I’ve always considered the Broken Sword franchise to be the video game version of a great summer read. Being a point and click adventure the gameplay doesn’t get in the way of the story, allowing for a stronger emphasis placed on writing believable characters and constructing an engrossing mystery. Unlike LucasArts adventure games, Broken Sword is mostly grounded in reality and lacks the madcap zaniness or fantastical elements. That isn’t’t to say the series is a stuffed shirt. Far from it! It successfully struck a balance between drama, action and comedy better than most other adventure games I’ve played over the years.
Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse is more than a new game in the series, it is the latest Kickstarter success story. Charles Cecil appealed to the crowdsourcing community to develop a new adventure with the original Revolution crew, promising to bring it back to its 2D roots after The Sleeping Dragon and The Angel of Death (both I did not play) transitioned to 3D. Gamers responded with their wallets and Cecil, like Tim Schafer before him, earned far more than he asked. The question to be asked now is, with all that money is the game a hit or a miss?
Not only is The Serpent’s Curse a hit, it serves as a reminder of why I loved the Broken Sword games in the first place. It helps, I think, that the game feels like an honest to god sequel to the first two games because of cameos made by characters who appeared in Shadow of the Templars and The Smoking Mirror. George Stobbart, our intrepid protagonist, has returned to Paris as an employee of an art insurance firm to oversee the exhibition of a religious painting that may share a connection with the Gnostic order. Reuniting with journalist and one time lover Nico Collard, the pair find themselves wrapped up in another mystery filled with danger and intrigue after the painting is stolen and its owner murdered.
Moving around and advancing the story uses the simple, if aged, point and click mechanic. Clicking on people, objects or the environment is enough to get George or Nico to interact with their surroundings, talk to various NPCs and solve a series of puzzles – many of which require the manipulation of everyday items like matches, coins and paper clips. The game’s puzzles are not particularly difficult, you won’t find Chicken With A Pulley In The Middle logic here, though if a task proves to be a bit too much, an in-game help system is available to steer you in the right direction.
Many of the game’s puzzles are straightforward and pretty easy for the most part and if they served as the game’s primary selling point, then The Serpent’s Curse wouldn’t be worth the time. This is where the rich quality of the writing proves its worth. Charles Cecil knows how to tell a good mystery. Newcomers might feel lost during moments when George and Nico recognize people they met several games ago, though that doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall narrative. George’s wry sense of humor makes for entertaining exchanges as he pokes and prods his way through the process of getting information. One aspect of the story that Broken Sword has always done well is the transition from the game’s initial, seemingly insignificant mystery into a larger, global threatening conspiracy involving shadowy organizations and elements of the paranormal. As larger than life the mystery becomes the story stays level headed, never veering off the deep end, like Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit. The Serpent’s Curse strikes a comfortable balance between fantasy and reality. Well, as far as episode one is concerned.
The game’s art style is most certainly worth pointing out. Unlike Sleeping Dragon and Angel of Death, The Serpent’s Curse heralds the return of hand drawn backgrounds. Taking advantage of high resolution displays, no other game in the series has looked so wonderful. Environments are beautifully designed and have a real sense of place, that you could walk down a Parisian street and find the real world counterpart of the art gallery and coffee shop. Such a feat is only possible with the talent Cecil brought in from noteworthy animation studios such as Disney, Dreamworks and Aardman Studios. The cast of characters were upgraded as well, designed as 3D actors but given a cell shaded texture skin. This design is at its best when the characters don’t move around so much only because their animations are stiff and much too repetitive.
In its current form, The Serpent’s Curse is half finished. The second episode isn’t due out until sometime this month but do not fear, episode one is pretty substantial and ends with a satisfactory cliffhanger. Several of my Darkstation colleagues have identified games that make them want to pour out a drink before immersing themselves deep into the experience. For me, Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse is it. Hell, Broken Sword the franchise is it. With a well developed and executed story backed by smart and fun characters, Charles Cecil has delivered a game worthy of the money he raised. I have faith that episode two will be able to maintain the first’s momentum and level of quality.