By Ian McCabe
Broken Sword is a title synonymous with adventure games fans around the world, having spawned numerous sequels and establishing itself as one of the most loved and successful game franchises of all time. This month, the director’s cut of the original game Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars finally saw a release on PC and Mac, proving that there is still life in the title fourteen years later. However, in 2006 The Angel of Death, the most recent addition to the Broken Sword canon, came and went without so much as a blip on the gaming radar. Now, the time feels just right to take a step back and remember the one that got away. But does it live up to its older and more popular siblings?
The early to mid-2000s wasn’t a time of fond memories for adventures games. Depending on whom you listened to, 2D point and click games weren’t commercially viable and the adventure genre was as good as dead. The production houses that were once booming and creating the much loved titles of the 1980’s and 90’s began to close their doors one by one.
Charles Cecil’s Revolution Software was one of the few adventure game studios who were still keeping their heads above water, even if it meant making some sacrifices. In 2003, they moved away from the 2D point and click games with which they had made their name, and released the third instalment of their Broken Sword series (The Sleeping Dragon) in 3D, with directional controls replacing the traditional mouse lead point and click mechanic.
Although the game was successful and popular amongst the majority of adventure game fans, many of the series’ hardcore fans felt alienated by the shift. The decision to jump to 3D was a hand which Revolution simply had no choice with however. 2D would no longer sell, so if they wanted to attract a publisher for the game, they’d have to comply with the trends.
2006 saw the release of the Nintendo Wii which, along with its younger sibling the DS and next-gen mobile phones, would soon help in resuscitating the genre and kick-start a new generation of 2D adventure games. The release of Valve’s Steam and new developers such as Telltale would also soon create a new download revolution, which would help bring the glory days back. The adventure renaissance hadn’t quite taken off yet however, and the same year saw Revolution bravely release the fourth instalment of their Broken Sword series, entitled ‘The Angel of Death.’
As with the previous instalment, it was 3D, but this time it was a PC only release. The game received a mixed, although primarily positive reception, but was soon buried by other, more high profile releases of the time. With a new adventure revolution on the horizon, it could be argued that The Angel of Death was released ahead of its time. But at the time it would find itself living within the shadow of its predecessors; with the small remains of the old adventure crowd still yearning for the days of old, it was always going to have an uphill battle.
Broken Sword: The Angel of Death continues on from the previous games and again follows maverick American George Stobbart. The game starts with George, down on his luck, spending his days as a bail bonds clerk, no longer able to find work as a high flying patent clerk. His globetrotting adventures and battles with the Knights Templar are now a thing of the past after catching the suspicious eye of the US government.
George’s new quiet life is soon thrown into disarray when the beautiful Anna-Maria enters his life and demands his help with an ancient manuscript. He soon finds his life in danger as they are chased by a group of gangsters hell bent on taking the manuscript for themselves. George and Anna-Maria must keep the manuscript safe as they jump from country to country, attempting to break its code. Normal life has resumed for our American hero, George Stobbart.
Upon its initial release, I personally couldn’t play the game, which was a large annoyance since I am a huge fan of the franchise. The requirements were far too high for my four year old laptop at the time. Cecil and his Revolution team were perhaps being a little too ambitious with the release. The idea of an adventure game being too graphically enhanced to play on most everyday computers was unheard of, but was perhaps a sign of the times. (On a side note, The Angel of Death was actually outsourced to Sumo Digital, the first time Revolution had done this. Revolution’s Lead Programmer Tony Warriner still made a significant contribution.)
The graphics are impressive to look at for the time, but don’t actually add much to the game. The characters are highly detailed, especially during conversations and the rain effects in the first stage of the game still hold up even by today’s standards. Sadly, the locations vary from being full of detail and character, to being empty and even quite blocky.
