Cyberia: Done

Zak, the player character in Cyberia, is a cyberpunk-as-interpreted-by-videogames sort of hero: a cool tough guy with computerized shades. His voice is permanently bored and his face never changes expression, or indeed shows any sign of being able to move his facial muscles at all, which is a bit of a problem for a kissing scene early on. And he kills and kills and kills. Once you’re in the Cyberia compound, leaving anything alive behind you generally means getting shot in the back. If you manage to slip by someone without killing them, it just means you’re going to have to kill them some other way later.

For the wandering-around-corridors segment of the game contains shooting of zap guns aplenty, usually in the form of shootouts where you and the enemy are popping out from cover repeatedly. This is one of the game’s few ways to keep repeatedly killing you in what would otherwise be a lightweight adventure-style situational puzzle sequence. Some puzzles require actions in more than one room, which is a bit of a strain on the checkpoint system, which is designed to just remember a location, not any state. The result is that the checkpoints can get pretty far apart here, with the result that any time I died, I needed to repeat multiple roomworths of content, including shootouts. Just a few days ago, I complained about the rapid die/retry cycle, but it’s even worse when it’s long.

Each floor of the compound is mostly just one big curving corridor with rooms hanging off it here and there, but in its favor, the place really is conceived as spatially coherent, and there are a couple of puzzles that rely on this. For example, one bit requires you to open a vent so you can reach through it from the other side, after going back the way you came and then coming back through some unusually spacious air ducts.

Also to its credit, the game does go slightly nonlinear here, with two entrances to the compound, one guarded by a guard with a gun, the other by something even more lethal: a spinning metal fan. (For some reason, videogame designers seem to think that fans are the most dangerous things on Earth. Even in a game where you can keep going after falling five stories and taking multiple bullets to the chest, touching a fan kills instantly.) Anyway, the guard route leads to one of those self-contained wall-panel puzzles that I liked so much. Unfortunately, that seems to be it for those puzzles. Just two in the entire game, and one of them is skippable.

We get more story in the compound than in the rest of the game put together, partly through snooping into the staff’s video emails. But the story is pretty much all cliché, including the genre-mandated betrayal of the hero by his employer. Why is this such a mainstay of the cyberpunk videogame? It wasn’t that big a part of literary cyberpunk.

Towards the end, there is more of the FMV swoop-and-shoot, but not in the way I had anticipated. In fact, you get three different contexts for it, two of which involve controlling a machine remotely, so that you’re playing the part of a person sitting and staring at a computer screen. The third, the climax of the game, involves becoming a sort of nanotech superman and flying off into space for the most direct Rebel Assault imitation yet. Space seems to me a better setting for this stuff than Earth, if only because it’s easier to render convincingly.

And that concludes Cyberia, a game that I didn’t want. I’ll say this for it: it’s a pretty pure specimen of its type. If someone asks “What were 90s FMV games like, and why are people so down on them?”, you can point them at Cyberia to answer both questions.

Cyberia: Aerial Combat

So, my latest session was all about the Rebel Assault-style FMV swoop-and-shoot. For a lengthy portion of the game, that’s all you get, just one air-combat mission after another. It makes me think of how the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 were broken up with obstacles that you could only clear by getting out the the vehicle and pressing a switch or something in a guarded building nearby, a fragment of ordinary FPS gameplay inserted to make the whole thing less monotonous. Nothing of that kind happens here.

I have a couple more big complaints about the way air combat is handled here. One is that the underlying movie clip sometimes cuts away to show a third-person shot of a particularly dramatic explosion or your plane noninteractively executing a sweet maneuver, and that’s pretty much always a mistake in the middle of an action scene, particularly if there are still targets on the screen that the mini-cutscene is keeping the player from blowing up. Even worse, because some of these cutscenes show things that you can shoot at blowing up, there is no way to destroy those things before the video playback reaches the cutscene. You’ll be shooting at a plane over and over for a couple of seconds with no effect, and that’s frustrating.

