GOGathon: Broken Swords From a Faulty Forge

When it came to point-and-click adventures, one specialist publisher of note is the UK’s Revolution Software. With the likes of Lure of the Temptress and Beneath a Steel Sky, Revolution carved out a reputation with games which, in retrospect, aren’t necessarily that hot when it came to the gameplay and writing, but did look remarkably nice for the time and did try to do some interesting new things with the form, even if those things didn’t always pan out well.

Such are the qualities which would eventually feed into the Broken Sword series of games. Set in the modern day, these combined globetrotting plotlines, charmingly realised locations, historical conspiracies, and an endearing cast to attain perhaps the most critical and commercial success of any of Revolution’s products, with five games so far being released in the series. However, are the games actually all that great, or do they hover at that good-to-mediocre level which can yield sufficient sales to keep the lights on but doesn’t result in a product which it’s especially fun to revisit after the hype is done?

Shadow of the Templars

The premise of the first game is simple enough: American tourist George Stobbart is enjoying a holiday in Paris when the café he’s sat outside is shattered by a bombing committed by an assassin disguised as a clown. Slain in the bombing is a certain Monsieur Plantard, a highly-placed civil servant in the Treasury, who had invited intrepid journalist Nico Collard to the café in order to discuss a highly sensitive story with her. When Stobbart and Nico compare notes, the duo realise they’ve stumbled onto something big, and neither of them feel able to set the investigation aside until they’ve got to the bottom of it all. And the mystery seems to have something to do with the secret treasure of the Knights Templar…

1996’s Shadow of the Templars is the shortest of the Broken Sword games, and in its original version you only ever played George. However, an enhanced Director’s Cut version of the game – first released on Nintendo DS and Wii in 2009 before being ported to other platforms, including the PC – expands the game somewhat by adding a number of sections where you play Nico, providing both a new prologue section as you play through Nico’s initial entanglement in the case which sets up the fatal rendezvous with Plantard, and then a few additional episodes as Nico’s personal investigation progresses.

These new additions rather dry up partway through the game, though they do lay the groundwork for a new end-of-game cut scene; this is inevitable because Nico’s investigation reaches a point where the writers couldn’t really do much more with it without significantly redesigning George’s segments of the game, and I suspect they simply didn’t have the budget for it that. Still, on balance I do quite like these new additions; as well as fleshing out the story a bit more, it also boosts Nico’s role in the story appreciably, since in the original version of the plot she didn’t do all that much, and it means Shadow of the Templars is no longer the odd-game-out in the series – for in all the others you play both George and Nico at various points in the game.

Though it makes passing reference to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (both directly and in, for instance, the name of Plantard), the plot bears more than a certain resemblance to Foucault’s Pendulum – what with it focusing on a group who consider themselves to be the successors to the Templars (even though they are nothing more than modern pretenders) chasing after a secret Templar source of power – though said power has a bit more reality to it here than in Umberto Eco’s novel, where it was merely a figment of Casaubon and friends’ imagination until it got out into the wild.

The writing team, led by Revolution head honcho Charles Cecil, do a fine job of presenting a storey which is clearly quite well-researched and erudite in a manner which is clear and approachable, and by and large makes sense without over-explaining itself (though depending on what order you address conversation topics in and when, you can sometimes catch George asking people about information he shouldn’t have quite figured out yet).

Though the game does have its lighter moments – it’s hard to make an adventure game which doesn’t include them, especially if you want to have entertaining reactions when the player tries to have the character do something silly – it takes on a somewhat more serious tone than, say LucasArts were known for at the time, and although there’s a certain Gabriel Knight influence in all this history-and-conspiracies stuff, the game by and large feels like it’s managed to set its own tone – less gothic horror than Gabriel Knight, more Tintin-esque Euro-adventure.

Revolution, as British developers, had cannily decided to make George an American but set the adventure primarily in Europe – aside from a trip to Syria marred by somewhat simplistic cultural stereotypes (come to think of it, the Ireland section is kind of stereotypical too) – and have Nico be a prominent French ally of George’s, with the idea being that the European setting would generate good sales in the European market (a major factor in adventure game sales at the time, even for the big American publishers like Sierra or LucasArts) whilst having an American hero would provide a hook for the American market.