Character facial expressions and animations are where the previous game excelled in the jump to 3D, however with The Angel of Death it is the opposite, with facial expressions kept to a bare minimum. This is a shame as it takes some of the realism and even emotion away from George and the supporting cast, making their movements and expressions look almost robotic, even for 2006. Now and then a character may frown slightly or even smile, but that’s about as far as it goes and it’s an unfortunate step back from the previous game. This seems a little odd considering the game’s graphical specifications.
The Angel of Death also sees the return of pure point and click controls, although the ability to move the character freely with the keyboard is still included as an alternative. Broken Sword made its name as a point and click adventure, so this will surely make the hardcore fans sigh with relief. Using the point and click interface is the easiest way of playing the game, but it still has some difficulties operating in a 3D environment. For example, if I wanted George to move to a hot spot which was at the other end of the room, he would sometimes begin by walking around in a circle. Often he would collide with an object or even a wall. This only happened a few times though and the directional controls were also there to help out when needed, so it’s a problem that can be taken with a pinch of salt.
The puzzles are where The Angel of Death stands out. Most are reminiscent of the first two games and improve on the third game. There are no more quick-time events or prolonged crate puzzles and they are much more varied. Some will obviously make you want to bang your head against a wall, whilst others are inventive and clever (one such puzzle in the Vatican involving pigeons/monks comes to mind and puts a smile on my face.) George now also has a new mobile phone capable of hacking into computer systems. This involves solving a particular puzzle which crops up numerous times throughout the game, each time more challenging but always strangely enjoyable despite its repetitiveness.
The narrative of the game is similar to the other three titles; the player takes control of George, playing detective and hopping from country to country in search of ancient relics and secrets. It is enjoyable for even the most casual of history and mythology fans and stays true to the series in that sense, although it does lack the depth of it predecessors.
Although George’s long time rivals the Knights Templar are mentioned, they aren’t the primary focus of the adventure, so it is an original story in the series’ canon. The story also has the trademark Broken Sword humour and quirky side characters, but on a slightly lesser scale and is even tragic in places. But, the biggest downside is that the narrative doesn’t pay off and often struggles to keep up a consistent pace. The introduction is fast and exciting, with George and the newly introduced Anna-Maria running for their lives when threatened by mobsters. But sadly, the rest of the game doesn’t live up to the opening, especially the final sequence which ends unimpressively to say the least.
As mentioned, George Stobbart is back and is voiced once more by the excellent Rolf Saxon, who puts in yet another great performance. Our hero may be rather more downbeat than usual, but his charm, wit and humorous quips, as well as the odd Stobbart family anecdotes, are still present and correct. Everything about him which has made him such a popular character is back, including his never-too-full pockets.
George’s partner in crime, Nico, also makes a return as a playable character, although she is used much more sparingly than in the previous games. In fact, Nico’s appearance in the game feels forced and it seems she is only here for sake of being included, but the chemistry is still there and fun to watch. George’s new romantic interest Anna-Maria sees more screen time than Nico, but unfortunately we’re never allowed to know much about her, although she’s not the most likable or interesting character anyway. There are plenty of characters new and even old throughout, which should give fans of the series a quick laugh when not puzzle solving..
To wrap things up, Broken Sword: The Angel of Death isn’t a bad game by any means. The era in which it was made wasn’t the easiest time to release a large scale point and click adventure, but Revolution did a more than adequate job. In fact, it’s a very enjoyable adventure game in its own right, but compared to the original 2D adventures of the 90’s and even The Sleeping Dragon, it doesn’t quite compare.
Don’t be expecting an experience as vast and enjoyable as the first three games. The pace and the payoff of the story leave a lot to be desired and some of the action and characters feel forced and rushed, as if the makers were trying a little too hard to recreate the feel of the previous games. The high end graphics and system requirements still ask a lot of most computers, but add very little; it really misses the quirky facial expressions of the previous outing.
Nevertheless, the game still has plenty of what made the first three Broken Sword titles so successful and should therefore just about please fans of the series, even those who felt alienated by the switch to 3D.
7 OUT OF 10