocketship" is the sort of thing that most governments would not have a lot of patience with, but Boris adds some nuance by explaining that the real motivation here was Hans himself disappearing. Apparently, he'd been content to be roped into working on the project when it was about spaceflight and exploration, but when he realized that the Soviet government planned to use it for military purposes, he just up and vanished, refusing to continue any further. This continues Hans' trend of being essentially humanitarian, creating inventions that make peoples' lives easier and better rather than being repurposed to harm others. It's fascinating to look at Hans as a Phantom character in light of this; as opposed to Seguei, our other obvious Phantom, he is explicitly positive and compassionate, choosing to only put good things into the world in spite of the way it has mistreated him for his accident.
Speaking of accidents, by the way, Boris offhandedly mentions that Serguei was in one at his factory at some point. This is never in any way elaborated on, so we can assume that this is the justification for him wearing his mask, but no one will ever tell us what happened, when, why, or how he dealt with it. (Amusingly, the only other machinery-inflicted Phantom disfigurement to date is Winslow's in the 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise, but there this was very explicitly intended to be a comment on the industry that caused it, where here it's more of a lazy footnote because some writer realized they had a Phantom who had absolutely no reason not to be using his own face.)
Why must I be subjected to Boris' lovingly rendered and shadowed ass-crack above his pants every time he turns around? I swear to god that whoever on this game's team thought they were in charge of comedy is committing actual crimes.
If our exploration of Hans is revealing him more and more to be a person with strong ethical principles, our exploration of Kate is doing the opposite. Hans, when he realized that his invention could be used to hurt people, quit working on it and disappeared so that he couldn't be involved again. Kate, now that she's here... decides to use it to kill Boris.
This is a more complicated issue than it seems at first. In essence, when Kate opines that she could probably get Hans' rocket working, Boris asks her to allow him to get in it and use the controls to launch it, and in return, he'll give her access to his airship in order to get to Aralbad. He is in effect asking for her assistance in order to commit suicide; he knows that the rocket likely won't work properly, has no return mechanism and little life support, and even if it works perfectly will just fly endlessly into space while he remains aboard until he dies of dehydration or starvation. It's hard to tell if Boris wants to die, or if he just wants to escape from his current miserable life as an alcoholic hermit, but either way, he wants to go out fulfilling the dream that was denied to him, and that's poignant.
Suicide is a complicated subject for a game like this to tackle, especially alongside a heavy theme of disability rights, and unfortunately, Syberia doesn't do it justice. It doesn't really even try. When Boris decides he wants to go up in the rocket, well, that's what the game is about now. Ethical questions about suicide, assisting with suicide, and the ability to consent to such an action while mentally ill, addicted, and currently impaired, are not addressed.
To Kate's credit, she balks for a moment, but only for so long as it takes to realize that she won't get what she wants unless she does it, at which point she's all in. I'm not going to call this quite as horrific as her collusion with Seguei or her drugging of Captain Malatesta, because it's a complex issue and Boris at least has agency, even if we can't really know how much of it is impaired by his addiction and mental state. I wouldn't call Kate a murderer, since she's helping someone who has made this decision on their own, not taking someone else's life. But she still kills a guy with very little argument or hesitation because it's useful to her to do so, and more importantly, we have that same problem this game keeps running into: it forces the player to kill a guy if they want to progress. That's where the player is. Shoot a man into space where he will either explode or die a slow, agonizing death, or quit.
And, as always, the game doesn't seem to realize that this might be a problem. Neither does Kate. And so here I am, shooting a man into space to die so I can get the keys to his ride. For an extra kicker, when I try to authorize the machinery with Boris' blood, it rejects it because his blood alcohol content is too high to let him safely make this decision. And Kate's reaction? She just puts her own blood into the machine, because she's got places to be. Goodbye, Boris. I hope it's as romantic a death as you wanted it to be.
SOMEHOW, this game expects us to continue on with three more chapters of pulp adventure after that - come on, we haven't even kidnapped that unsuspecting old woman yet! - so after Boris is gone, Kate figures out that she can't take his airship yet because it's absolutely swarming with obnoxious birds that, I don't know, will all get sucked into the engine and stop her from flying, or something. Apparently the writers of this game felt that "bird pest control via eagle" was too cool a concept not to use twice, so Kate has to go release Souyoz, who is an actual golden eagle rather than an automaton, so that he can sow havoc among the birds and she can eventually get underway. (It would be interesting to wonder if this is a sign that Hans visited Barrockstadt after he worked in the Cosmodrome; after all, wouldn't it make more sense if he designed the automaton eagle after Souyoz? But the game has given us a timeline that contradicts this.)