It ended up being a fairly significant hit for Revolution, and ended up being the first game to generate them actual royalty payments. It didn’t hurt that it managed pretty significant sales on the PlayStation 1. Between this and the way the Director’s Cut was developed with the Nintendo DS and Wii in mind, it’s clear that Revolution were not a developer who believed that point-and-click adventures were primarily for the PC, as was often the assumption in the 1990s. As it turned out, Revolution’s refusal to turn their nose up at the console market paid dividends twice over – first when they sold about half a million PS1 copies of the game, then when the novel control systems of the Wii and Nintendo DS meant the systems in question lent themselves nicely to point-and-click adventures, paving the way for the Director’s Cut rerelease.

The Director’s Cut also has some more sprucing-up here and there – some additional puzzles are added to George’s section, there’s a few new cut scenes with art by Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame (who had previously worked with Revolution on Beneath a Steel Sky), and some aspects of the game which were more frustrating than intended in the original game, like the infamous goat puzzle, were improved on. However, most of the art assets and cut scenes clearly come from the original game (albeit with some cleaning-up, upscaling, and broadening of the colour pallette here and there), which can make it look a little dated. To alleviate this somewhat, Revolution pull an old trick that Sierra used to jazz up some of the CD-ROM versions of their adventure games by adding little close-up portraits of characters in conversations (again drawn by Dave Gibbons), which works somewhat, but you are still very clearly playing a decade-old game with some new frills attached. (There’s also a bug where the cut scenes based on video files rather than being scripted in the game engine seem to cut out earlier than they are supposed to do, at least on my PC.)

Both the Director’s Cut and the original game are rather short, and it at points it feels like some things are skipped over for lack of time. There’s a particularly irksome way that George gets all jealous of Nico’s interactions with Lobineau, a historian who advises on the investigation, and it largely seems to come from a deeply unattractive toxic masculinity caveman place of “Ugh, woman be talking to man who is not me, ugh, me jealous now, ugh”. It’s an astonishingly unappealing aspect of George – that and the way he kisses Nico when she’s still tied up from being captured without seeking her consent – which is not an auspicious start for the on-again-off-again romance between George and Nico which the series has tried to make a major overarching theme.

Besides this, however, Shadow of the Templars is pretty good. It’s more enjoyable to play the Director’s Cut version, in part because of the various improvements but mostly because it includes an in-game hint system, which gives you progressively more direct hints on request. This means that the very occasionally oblique puzzle logic (an absurd amount of use is got out of a dirty tissue George finds in a sewer early on) is less of an issue than it might otherwise have been (and the puzzles are mostly pretty sensible too).

The Smoking Mirror

The success of Shadow of the Templars meant that a sequel was inevitable, and around a year later the sequel dropped. Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror opens with George and Nico having spent some months apart. (George had to go back to the US to be at his father’s side during his terminal illness and handle the funeral arrangements.) In the meantime, Nico has been back doing that whole crusading-journalist thing; specifically, she’s been poking at the affairs of the mysterious Karzac, whose Condor Transport company she believes is a front for drug smuggling.

Imagine Nico’s surprise that after intercepting one of Karzac’s smuggled packages, she discovers not narcotics but a strange Mayan artifact – a mysterious tablet with a strange design upon it. As the game begins, Nico is dragging a returned George off to visit Professor Oubier, an archaeologist who is an expert on the Mayans, to attempt to interpret the stone. As it happens, the Professor is not at home – but two henchmen of Karzac’s are. With Nico knocked out by a drugged blow-dart and George tied to a chair as the Professor’s house is set ablaze, it’s clear that the duo have stumbled into another dangerous adventure – one which will have them jetting around the world in preparation for the final confrontation in the tiny (fictional) Central American country of Quaramonte…

The Smoking Mirror was updated on a similar basis – new controls, hint system, graphical tidy-up, Dave Gibbons portrait artwork, etc. – to the updating of Shadow of the Templars in 2010. (The bug with cut scene videos cutting out early also seems to be present.) However, the updated version refers to itself as Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror Remastered rather than The Smoking Mirror: Director’s Cut, probably because there’s no new content added; some of the dialogue is given some additional polish, but you don’t get entirely new chapters of the game this time around, or even new puzzles parachuted into existing chapters.

