Technological spike in the mid-’90s kick-started a wave of prophecies predicting a fusion of videogames and cinema. A fresh breath of future was in the air: FMV-games and emergence of realistic graphics fueled futuristic fantasies about highly interactive movies ought to bring eternal joy and happiness to our long-suffering world. Alas, the reality is the most ferocious party pooper: it turned out that it is tough to balance interactivity with cinematography. You have to prioritize. As a result, games with a high focus in cinematography were severely lacking in their interactivity, falling between the chairs of two mediums: failing to compete with movies (because of their still immature cinematography and incomparable budgets) as well as with other games (because of their primitive gameplay).
Cyberia was one of the first games that learned that truth the hard way.
Developed by Xatrix Entertainment in 1994, Cyberia just blew everybody’s mind with its stunning visuals. Its purely computer-generated aesthetic served as a testament of technological progress and wildest futuristic dreams coming true. The game looks decent even today if you discard plain textures and extremely low resolution.
But apart from enjoying the role of a pioneer eye candy Cyberia doesn’t seem to have much more to offer. Its story, although intriguing at places, doesn’t evolve farther than a mere tease. A futuristic cosmopolitan world divided between rivalrous factions serves as a setting for the story of Zak, a professional hacker/outlaw fallen in debt to one of those factions’ leaders and had been sent to a secret science facility in the middle of Siberia to seize some sort of superweapon being developed there under the codename of Project Cyberia.
Although the plot has some surprises and even a wholesome twist at the end, it remains relatively basic at best. The game’s dialogues, being confusingly uninformative and clumsy, don’t even bother with conveying character motivations. There are dozens of cut-scenes in this game, most of which haven’t meant to give you any sort of information, but were placed here for a mere spectacle—explosions and a wide variety of main character’s deaths have been put under a constant cinematographic spotlight. Rushing through the story, Cyberia offers a minimum amount of character and world-building and prefers to stick with the action.
And it sticks with the action quite indecisively…
Cyberia’s gameplay is strictly divided into three distinct parts: third-person adventuring, classic puzzle-solving, and first-person rail-shooting. All three of the game modes feel undercooked each in its own way as if developers couldn’t decide where to focus.
The game begins in an adventuring mode. The camera is fixed in Alone in the Dark manner, but Zak’s movements also pretty limited: you move from node to node with an option to turn and take a different path, but without any chance for free-roaming. Luckily, walking from node to node is not everything that there is for adventuring—there are some things thrown into the mix to spice up the experience: there are some stealth-ish sequences, tense shoot-outs, and even a bit of nonlinearity when the game gives you a couple of options that slightly alter the walkthrough, though without any major consequences to the plot. For example, choosing to kiss the girl early in a game will bring a bunch of trouble onto your head and is going to get both the girl and her boss killed. Not that it matters though: it won’t alter the rest of the game in the slightest bit.
Puzzle-solving is probably the rawest aspect of Cyberia. Zak is a hacker, remember? Those stylish shades he always wears are actually quite technologically advanced. They have three types of sensors: for most of the puzzles in the game, you will use magnetic resonance imaging, an infrared scan will help you only once, and the bio-scan is… well, completely useless. Impractical variety is better than suffocating monotony, I suppose…
When plot demands from Zak to take control of some futuristic shooting device, be it a turret or a plane, the game shifts to its rail-shooting mode. There is a decent portion of rail-shooting sequences in the middle of the game coming one straight after another in such a way that you almost forget that Cyberia is an adventure game. As in usual ‘full-time’ rail-shooters, the camera moves in fixed preprogrammed routs, while the player’s goal is to control the crosshair and hit most of the targets. Sometimes shooting guns depletes energy, sometimes you mustn’t miss even once—everything depends on the story limitations of each sequence. Rail-shooting mode is probably the most wholesome and fully baked mode of Cyberia’s gameplay. However, I find the plane’s interface somewhat counterintuitive: it takes some tries to understand which icon means what.
The most interesting and even paradoxical thing in it all is that actually, Cyberia turns out to be a pretty fun game. Excellent visuals and pretty enjoyable sound design create a unique atmosphere, which fills the void created by weak storytelling. The game moves in dynamic pace, frequently catching you off-guard with either shift in the gameplay or with some surprising nasty way to kill the main character. Rail-shooting sequences are relatively challenging, but short enough and directed well enough to not become frustrating.
But the best thing in Cyberia, as I see it, is its length. This game is short. Like, really short: I’ve beat it in less than three hours (that’s considering how I suck at rail-shooters). That’s not some weak attempt to make a silly joke on behalf of the game: I really think that a short format is right for Cyberia. The game never outstays its welcome, keeps its pace all throughout the walkthrough, and doesn’t give time for its flaws to actually matter and spoil the experience.
Cyberia was never the harbinger of cinema and videogames synergy, nor it’s not even a significant or meaningful title for its own medium. It’s just a short, flawed, but quite an enjoyable game. And a pretty unique one, actually. Ambitious and humble simultaneously. That’s why it should be remembered.
Unlike its sequel…
Cyberia 2: Resurrection was released in 1995, continuing the plot of its predecessor. Xatrix Entertainment tried to polish the flaws of the original game, but as I see it, it just made it all worse.
Graphics became slightly better, and an attempt was made to fuel the story with more characters, broader dialogues, and more frequent and more prolonged cut-scenes. Unfortunately, it did a great disservice to the game, because the quality of cinematics here is abhorrent. The cheesy voice acting combined with poor writing riddled with clichés give Cyberia 2 extremely cheap feel. Poorly directed cut-scenes are too frequent and often unnecessary: it’s infuriating when the flow of the game cuts off for the sake of some random fart joke.
Poor level of videogame cinematography in Cyberia 2 catches the eye more than in original Cyberia. The sequel could have singlehandedly shattered all the hopes of videogames and cinema convergence: the worst of the early ‘90s direct-to-video low-budget action flick would seem a masterpiece in comparison.
Gameplay-wise, everything remained mostly the same with an exception that each and every slightest change massively sabotaged the game.
Cyberia 2 is more decisive in terms of its gameplay than its predecessor: while the game is still divided into three modes, rail-shooting now rules the screen-time. Aircraft rail-shooting sequences, on-wheels rail-shooting sequences, dreamlike rail-shooting sequences—you have it all here. Even in-doors on-foot rail-shooting sequences in all their cheap-looking and cringe-worthy glory.
Puzzle-solving mode got rid of all the sensor options and became far less challenging. Adventuring now focuses mostly on stealth segments. The movement is still node to node, but the camera now hovers over Zak’s shoulder. For me, it ruins the atmosphere completely. In the original Cyberia, the fixed camera contributed to the haunted feeling of being alone in a hostile and deadly environment (that’s why early survival horrors used fixed camera frequently). Cyberia 2’s over-the-shoulder camera empowers Zak, and if you take into account all those rail-shooting sequences when you cut through dozens of enemies, empowers him too much—up to the point of devoiding him of any uniqueness, making him one of the hundreds of faceless action heroes.
In the same matter as one slight change in game’s perspective stripped the main character of his uniqueness, the sum of all tweaks and changes in formula, however minor they are, depleted Cyberia 2 of its predecessor’s charm. So what’s left is an empty shell of a game. Faceless, forgettable, unwanted.
For Xatrix, though, it was just the beginning. Great success would await them in their future endeavors. Redneck Rampage, Kingpin: Life of Crime, renaming to Grey Matter Interactive, then Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and finally merger into Treyarch. So in some way, the studio’s ambition of making highly cinematic videogames have been fulfilled in the end. Sort of.