At least Souyoz gets to live.
The airship was Hans', apparently, and comes with an automaton pilot, although naturally Kate is dismissive and condescending and mostly ignores the poor thing. Now that we're sailing on a run-down steampunk-esque dirigible airship, it's like we've transitioned to the least entertaining entry into the Final Fantasy franchise possible.
But we've finally made it to Aralbad. Time to go harass an ailing old lady!
We have to pause before the action really begins for Kate to get some more phone calls from her boss, who is irate about the amount of time this is taking and about Kate vaguely saying things like "I'm in a place, somewhere, I don't know, I got on a train". At this point, it's getting tedious; we already know that her boss is a jerk and that she will never return unto her unfulfilling old life, so it's not adding much except for padding. (Although the game might have been intentionally looking for some padding at this point, given that the last three chapters are HUGELY shorter than the first three.)
Kate finds the Hotel Kronsky, which, according to the laws of not wanting to come up with other environments, is apparently the only building in the entirety of Aralbad. It's one of the previously-mentioned celebrity resorts, but like the rest of the game, it's clear that it's been slowly decaying, forgotten by most, a relic of a bygone age. The ethos of this game and its sorrowful nostalgia for things lost - not necessarily specific things, just the things that are lost - is really one of its best qualities. Kate ignores all this and annoys the guy at the front desk and, when he won't let her into the private resort just so she can harass one of the paying customers, fills the front fountain with detergent so that he has to go deal with a massive foam explosion while she sneaks inside. (I'm not too mad at her for that one. Hilarious pranks that don't actually hurt anyone are one of the great pleasures of adventure games.)
As you can see from the swimming pools and bathing area here, the sets in Aralbad are every bit as gorgeous as they are everywhere else; they really get across the idea of this old-world grandeur that is no longer in style and gracefully falling into disrepair.
It's here, lurking next to a very weird wetbar, that Kate meets the second (or arguably third if you include Serguei) significant automaton of the game after Oscar: James. James is an automaton caregiver who is solely dedicated to taking care of the aged and none-too-strong Helena. He is built into the back of a wheelchair and doesn't have legs, and his function is to not only get her around but also to make sure to get her things with his additional arms when necessary and to proactively provide for her needs and wants by being intelligent enough to interact with others without her having to tell him first. It's obvious that he was built by Hans, who must have been here at some point, but he refuses to talk about it, claiming that his mistress has forbidden him to.
James, like most of Hans' creations, is delightful. He also has a distinct personality, much like Oscar, which again makes the player ponder the whole question of automaton souls and personal determination. James is much more crochety than Oscar, with a tendency to look down his nose at people for asking questions he doesn't think are relevant and a stubborn, almost fussy attitude when it comes to taking care of Helena, who he clearly thinks pushes herself too hard. He's never afraid to take charge of humans to do things for Helena as if he's their boss, and he's loyal, far beyond the point where his theoretical functional programming would force him to be, suggesting that he has genuine feelings of affection for her. I love James the Accessibility Automaton and I am deeply saddened that we only get to see him a little bit at the end of the game.
Kate doesn't love James, because he won't tell her anything without Helena's permission and tells her to go out and get Helena and bring her back inside herself if she wants to talk to her so damn much, but that's because Kate doesn't seem to like anyone who doesn't do things she wants them to. What I would call the only successful comedy bit of this game happens here, where James does a genuinely hilariously petulant performance of pretending he can't hear the bell Helena customarily rings to tell him to come out to the pier and pick her up - not because he doesn't care about taking care of her and making sure she's mobile, but because he doesn't like her going out there and exposing herself to the elements in the first place, and having to struggle out and retrieve her also damages his mechanisms from the salt spray, which he fears will one day make him unable to take care of her if he breaks down. He and Helena almost seem to be colluding in trolling Kate; Helena doesn't want to talk out in the elements (which are so bad that Kate literally wears a gas mask to avoid breathing in too much salt!), but she won't go in unless James comes and gets her, and James won't go get her unless Kate rings the bell at the proper location to make him, and if there's one thing I appreciate at this point, it's Kate getting punked by the people whose lives she has come to destroy.
