If you charted the quality of the Broken Sword series on a graph, with quality on the vertical axis and the games themselves on the horizontal axis, you’d get something that looks like the far side of a rather big hill. Because I’m an incredibly sad individual, I’ve done just that. That’s how I know.
Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars (or Circle of Blood to our American brethren) was a beautiful, intriguing, logical adventure that owed as much to murder mysteries as it did to the globe-trotting archaeology of Indiana Jones. Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror wasn’t as successful, losing a bit of the first game’s charm and not having a mystery quite as strong as the original. Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon had solid characters, but a rather naff interface, less-than-exquisite puzzles, and – perhaps due to the move to 3D – a lot of block-pushing. Then there’s Broken Sword: The Angel of Death, which I haven’t played but pretty much everyone seems to want to forget about that one.
Happily – while not being quite as good as either of the first two, and while containing a number of problems – the first episode of Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse moves the series back on an upwards trend, turning that hill into a bit of a ski jump. And I’ve pulled that analogy so far it’s probably about to snap, so let’s never mention it again.
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse opens in possibly the most nostalgic way possible. The familiar strains of the Broken Sword theme over the Revolution logo! Paris, in the spring! George and Nico, together again! A shocking murder! In this case, George is insuring an art exhibition and Nico is there to write about it, when a man in a motorcycle helmet bursts in, steals one very specific painting, and shoots the curator dead. From there, it’s not long before they’re dealing with incompetent police, an ex-KGB oligarch, hints of treachery, and an ancient conspiracy that bodes ill for the world at large.
So far, so Broken Sword, and that’s sort of the point. The Serpent’s Curse harkens back to the first two games, offering a 2D point-and-click adventure with lush backgrounds, generally logical puzzles, a focus on investigation, and only one puzzle that involves pushing something so that you can clamber onto it. The biggest difference is to the characters themselves; while the first two games had drawn characters, this uses 3D approximations that try to evoke the cartoony style. It… mostly works, too. The general effect is rather pretty (as you can doubtless see in the still images here) with the only real problem being some occasionally wooden animation.
Fortunately, the charm of the earlier titles is still intact. George’s dry wit has survived the multiple murders and apocalyptic plots he’s witnessed entirely unscathed, and the return of Rolf Saxon as his voice actor means that he’s as familiar a character as ever. There are a number of other recurring characters, pretty much all of whom feel accurate, and most of the new characters are rather well-written too.
A personal favourite is stall owner Bassam. While it would be very, very easy to have a placeholder person with no personality fill this admittedly minor role (he has involvement in maybe two puzzles, neither of which are really predicated on his character), that isn’t what’s done here. Bassam is a young man who considers himself a go-getter. He talks with breathless enthusiasm about margins and USPs, despite the fact that he is running a junk stall. This sort of memorable individuality is true of the majority of the characters in the game – and for once, I can actually use the word “character” without inwardly rolling my eyes.
Of course, whether you like them or find the somewhat stereotypical accents annoying comes down to personal taste. For me, it’s part of Broken Sword‘s charm; the series has thrived on combining its dark plots with ridiculous characters and over-the-top accents. For me, the first game was made by Moue, and Arto and Nejo, and Lady Piermont, and Duane. For you… well, maybe not. Alas, there’s no-one quite as memorable as Khan, and even I can poke a few holes in the Evil Conspiracy so far, but maybe episode two will rectify these issues.
Another rather important part of basically any point-and-click adventure is the puzzles, and the ones on offer here are a mixed bag. Few are particularly difficult, and there aren’t too many that feel illogical or ridiculous, but there is a big reliance on the game giving you the item you need at the exact moment you need it. At one point you need to wrench something open, and… oh, there’s a crowbar on the floor. At another point, a machine is stuck, and… oh, there’s a puddle of oil on the floor, and that drawer over there is completely empty except for a Q-tip that would be perfect for gathering and applying that oil. This is a recurring theme; while there are one or two genuinely solid puzzles, few of them will tax your grey matter too much. Most rely on using whatever item you’ve just found on whatever the problem is.
This wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t talk about bugs, so let’s quickly discuss one of the worst puzzles in the game: George has to get rid of a cockroach before a woman will talk to him. Quick! Think of a way to get rid of a cockroach, and assume that (despite the sheer number of morally questionable things George does in this game, including robbing multiple corpses) you can’t kill it. The actual solution is almost certainly stupider than whatever you’ve thought of, and yet isn’t particularly tricky to figure out thanks to the items you need being in the immediate environment.
I’d also like to point out that I’m unhappy about yet another point-and-click adventure that doesn’t have a key to highlight all hotspots on the screen, and lacks a double-click-to-instantly-move-to-that-spot feature, but neither of these are particularly big issues. The latter just means you spend a lot of time watching slow walking animations, and the former is rarely a problem as there isn’t much pixel-hunting in the game. Nonetheless, this is 2013, and I fail to understand how point-and-click adventures can still do this. Simon the Sorcerer 2 had a hotspot key, for crying out loud, and that was 18 years ago.
I do have one big problem, but it’s not really the game’s fault. It’s that this is the first episode of two, and unlike most episodic games, this feels like one big title that’s been chopped in half. By the time the ending rolls around – which will likely take anywhere between about three to six hours, depending on how much you abuse the in-game hint system – the big mystery is really only beginning to kick off. It’s hard to judge most episodic games based on their first episode, but said first episode is normally reasonably self-contained. This isn’t.
I don’t consider this a problem in and of itself – this is fairly clearly the first episode of two, and you can’t buy them separately. It just makes it a total bastard to actually review, because the quality of this hinges so badly on the quality of the second episode. If that’s fantastic and it turns out that this first episode is full of primers and clues as to how events develop, then hurrah! If, on the other hand, the mystery is a duffer and everything falls apart, then any enjoyment of this episode will suffer as a result.
Which, unfortunately, makes me incredibly wary of recommending this too highly. What’s here feels pretty authentic in almost every way; Broken Sword was always something that worked on the strength of its plot and characters rather than its puzzles, and that’s certainly true of this. The sound design is gorgeous and reminiscent of earlier games. It’s beautiful, well-written, and intriguing. Barring some niggling issues, it’s basically what I hoped for. It’s also impossible to judge whether the rest of The Serpent’s Curse will live up to the promise shown here, because so much relies on what happens next.
If you’re a die-hard fan of the series or you backed this on Kickstarter, then chances are this won’t disappoint and you can feel fairly safe in picking it up. Otherwise, you may want to hold off until episode two launches early next year. I don’t say this because what’s on offer here is bad – it’s really rather good, and I’m eagerly awaiting the story’s conclusion. I say this because of how important the quality of that second episode is to the long-term quality of the first.