By Marty Mulrooney
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse is the fifth instalment in the Broken Sword series of adventure games created by British studio Revolution Software. The game has been partly funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, which saw 14,032 backers donating $771,560 (over $823,000 including PayPal donations) last year. An unashamedly 2D traditional point-and-click adventure game with a contemporary HD presentation, Broken Sword 5 once again sees American everyman George Stobbart and French journalist Nico Collard uncovering a conspiracy that will take them around the world in pursuit of the unspeakable truth.
Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars (1996) was, and still is, a masterpiece. Mixing historical fact with imaginative fiction, the game wove together an engaging interactive entertainment experience that still stands up today. I would argue strongly that both Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (a 2D sequel released in 1997) and Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon (released in 2003, which saw the series switch to 3D) were accomplished follow-ups despite their issues, but there is no doubt that Broken Sword: The Angel of Death (2006) almost completely lost its way, lacking much of the charm of its predecessors due to its noticeably reduced budget and outsourced development.
It’s now 2013 and most gaming websites and publications start any review of an adventure game by casually referring to the ‘death’ of the genre – but that’s not entirely fair, nor accurate for that matter. Publishers undoubtedly lost their faith and this had a knock-on effect on the quality of many adventure games for a number of years. But there were always diamonds in the rough and just because an area of gaming becomes niche doesn’t make it any less valid, or less enjoyable for the gamers who never wavered in their affections or taste. So, let’s not simply dismiss fans of traditional adventure games as ‘nostalgic’ – the market for games like Broken Sword has undoubtedly shrunk, but it’s still alive and clicking today.
Broken Sword 5 has sidestepped the problems now associated with dealing with publishers by being created independently – however, this does mean that deadlines have slipped and been extended, resulting in this latest adventure being split into two halves to keep backers of the Kickstarter campaign happy. Episode 1 comprises roughly 50% of the game as a whole, with the second half due for release in January 2014.
Episode 1 begins mysteriously in 1937 (Catalonia, Spain), before jumping forward to the present day, where George and Nico have reconnected during a private view at an art gallery in Paris. Of course, this wouldn’t be a Broken Sword game without an exciting opening. Before long, a helmeted thief enters the gallery, steals a painting called ‘La Maledicio’ and shoots the gallery owner dead. Nico chases after the killer and George is left to piece together what has just happened before the cops arrive. Meanwhile, a priest keeps talking about the Devil…
The gameplay of the series has finally returned to its roots: it’s fundamentally the same control scheme as the first two Broken Sword games, with a modern lick of paint (for purists, a ‘classic’ UI and traditional speech text can also be activated via the settings menu). To progress, George must speak to other characters, investigate and interact with hotspots, and use his seemingly bottomless pockets to collect a wide assortment of items that can then be used to solve a variety of puzzles.
The graphics are stunning, featuring beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds with cartooney 3D character models laid over the top. This approach is obviously as much for budgetary reasons as it is a stylistic choice, but surprisingly the result is practically seamless and looks really pleasing to the eye. It’s true that the animations can sometimes seem a little bit limited (such as the basic lip syncing), but it’s also true that there are plenty of small details (such as the incidental animations) that bring the characters to life.
Backing up the strong presentation is natural sounding dialogue delivered by capable voice actors. Rolf Saxon returns as George Stobbart and reads each line with effortless charm. It’s not just the fact that his voice is synonymous with George. He pauses in just the right places, emphasises just the right words and makes the lines sing oh-so sweetly. You never get the impression that one phrase is more important than the next. Rolf’s performance never falters and the joy of hearing George’s responses to the world around him drives the experience forward just as much as – if not more so than – the unfolding conspiracy plot.
The rest of the voice cast does an admirable job, although some characters admittedly sound better than others (though none sound terrible). The new voice for Nico in particular takes some getting used to (the voice actress can sound a little bit devoid of emotion at times) but by the end of Episode 1, her performance has markedly improved and it’s delightful to hear George and Nico engaging in their sarcastic trademark banter. It’s great fun when playing as either character to chat with the supporting cast and show them your inventory items too. Many adventure games struggle to make conversations engaging, but Revolution Software never seems to have any problem making their characters feel like authentic people, each with their own unique personality traits and quirks.
The puzzles are kept logical for the most part and there is a robust hint system available to help players if they become stuck. It could be argued that Broken Sword 5 is fairly easy as an adventure game, but part of the reason the gameplay experience flows so smoothly is simply down to strong design. One puzzle in particular is admittedly rather silly – and perhaps making a subtle dig at Gabriel Knight 3’s infamous ‘cat hair moustache’ puzzle – but there is never a moment where players will become frustrated.
The ‘map’ feature makes a welcome return from the original 2D games, allowing players to decide where to head next. Letting George travel around different locations in Paris at will conveys a wonderful sense of control, even if it’s mostly just smoke and mirrors – most puzzles are contained within a single location and progression is fairly linear. Again, it’s all down to a matter of personal taste. There aren’t that many locations (and many are revisited) but each area is bursting with detail and feels totally authentic with a real sense of place. It also helps that there are beautifully subtle lighting effects throughout each location that further elevate the atmosphere. The night-time scenes in London are a particular highlight, strongly evoking the mood of the docks in Broken Sword II.
There are some problems with perspective at times (watch closely as Nico walks down the corridor outside her apartment) and some occasional visual glitches and quirks (such as when George walks across a dumpster rather than around it). Yet overall the game engine is solid, load times are practically non-existent and everything looks and sounds superb. Broken Sword 5 gets far more right than it does wrong and it’s exciting to imagine future adventure games (such as Beneath a Steel Sky 2) that Revolution Software could develop using the same technology.
Is Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse – Episode 1 a form of fan service? Absolutely – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Familiar faces return, and so does original composer Barrington Pheloung. Much of the music sounds like a variation on the original 1996 soundtrack, but that’s not to the game’s detriment and what new music there is sounds great. The main fault with Episode 1 is that it’s only half a game – just as things start to (quite literally) heat up, the credits roll. The second half could drastically alter perceptions of the first, and it remains to be seen how the payoff will compare to the set-up.
Regardless of what 2014 brings, this first step into the world of Broken Sword 5 delivers not only an excellent new instalment in the series, but an excellent adventure game full stop. Congratulations to Charles Cecil and the Revolution Software team for bringing George and Nico back to life in vivid HD with not a publisher in sight – it turns out that happiness really is an inside job!
9 OUT OF 10
GAME REVIEW – Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars – The Director’s Cut (Nintendo Wii, PC Digital Download)
GAME REVIEW – Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror – Remastered (PC Digital Download)
INTERVIEW – In Conversation With Rolf Saxon (Actor, Broken Sword)
FEATURE ARTICLE – Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars – The Film Script