Once Kate actually gets to talk to Helena (comfortably cradled by James, crankily mother-henning away at her), we get confirmation that Hans definitely built James - in fact, he built him specifically for her, as they were very close for a long time. It's almost easy to miss how weird this is, because of course everywhere else we've gone, Hans has been there before... but that's because we were following Hans then. Kate is only in Aralbad because she's here at Serguei's behest to drag Helena back to his organ of horrors, so the fact that Hans was also here is a coincidence that stretches credulity.
There's more to this relationship than Hans just building Helena a mobility aid automaton, though, which is something he's obviously done a lot for various people. Hans' relationship with Helena isn't clearly defined, since she doesn't want to detail it and Hans himself is of course not available to comment, but there are definite implications that it might have been romantic. This is an interesting crossover between our dual Phantom stories, with the Phantom of one pair romantically connected to the Christine of the other, but it's also another place where I wish the game had put a little more thought into its depiction of disabilities and related issues.
Specifically, there's an uncomfortable question here about whether or not Hans was taken advantage of in this relationship. Obviously, the fact that a character has a TBI shouldn't preclude them from having meaningful romantic and sexual relationships, but the game seems to want to simultaneously refer to Hans with infantilizing terminology and treat him like he'll never achieve adulthood, but also then drop this relationship without addressing the fact that its own ableist concept of Hans' "mental age" is in conflict with his theoretical ability to consent. I'd like to say that the writers are just for once leaving their shitty attitude toward the disabled by the wayside and treating Hans like the complex adult character that he is, but I'm not sure I have enough faith in them to have thought through any of this, given the evidence littered all over the rest of this game.
Anyway, Helena certainly loved Hans, regardless of in what way or as part of what kind of relationship (and it is worth noting that there is nothing that explicitly suggests that her relationship with him was necessarily either romantic or sexual). She refers to him as her "dearest sweetheart" and talks wistfully about how special he was, and even though it's clear that she hasn't seen him in some years, she obviously never lost her fondness for him.
Kate, never derailed from her mission for long, doesn't actually seem to care about Helena's memories of Hans as much as she does getting Helena to return to Komkolzgrad with her. To her credit, she does actually tell Helena what's going on... sort of. She sugar-coats it considerably, telling the singer that the director of a facility she had once sung at has been wishing he could hear her again for years and has created a fabulous venue for her to sing in if she'll only come out there. She leaves out some key facts about him living alone in the bowels of an abandoned industrial complex, holding Kate and her train hostage, and generally being terrifying, but she does tell her.
But Helena, who is definitely in her sixties if not older, tells her that as flattering as all that is, she can no longer sing at the level she once did and would only disappoint this guy, not to mention probably hurt herself. This is very reasonable of her, but since Kate won't take no for an answer, she eventually comes around to saying that there was a cocktail that she once had, made specially for her by a bartender at a famous hotel, that could always rejuvenate her voice when it was tired or injured, and only that has a hope of restoring her to glory.
I know it sounds like a fairly standard adventure game quest, figuring out how to make the cocktail and collecting its ingredients, but you may have forgotten that you're playing Syberia, so instead we first have to call the bartender at the hotel she once frequented to get the recipe, and the experience is faithfully recreated, right down to making the player sit around listening to hold music. "Aha," says that one person in the writer's room when questioned on this, "but that's the kind of realism that players really want."
Ridiculous as that is, however, I now get one of the game's coolest conceits: MUSICAL COCKTAILS. The bar up above that has the suspiciously pipe-organ-like is actually an array of different liquors and mixers, and it is literally played like an organ in order to create cocktails like creating a song!
The notes on the scale, as you can see, each correspond to a different alcohol, and the front of the "organ" has various stops to pull for mixers such as lemon, cream, and various syrups. This is a fun and whimsical concept all on its own, especially for a Phantom game, but it's especially great in comparison to the similar concept of the automatons, who are similarly machines that are created via mechanical application of music. No one ever outright says that the liquor organ was built by Hans, but it's far too bizarre for any other explanation.