Also, I can’t help but feel that this sort of fast-paced first-person air combat really needs a resolution higher than 320×200. Enemies often spend most of their time onscreen as one or two pixels, too small to identify even on the level of “is it a plane or a tank”, and thus too small for the player to anticipate their behavior or prioritize their destruction. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to learn what’s going to happen and how to react to it by means of exact repetition.

To be honest, there is a pleasure to be found in this: the pleasure of finally overcoming a challenge that you’ve failed many times, a mix of triumph and relief. But I’m impatient with this game, and want it off my Stack, and some of the levels just seem insanely difficult. And so I’ve dropped the difficulty down to Easy for action sequences (the game has separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles), despite the implication in the docs that this setting is for babies and grandmothers. Even on Easy, I had some difficulty with the later shooty levels, but the overall experience was an improvement, replacing the pleasure of overcoming a challenge failed repeatedly with that of getting it right on the first try. 

There was just one problem: the game doesn’t support switching difficulty settings on the fly. To drop down to Easy, you have to create a new profile and start over from the beginning. But I didn’t have a whole lot of ground to re-cover, and it goes a lot faster when you know what you’re doing. Also, I decided to take advantage of this discontinuity by switching to a different machine, and found that on the other one I could play full-screen without problems. I’m finding this much nicer, even if it does expose the pixelation more. Well, it’s not like the graphics were all that good anyway, right?

Anyway, I seem to be done with this stuff, at least for now. Last night, after something resembling a boss fight (involving a large aircraft with three weapons that had to be destroyed individually), I reached my destination, the compound housing the Cyberia project (which is something to do with nanotechnology), and that seemed like a good stopping-point for the session. It remains to be seen if I’ll need to do more dogfighting as I make my escape.


Although it was just a random fluke at first, once a pattern is established, why not carry it out to its conclusion? Ia! Ia!

And she was all like "Cool shades man" and I was like "I know"Cyberia (not to be confused with Benoit Sokal’s atmospheric graphic adventure Syberia) is a thick slice of 90s FMV cheese. I obtained it as part of one of Interplay’s cheap old game anthologies, and it wasn’t one of the games that I bought the anthology for. As a result, I had basically forgotten about it until I saw its name in my list, and had some difficulty locating the disc: I have most of my physical media nicely alphabetized by title, but a CD-ROM with multiple unrelated games on it breaks such a scheme, especially if you don’t remember that the title you’re looking for is on such a thing. Installing the game under DOSBox (and convincing it to use an image of the CD-ROM instead of the real thing) went without problems, except that the color map goes all strange when I try to run it in full-screen mode. Irony, that: here we are playing a game from 1994, when full-screen FMV without special hardware was finally feasible, but I’m playing it in a tiny portion of my screen anyway.

The video content here is all pre-rendered CGI, and shares with most other pre-rendered CGI video of its era the sad attribute that it doesn’t look as good as what’s done in realtime by stuff that you can play for free on the web nowadays. It’s ever the fate of games that emphasize style over substance to age badly. Ah, but what about the substance? So far, I’ve seen three sorts of interactivity: bits where you wander around and try not to get killed, bits where you solve self-contained puzzles, and bits where you shoot at aircraft (or possibly spacecraft; this is a sci-fi game, but I’m not sure just how sci-fi).

The wandering around is weak and Dragon’s Lair-ish, with a rapid die-and-retry cycle and no other way to anticipate the results of your actions. (Like Dragon’s Lair, it even bases its interface on the equivalent of an Atari joystick, four directions and a fire button.) The shooting is more reminiscent of Rebel Assault: you swoop around on a pre-rendered video track and sundry targets present themselves in sync with the scenery (but with a rectangular targeting thingy around them to make it clear that they’re not actually part of it). It’s easy to fail this stuff, and the unvarying background video makes it feel extra-repetitive when you do. As for the puzzles, I’ve really only seen one so far, and it was pretty cool. It involves just as much dying and starting over as everything else, of course, but it was in the service of figuring out an ambiguous mechanism with a minimum of instruction. There were details in its graphical representation that I didn’t notice until I had gleaned some notion of what I was looking for, and that felt very nice. If only more of the game were like that.