The humble point and click adventure has been undergoing something of a resurgence in recent years. Back in the early 90s you could barely move for the things, then with the advent of 3D gaming and the rise of the Playstation they slowly fell out of fashion and popularity as developers and publishers climbed over each other for a slice of the 3D platforming pie.
However in recent years and perhaps thanks to the efforts of developers such as Telltale Games and their fantastic episodic yarns, the genre is on the rise again – driven by successful resurrections of such beloved franchises as Sam and Max, Monkey Island and with the widespread use of distribution platforms such as Steam and GOG.com, revived classics such as Syberia and… erm… Leisure Suit Larry (ok, maybe not the last one).
Possibly one of the most loved of these franchises is Broken Sword. After a misguided sojourn into the third dimension and a pair of wonderful remasters of the first two games in the series for mobile platforms, the series is back in a fifth installment with Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse – Episode 1, arriving with a 2-dimensional bang after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign last year.
Well, half of it is: the success of the title meant that developer Revolution Software was able to extend the scope of the game and increase its length, leading to the game being split down the middle and released in two separate halves. The second half should be released (free to owners of the first part) during Q1 2014, but based on the strength of this first part the wait will certainly be worth it.
Gameplay is standard for the genre – characters interact with objects in a 2-dimensional environment to solve puzzles and progress the story. Some objects need to be investigated, while some need to be used in combination with others to solve a puzzle and characters need to be spoken to in order to reveal information. There’s a (very) brief and optional tutorial for people who’ve never played a point and click game before which quickly gets newcomers up to speed though, which is nice as the game is likely to attract a more casual audience as well as traditional gamers.
It doesn’t make any attempts to introduce bold new mechanics to the genre then, but it doesn’t have to and after the dubious attempt to bring the series into the 3rd dimension with the last two games in the series (which resulted in little more than – yawn – crate pushing puzzles), it’s nice to play something pleasingly traditional, like sliding into a pair of well-worn and comfortable slippers.
Series veterans will be pleased to know that once again inquisitive American George Stobbard and journalist Nicole Collard are the main protagonists and thanks to the use of the original voice actors it feels as though they never left. They look the part too – although the game takes place on (frequently gorgeous) hi-res hand-painted backdrops, characters themselves are rendered in 3d but in such a way as they resemble traditional cel-animated creations.
Once again, George and Nico find themselves caught up in a chain of events starting with a crime – in this case an art gallery robbery – but it quickly becomes apparent that there is more going on than first appears. Fans of the series will know that Broken Sword has always had a love for the historic, with the Knights Templar, the Ancient Incans and Arthurian Legend all featuring in previous titles and this latest title continues that tradition with a story that quickly escalates to involve religious cults, fascist-ruled wartime Spain and former Soviet spies with shady links to organized crime.
While there are a couple of occasions where the mix of arts styles can stand out – with characters clearly being overlaid on the backgrounds, their feet perhaps slightly overhanging the edge of a pavement, for example – for the most part it works well and aside from some dubious lip-syncing, doubtless caused by the need to translate the game’s voice acting into multiple languages, animation is similarly accomplished.
Combined with a lovely orchestral soundtrack that will bring back pleasant memories of the older games in the series, the final package is pleasing to the ear as well as the eye, well-presented and the love that has gone into the game is clear to see and hear. In fact the only sign of the game’s humble crowd-funded origins is in some minor spelling and grammar errors in the script, with words sometimes being spelled differently within mere moments of each other (as is the case with a brief discussion about Colonel Gaddafi, who is called Gadaffi and then Ghadaffi in the same conversation, for example). But those can be easily rectified via a post-release patch and they won’t detract from the overall enjoyment unless you’re particularly pedantic when it comes to use of the English Language.
Of course, no point and click game would be complete without puzzles and The Serpent’s Curse certainly has those in abundance. In keeping with genre tradition, every location is home to at least one or more conundrum and while they are a little on the easy side (it’s unlikely that you’ll need to use the game’s in-built hint system), they all manage to avoid the logical pitfalls that often blight the genre and thankfully most interactive objects are obvious, so you shouldn’t feel the need to play hunt-the-pixel searching for that elusive bit of the screen that will help you progress. You’ll overload an art studio’s power with the assistance of a rotund pensioner and some whiskey (it makes more sense than it sounds, trust me), gain access to a dodgy security company after dark and rummage through the office of a Russian mobster with more than a passing resemblance to a certain Eastern-European world leader.
The challenge bar is set fairly low from the outset and while things do increase slightly in complexity, old hands won’t have much if any problem getting through to the end in one or two sittings. The next step to progression is never in doubt thanks to clear indicators in the dialogue, though thankfully solutions are never spelled out to you unless you make use of the game’s hints in the menu.
Back-tracking is almost non-existent too: the solution to a puzzle is almost always in the same location, something which so many other point and click games fail at. The end result is a game which manages to make each puzzle feel satisfying to solve without being either insultingly easy or frustratingly obtuse, a further sign of a developer that is now an old hand when it comes to this type of game and has a good eye for judging difficulty.
While the running time of the game is fairly slight – Steam tells me that my play through took about 6 hours – for the most part, that’s actually to the game’s benefit. With such a compact structure – only a handful of locations are visited in this first part, spread across London and Paris – it’s unlikely that you’ll feel overwhelmed by the game’s scale and it also helps to make the game more approachable to newcomers to the genre and it means that the pacing never feels bogged down with a staccato rhythm of puzzles being shoved in the way for the sake of padding out the running time. A little more length would certainly have been nice, but it’s hard to judge on this first part alone how long the final running time will be once the second half is released (free to owners of Episode 1) early next year and the story reaches its conclusion.
A small cast ensures that all characters get their own time to shine and though one or two feel a little arbitrary, as though they are simply there to provide the solution to a puzzle, each is sketched out with some pleasing dialogue and the trademark gentle humor that the series has become known for. There’s some slightly unfortunate racial stereotyping – the aforementioned Russian mobster, a man of middle-eastern descent called Bassam running a stall of nick-knacks – but nothing that should cause offense to any but the most sensitive of souls. There’s also a familiar face thrown in there for fans of the older games, which should raise an appreciative smile.
The script, meanwhile, is well-written for the most part and avoids lengthy exposition-dumps. There are plenty of jokes in both the dialogue and the inner monologue of the two main leads and while the series has never been known for laugh-out-loud slapstick, plenty of moments left me with a smile on my face or lightly chuckling in appreciation of a well-judged and witty sentence. Again, fans of the series will welcome that this latest title remains faithful to its older siblings.
The game ends its short duration fairly predictably with a cliff hanger. It seems to come almost out of nowhere, the finish coming just as you feel as though you are really getting to grips with things and the story is starting to properly unfold; but at least it leaves you wanting to know what happens next and how everything will resolve itself.
All in all then, Broken Sword: The Serpents Curse – Episode 1 is a lovely game. A couple of very slight niggles with the mix of art-styles not always blending as seamlessly as they should, a few spelling errors and a slim running time stand out, but never threaten to take the shine off of what is otherwise a lovely package. It’s a great start to what we hope is a bright future for Broken Sword – we just hope that the second half is a little more generous in both length and content.