Syberia: The World Before Review

Thank you, Kate Walker, for this moving finale

By Paul Hunter

It's been 20 years since Syberia gave us its unique blend of emotional storytelling, clever puzzles and rich visuals all set in a fictional clockpunk European setting. Graphic adventure series rarely endure for two decades but Syberia has because of its unique blend of rich storytelling, dreamlike visuals, clever-yet-solvable puzzles and, of course, its highly likable protagonist, Kate Walker.

After a rather underwhelming third entry in 2017, Microids and director Benoît Sokal are back with a fourth and perhaps final game in the series, Syberia: The World Before, available this month on PS5 (version reviewed) and Xbox Series X|S. Benoît tragically passed away last year at the age of 66, with the game roughly 18 months into development at French developer Koalabs Studio. That left the team with the unenviable task of finishing the game, but fortunately, Benoît had already largely approved the main themes, puzzles and story beats. Koalabs's goal was to fulfill Benoît's vision for The World Before while remaining faithful to the famed cartoonist's distinctive and iconic Syberia universe.

Over the past week, I've plunked 15 hours into completing Syberia: The World Before and wow, what an adventure it is. This latest title returns the franchise to greatness and rivals the original Syberia in quality. Let's get into why this game should be on the radar of every graphic adventure fan, here are three things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: A Rich and Enthralling Story

A really can't stress this enough: Syberia: The World Before tells an incredibly emotional and moving story that's among the best this industry has to offer. It delivers a fascinating dual time period narrative focused on Kate Walker in the year 2004 and newcomer Dana Roze, a 17-year-old girl living in eastern Europe during 1937.

Kate Walker, as fans already know, is such a captivating character having gone from a New York attorney to a world-hopping adventurer seeking to find her place in this vast and cold world. Dana Rose, who mysteriously looks like Kate, is an extremely talented pianist with a soft-spoken demeanour that's impossible not to instantly fall in love with. And, in fact, her storyline revolves around her love-at-first-sight relationship with a charming young alpinist named Leon Kovatsin.

The game kicks off soon after the previous game with Kate Walker still held prisoner in a Taiga salt mine located in eastern Europe. During a daring escape, Kate discovers the portrait of a woman (Dana Roze) that strangely looks like her and believes that locating her could help bring closure to her years-long adventure of self-discovery. This leads her to Vaghen, where she follows Dana's trail all around the city and beyond, becoming more convinced the two share a cosmic connection as time goes on.

The cutscenes that propel this story are excellently done and clearly were created using motion capture technology. This is backed up by highly detailed character models with facial nuances that perfectly reflect each scene's mood, further immersing you in the story. The hours of dialogue in this narrative adventure come off very naturally and realistically, which lets you empathize and relate to each character. And what a wild ride this is, too, filled with shocking revelations, stunning betrayals, heroic acts of bravery, impactful deaths and a thread of hope that keeps you glued to the screen. Every time I sat down to play Syberia: The World Before sessions lasted a few hours because I just had to know what comes next.

What really makes this game a narrative masterpiece, though, is how quickly and deeply I got invested in Dana Roze, who you control as a second playable character. Her campaign mirrors Kate Walker's closely—both mostly take place in the same locations—and it's fascinating seeing how much the city has changed over the 70 years. In Dana's timeline, it's the dawn of the Second World War, and she's a Vageran (analogue for Jewish) under threat from the fascist Brown Shadow faction (equivalent to the Nazi Party). Vaghen, at the time, is a thriving city with a world-class conservatory and rich architectural designs, but that begins to unravel as the Brown Shadow tightens its grip. Fast-forward to Kate's timeline and the city feels like it's a shell of its former self and tragically preserved in a time bubble.

Over the course of this emotionally gripping story, I felt everything from utter sadness and optimistic hope to bitter anger and sheer elation and everything in between. The pacing is very methodical and deliberate, this is not a game you want to rush through. Instead, Syberia: The World Before is all about taking the time to soak in the luscious visuals, admire the exotic locations and immerse yourself in the heartfelt story beats. While it's terribly sad that Benoît never got to see the final release, it honours his franchise and legacy in all the right ways.

