Paris in the Spring. The city holds many memories for me; of conspiracies, of sewer keys, of romance, and of goats. Once again, I find myself in the city of lights, guiding George Stobbart and Nico Collard through a grand mystery that stretches back into the annals of time. I’ve had years to reminisce and re-examine our past adventures (now in glorious HD with artwork by David Gibbons), but it feels so good to be back and doing something new. Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse has been a long time coming.
For the uninitiated, Broken Sword is a best-selling point-and-click adventure series from the mid-90s that raised the bar in terms cinematic gameplay. It was doing the whole “Holy Blood and the Holy Grail Knights Templar conspiracy in Paris” thing almost a decade before Dan Brown wrote that one terrible novel, but a lot of current story trends, particularly in games, can be traced back to the series. The first game, Shadow of the Templars, is about a secret, centuries-old war between the Knights Templar and the Hashashin (and the titular sword is a prehistoric mind control weapon). The series also prominently features an on-again off-again romance between its hero (an affable but put-upon everyman with a knack for solving ancient riddles) and heroine (an intrepid, globe-trotting reporter who can’t seem to stay out of trouble). What I’m saying is, pretty much everything you like has stolen something from Broken Sword.
And with good reason: the Broken Sword games were well-written and charming as all heck. They stand among the best adventure games of all time, with compelling tales of intrigue, great characters, and intricate, challenging puzzles (some infamously so). Like many other point-and-clicks, the series took a hit in quality when it transitioned to 3D in the early 2000s, but though Sleeping Dragon and Angel of Death marked a low point in the series, they still had wit and charm to spare. In recent years, new players have had the chance to play the original 2D games thanks to a pair of high-quality HD remasters, and now, through the magic of Kickstarter, we have a new game that marks a return to form for the series –sort of.
The game certainly kicks off like a return to form, with an opening credits sequence featuring the iconic Broken Sword theme and a soaring bird, obviously meant to mirror the original game’s intro. From the first note, the game sounds entirely authentic, but the music here doesn’t just evoke nostalgia. The score is powerful and cinematic, featuring solid orchestral work and even a decently catchy stoner rock song. There’s some fantastic ambiance at play here that really brings the environments to life.
These environments are capital-G Gorgeous, hand-drawn with a true sense of artistry and packed with detail. This is a world that feels lived-in, while simultaneously allowing important gameplay elements to be subtly emphasized. Eagle-eyed gamers will pick up on the many references to previous games hidden in the backgrounds. These are environments crafted by adventure game masters. The characters that populate them could use a little work.
The old Broken Sword games were notable for their beautiful, fluid sprite animations. Coupled with the Virtual Theatre engine’s impressive AI, they allowed the characters to really inhabit the game world. By contrast, Serpent’s Curse uses cel-shaded 3D models that, while pretty to look at on their own, are stiffly animated and stick out from the hand-drawn backdrops like a well-rendered sore thumb. Obviously, creating hundreds of HD sprites per character would have been infeasible, but more work could have been done to bring these models to life. They also make an extremely poor substitute for the striking animated cutscenes of the first two games.
Ultimately, though, it’s a minor quibble. The characters might look stiff and awkward, but they act and sound like the colorful cast we’ve come to know and love. On the writing side of things, this is Broken Sword through and through. Many memorable personalities from past games return, such as the lovable Gendarme Moue, and the new additions to the game’s quirky world feel right at home next to them. There’s a lot of great character humor here, even if you see patterns repeat a bit – the writers seem to have a particular affection for surprisingly philosophical wage laborers and bumbling cops. The acting bringing these characters is spot on. Broken Sword has always showcased some of the industry’s best voiceover work, and Serpent’s Curse is no exception.
The story itself is a weighty, interesting affair laden with religious history and symbolism. Revolution Software have finally laid the Templar story to rest, and instead the plot is focused on the conflict of ideals between Gnostic and Orthodox Christians. The core mystery is exciting and tightly paced, and whatever historical conspiracy George and Nico have uncovered this time seems to be deep and compelling.
I say “seems to be” because the first episode ends on a rather egregious cliffhanger, with most of the central questions still up in the air. I’m a huge proponent for episodic storytelling – I think Telltale have more than proven the effectiveness of the method – but this sort of thing rubs me the wrong way. An episode needs to have some sense of resolution in order to satisfy the player. You should be left wanting more, but not because you didn’t get enough. It feels strange to say that, too, because the first episode easily lasts 6-8 hours.
Even if it hasn’t been entirely satisfying, solving this particular mystery has been a lot of fun so far. There are plenty of well-designed puzzles to challenge your deductive reasoning, cultural knowledge, and MacGyvering knowhow. The game does suffer from cluttered inventory, and on occasion you’ll find yourself just clicking on everything due to information overload, but there’s a hint system in place to ensure you’ll never have to hit up gamefaqs. It can be annoying to have to resort to using hints, but they do help to streamline things, and for the most part they’re entirely unneeded. The game generally has a strong sense of logic, which is important in a mystery, and for the most part the puzzles feel sensible while still taxing your mental muscles.
On the bright side, the stuffed inventory makes for some extensive and amusing dialogue trees. You can talk to almost anyone about almost anything in your pockets, and they’ll usually have something clever to say about it. You can spend a lot of time just shooting the breeze with people, and it almost always feels rewarding. Occasionally, you’ll also have to present difficult NPCs with items in order to ply them into cooperating with you, and while these puzzles are simple, they do lend interactions a greater sense of dynamism.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse so far, but there’s no denying that the game is half-finished. Everything is building up to what I hope will be a fulfilling conclusion, but that conclusion is months away, and as things stand that makes it difficult to recommend the game’s first half to a broader audience. Fans of the series shouldn’t hesitate – this is the Broken Sword you know and love – but I can understand other people being wary. I trust Revolution Software to deliver a great finale, and if you’re an adventure game nut you’ll find plenty to love here, but we’re in for a bit of a wait. In the interceding months, I highly recommend catching up on the original games if you haven’t already.