I could wish that the interface for the liquor organ was less clunky, so I wouldn't have had to have Kate make this cocktail about four times (each time grimaced aristocratically at by Helena and sent back), but eventually I succeeded. Poor Helena still isn't confident that it actually restored her voice, so Kate gets her a glass to shatter, which is a cute touch, and Helena's joyful excitement at feeling restored is really lovely to see, even if it's coming from a place of Kate's self-interest. It's interesting that Helena is undeniably in the Christine role in this story, but she's depicted as an aging opera singer past her prime, something that we much more often see applied to Carlotta in adaptations.
Helena is so excited and grateful to feel restored to her vocal glory that she agrees to go back to Komkolzgrad with Kate, looking forward to singing for someone who truly wants her to no matter how old she is. I'm still terrified for her, but I can't compete with James, who is as upset as it is possible for a metal caregiver automaton with no facial mobility to be. He is severely against Helena leaving Aralbad and going on a journey to a dilapidated factory, all of which he reasonably points out can't be good for her health, and he's especially unhappy because he isn't invited and won't be able to care for her while she's gone. Helena tells him she's going to go anyway, but there are a few really tender moments when she promises to come back and James, knowing he can't stop her and wouldn't want her to be unhappy, has to subside into whatever the robotic equivalent of worried grumbling is.
The ensuing scene in which Olivia calls Kate on her cell is so much less interesting that I was literally aggravated to have to lose time that could have been spent with Helena and James dealing with this disconnected soap opera instead. Olivia is miserable and guilty and incredibly obviously had sex with Dan and is broken up about having betrayed her friend, but it takes much too long in the conversation before she admits it. Kate's apparent lack of caring about it is kind of hilarious, but the ham-handed dialogue in which Olivia accuses Kate of being like "some kind of automaton or something" is eye-rolling and unbelievable. Not to mention muddled; what is the story trying to say? That Kate's growth is making her automaton-like, so automatons are more evolved or something? That becoming more adventurous and strong comes with a loss of emotion? Or just the same tired idea that she doesn't care about her home life anymore, which we've already hammered home perfectly well?
Whatever. I don't care. This game is interminably long and we're finally ready to go into a new chapter in which I hopefully won't have to hear about Kate's boring love life anymore.
Helena is a professional and she is fucking fantastic. She shows up to this gig at 100%.
The chapter starts with a cut scene, jumping to the middle of Helena's performance in Komkolzgrad. It's a visually stunning piece with Helena in full evening gown, jewelry, and boa, singing her heart out against the ominous, dramatic backdrop of the massive factory organ. The organ that Serguei built for her does sound impressively powerful, and Helena's voice is beautiful (and uncredited, which is a damn shame - I'd love to know who's singing!). In a gorgeous moment that is the single greatest argument for the automaton soul auxiliary, all the automatons laboring away in the abandoned factory stop what they're doing and turn to listen to Helena; whether the idea is that they are drawn to artistic beauty, because they're truly real people or that Helena is simply so stunning an artist that she can melt the hearts even of machines, it's lovely.
But tragedy is imminent, as anyone with any functioning pattern recognition had to know that it was. We haven't seen Serguei at all, and that's because he's been getting ready to drop a giant iron cage out of the rafters, trapping Helena as he wildly shouts that she will now have to stay with him forever. GEE, KATE, WHO COULD HAVE SEEN THIS OUTCOME OF HELPING THE STALKER ISOLATE HIS VICTIM COMING?
Luckily, Kate still has the metal shears she used to break into the factory in the first place, so she's able to cut a hole in the cage and help Helena escape, although as soon as she gets out the door, bars shoot out of the floor and separate the two women.
Well, Helena, what's happened is that Kate has led you to a giant complex that an obsessed stalker has spent the last several decades outfitting to serve his ultimate dream of kidnapping you and the results aren't very much fun, are they?
Kate tells Helena to run for it (although where she expects this poor lady to GO I don't know - I guess to the airship? That she can't operate and which may already have been sabotaged?) because she's not ready to break out yet because, of course, she needs to go get Oscar's hands back, as promised. In possibly the most glaring plot hole of this entire game, Kate runs to the organ-playing automaton and unscrews its hands with a screwdriver before booking it again. Yes, with the screwdriver that she picked up right next to that exact automaton. Yes, the one she walked right up to before she even met Serguei, and could have just UNSCREWED THE HANDS FROM AND LEFT WITHOUT EVER PARTICIPATING IN THIS FARCE. WHY DIDN'T YOU JUST RETRIEVE THE HANDS AND LEAVE, KATE?