Liked: Finely Tuned Puzzles

In true Syberia fashion, Kate and Dana's adventures are filled with complicated puzzles that require you to use your wits and ingenuity to solve. What I particularly enjoy about the brain ticklers in this game is how the contraptions you need to fiddle with are rooted in reality, yet have that distinctive Benoît touch. And by that, I mean many of the puzzles involve complex machines with a dazzling clockpunk theme where you need to twist and turn mysterious handles, gadgets or buttons that almost (but not quite) look like objects in our real lives.

I also love how Syberia takes place in a fictional version of Europe where an eccentric inventor named Hans Voralberg has created sentient automatons capable of managing key city infrastructure like driving the streetcars or collecting train tickets. Several of the puzzles involve interacting with or manipulating these automatons and they're just so neat to tinker with.

Over the course of this adventure, you'll need to solve puzzles that range from the familiar, like opening tricky locks, to the mysterious, including powering up a high-tech piano with several complicated unlocking mechanisms. Best of all, the puzzles have the right balance of requiring you to think while not being too challenging to complete. I was able to solve every puzzle after giving them some thought, which is a sign of excellent game design. Some of the more involved puzzles involve time-jumping between Kate and Dana, so you really need to pay attention to what you see in each world—as they can impact one another.

Should you ever not know how to solve a particular puzzle, as a nice bonus the game includes a hint system. The hint button needs to slowly charge up over time, so you can't get advice whenever you want. I really enjoy that aspect: The time delay between hints prompts you to solve puzzles on your own, given the helpful information you just received. I also noticed that hints sometimes start out high level but then get more specific as you keep pressing the hint button—great if you're really stuck on a particular puzzle!

Liked: Simply Stunning Presentation

As I'm sure you can see from the screenshots in this review, Syberia: The World Before is visually arresting. Benoît's art style is so dreamlike and enigmatic, straddling reality yet with clear fictional elements. Everything from the strangely twisted trees in natural settings to the many peculiar machinations makes this world feel familiar yet oddly different. It's this tangible curiosity that helps propel the story as I always couldn't wait to see what's next.

The whole time playing through the game I couldn't help but think I was fully immersed in an exotic steampunk world brought to life with a painter's touch. Graphically, the visuals effortlessly mix a comic book and oil painting vibe, yet with incredible environmental detail seen in most recent AAA games. It's also quite absorbing how Vaghen, and other areas you visit in the game, seem curiously stuck in the past yet also feature futuristic fully-functional automatons.

Beyond the stunning graphics, the sublime symphonic soundtrack composed by Inon Zur (of Fallout, Dragon Age and Prince of Persia fame) elevates the many locations throughout the game. This meaningful soundtrack is further highlighted by exceptionally moving piano recordings from the award-winning Emily Bear. Emily performs the piano sets for Dana Roze and these moments are simply exquisite; I've still got these incredible tracks stuck in my head.

Didn't Like: Performance Issue

One common thread throughout the Syberia series is they're all rather mid when it comes to the framerate and controls. Unfortunately, Syberia: The World Before doesn't break this curse with Kate sometimes feeling sluggish or clumsy to move around. Every now and again I'd get caught momentarily on an object or get annoyed by how Kate needed a certain amount of space to navigate around things. Movement is also generally on the slow side, although you can hold a run button that mitigates this somewhat.

Ironically, and I'm not sure intentionally, the sluggish movement kind of fits in with Syberia's unique atmosphere, doubling down on its dreamlike aesthetic. Obviously, I'd prefer to have smoother movement, but taken as a whole it doesn't detract too much from the overall experience.

The Verdict

Syberia: The World Before delivers an impactful story that perfectly wraps up Kate Walker's legendary story while whetting the appetite for more stories involving newcomer Dana Roze. Visuals in the game are simply exquisite and combined with the beautiful soundtrack and stunning piano arrangements it's an audio-visual feast. I really hope we one day get more stories in the exotic world of Syberia, but if this is it, the series is concluding on the highest note possible.

Final Score: 8.5/10 - Great

Syberia: The World Before details

Platform: PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Microïds, Koalabs Studio
Publisher: Microïds
Genre: Narrative Adventure
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

A key was provided by the publisher.