But whatever. We're in the home stretch, and I don't have the stamina left to argue with anything anymore. Serguei - as predicted, watching Kate's and Helena's every move via the CCTV system, which oddly enough we first saw in the much older 1996 game Opera Fatal - demands the return of both Helena and the automaton hands, both of which he needs for his transcendent music, so we pass the hands through the bars to Helena, tell her to run to the train and see if she can get Oscar up and running again, and start trying to figure out how else to escape. Kate setting Helena up to escape even if she doesn't get out is one of the most decent things she does in this game, and I appreciate it even if she created the situation the poor woman needs to escape from in the first place.
As Phantoms tend to do when people start telling them they can't kidnap and terrorize people, Serguei stops being even vaguely reasonable and blows up both elevators to prevent Kate from escaping to the monorail and Cosmodrome, forcing her to run away into the mine. Causing dramatic explosions is really the most classic Leroux Phantom move. Kate does manage to escape by crawling into the ventilation ducts, which is clever and all but does not excuse her ostentatiously dusting herself off and meandering toward her train like she has all the time in the world. KATE. THERE IS A MAN WITH EXPLOSIVES IN THERE. MOVE YOUR ASS.
In yet another ill-timed and ill-fated attempt at comedy, Kate actually has to argue with Oscar to convince him to start the train with Helena on board because his regulations say that it's only supposed to have one passenger. NOT THE TIME, OSCAR AND/OR WRITERS.
And speaking of bad timing, Dan chooses this moment to call, and Kate actually stops and has a frigging conversation with him in the middle of this crisis, taking the time to address the whole soap opera going on at home instead of focusing on things like "escaping" and "rescuing the vulnerable old woman she put in danger in the first place". Yeah, it's amusing that she doesn't tell Dan that she already knows he cheated on her, letting him dig his own grave by pretending nothing happened until she reveals that Olivia already told her, but this is just not the time for this. It's hard enough for the player to care about this when there isn't a diabolical stalker on the loose and there is absolutely no hope for it as it is. I'd like to applaud Kate for telling Dan that she doesn't really care because she doesn't miss either him or New York, but I can't focus because IMMINENT DEATH.
Due in no small part, I assume, to Kate's uselessness and stalling, the train's attempt to escape is stymied by the Phantom moving one of the colossi to block it, which is just as terrifying as it was when Kate was moving it around. Kate's response is to literally plant explosives and blow the colossus' leg apart in order to barely escape, which I can't argue with since everyone definitely wants to survive, but which still feels kind of like watching someone bomb the Argonath.
It's somewhat disappointing that we don't quite get closure on what happens to Serguei. It's easy to assume that we've probably killed him, since the collapsing colossus falls into the factory and takes most of it out, but we never hear anything more or get confirmation on what happens to him. Exit Phantom, unredeemed, unexamined, and laregly unexplained. Alas.
Now that we've finally reached the last chapter of the game, it's really obvious how light-speed things have been in the latter half of the game compared to the glacially plodding pace of the beginning. When that happens, I always wonder if it's the result of poor planning on the part of the game designers, poor signposting in deciding where to draw the chapter lines, or just one of those games where the studio ran out of time, money, or both, and the later chapters ended up rushed and/or slimmed down. In this case, I think it's just that it was split up by location and the game happened to spend a lot more time in some places than others. (Of course, the question of why we had to spend 3268743145 years in Valadilene but blitzed through Komkolzgrad and Aralbad like they were on fire still remains.)
This chapter is really just about closure. Kate returns Helena to Aralbad, which turns out to also be where the train was going next (this still doesn't really fix the weird coincidence of Hans and Helena being close, but at least it makes sense that we'd have been going there next). Oscar has his hands back, although he very reasonably calls Kate out on abandoning him in Komkolzgrad. Helena finally tells Kate how she met Hans: he was staying at the resort because his work in Komkolzgrad and the Cosmodrome had given him black lung, although he left after he felt recovered and Helena never did, remaining behind to miss him. She tells Kate that she thinks that perhaps she loved Hans, which suggests that maybe they didn't have a romantic relationship after all, and refers to him as "simple" and "a child" and various other similarly infantilizing things. (Sigh. This is a man who was literally an aerospace engineer, but no, we still have to talk about how he's not really an adult because of his injury.)
Helena bids Kate farewell, thanking her for returning her voice to her and making her feel restored in spite of that whole near-death trauma experience thing. The hotel owner tells Kate that a package came for her while she was gone, and inside it is a little automaton toy mammoth. And all the momentum of the entire game's ongoing search and accumulated history really does finally build up to a feeling of something important about to happen. We really are about to find Hans, the elusive figure that we've been searching for for what feels like forever.
And there he is. A little old man, sitting on the bench in Aralbad like all the other little old men who come here to soak in the mineral baths and rest in the sea air. He doesn't look like much. It's a bittersweet moment, in spite of all the slogging and yelling and frustration.
I said way back near the beginning of this review that Kate was somewhat in the Raoul role in this game; certainly, she's the one who rescues Helena from Serguei, and you could argue that she's rescuing Anna, too, in a way, carrying out her journey and her work. But Kate's been pursuing Hans, one of our Phantom figures, through his entire replayed history, and in that way she's in more of the same role as Leroux's daroga, following an elusive genius but never finding him until he allows it, learning more about him from the evidence of his exploits but seldom speaking to him directly, growing close to him in spite of herself.
Kate knows it's Hans, but now that she's found him, what does she actually want with him? She's jettisoned her old life. Her original reason for looking for him, the inheritance of the Voralberg factory and its sale, no longer matters to her. She's at a loss, and the player is, too. All that effort and time and emotion to find him, but for what?
And then the game sucker punches me right in the stomach, because Hans looks up at Kate, and the first thing he wants to know is where his sister is. Because he doesn't know. When he saw that someone was following the trail of inventions he'd left, he thought it was Anna, coming as she promised. He doesn't know, and after all the trials and tribulations of this game, having to tell Hans that his sister, the only person in the world who really understood, accepted, and loved him for exactly who he was, is dead is the most painful moment. She's never coming. It's too late. They spent their whole lives apart and in the end, their last attempt to come back together failed.
Kate tries to fall back on the factory sale, not knowing what else to say, but Hans has no interest in that. His only comment on that is that that part of his life is over. What would he care about - the factory shut down and crumbling, his abusive father dead, his beloved sister gone? Kate offers him the contract signing over the factory to complete the merger, and in yet another emotional beat, he signs it without even looking at it. When Kate asks him if he doesn't want to read the terms of the agreement, apparently not having absorbed any goddamn thing she heard throughout the entire adventure, he just looks at her and tells her that he can't. He can't read. He's never been able to. I'm drowning in the sadness of what life has done to this man, whose entire existence has been defined - not by himself, but by other people - in relation to an accident that he had when he was ten years old.
There's an obvious parallel being drawn between Hans and his automatons here, especially when he always refers to her by her full name, Kate Walker, which James and Oscar have always done as well. The comparison of a mentally disabled man to a robot could very easily veer into ableist territory, but when it's Hans himself who makes the automatons and they are explicitly said to be real, emotional, soul-bearing beings who don't deserve to be mistreated by society at large, the positives outweigh the negatives.
In the end, Kate is presented with a clear choice: her boss is ecstatic at her success and offers her a lucrative new case when she returns, while Hans, looking old and tired and sad, asks her if she's going to come with him in his final journey north in search of the mythical Syberia. There's no real question for the player, who has been watching her toss her attachments to New York for the past few chapters and knows she'll decide to go exploring, but the final animated sequence of her waiting until the absolute last minute and then skidding wildly as she runs to catch Hans' plane is probably the best in the entire game. Away they go to search for a place that doesn't exist (which presumably they'll probably find, given that there are two sequels).
It's not hard to see why this game is so beloved. It was cutting edge for its time in many ways and whatever else you say about it, you can't deny that it's one entire Experience. It has some moments of great beauty and some moments of dismal boredom; it makes interesting commentary in some places and in others is offensive enough to make a player quit on the spot. It's not one of the greats, but it's definitely more than interesting enough to earn a look... but only if you're ready to go on as much of an exhausting journey as the protagonist is.