Frankly, this is merciful, because the game is kind of a huge mess, and padding it out further would not have helped.

Now, it’s not like Shadow of the Templars was a flawless classic, but if there’s one thing it did really well, it was nailing a very particular “Tintin meets Dan Brown” sort of style, which it was very good at. That is not the case with The Smoking Mirror; in terms of general tone and atmosphere, it’s highly inconsistent. (In this respect the third Gabriel Knight game, as well as being a pretty good Gabriel Knight game, was also a better Broken Sword game than The Smoking Mirror was.)

This is most evident when it comes to the section in the game where George and Nico split up to each go after a different Mayan stone tablet, one of which is somewhere in the Caribbean and one of which is in the British Museum. Whereas Nico’s section here is very much in keeping with the style of the series, George’s segments during this stretch are absurd comedy nonsense, culminating in a really belaboured bit on a film set.

This was the first time you got to control Nico in the series (remember, the Nico chapters in Shadow of the Templars were only added in the Director’s Cut), and I have to say that for the most part the bits where you control Nico are much better than the segments where you control George – so it’s a shame that the Nico sections in London tend to be shorter and more straightforward. The game ends up in this weird place where the London bits are too short but are much closer to the flavour the series is going for, whilst the Caribbean bits largely consist of forced comedy and tedious messing about.

Neither character, however, is immune to some really dull puzzle design. The previous game had a tendency to have bits where you literally just talk to people about different topics and look at things in order to progress the plot in a way which didn’t feel like proactive puzzle-solving so much as busy-work, and that’s back with a vengeance here. In addition, there’s a very annoying forest maze segment that you have to navigate through as George, and the astonishingly tedious Mayan Machine puzzle you have to tackle as Nico.

Both of them feel like they are just here to take up time. The forest maze is more annoying than it needs to be because there’s no functionality here to quickly exit a screen (say, by double-clicking on an exit, which would have been pretty easy to implement), meaning that you have to watch George slowly meander across the screen as you explore the maze. The Mayan Machine is tedious because it’s a very repetitive puzzle where, even once you have figured it out, it takes a long time to implement the four-stage solution even though stages 2-4 are essentially repeating the same principles you worked out to solve stage 1.

The writing has taken a hit too. Sometimes it’s up to par; for instance, Charles Cecil and crew seem to have realised that they neglected to really justify George’s distaste for Lobineau in the first game, so the game quickly establishes this time around that Lobineau has been doing some really skeevy Nice Guy shit – whereas George limited this to petty jealousy and the odd snide renark, Lobineau’s been sending unwanted letters (and even more unwanted underwear) to Nico.

However, this is a small improvement in a structure which has otherwise suffered serious decline. It seems all too evident that the game was knocked out in a hurry to cash in on the success of the original, and the writing seems to have been where corners were cut. For instance, we never really find out what Karzac’s deal is. Who is he? Where did he come from? How did he get into this position of shadowy power in Quaramonte? What made him realise that Tezcatlipoca was real, and what made him believe that releasing Tezcatlipoca was at all sensible? We didn’t exactly get deep life stories on the neo-Templars in the previous game, but we did at least get enough context to fill in the gaps. Here we don’t.

Similarly, the writing team just don’t seem to have thought through the logic of the story. If Karzac wants to free the dreaded Tezcatlipoca, and the tablets are the keys to keeping Tezcatlipoca imprisoned, why would Karzac bother smuggling the tablet in the first place? Why not just have it destroyed – or, if he wanted to be confident it had been destroyed, have it be broken into pieces with each of them smuggled separately, so that if any went missing that wouldn’t be a problem so long as he received enough pieces to render down into powder and scatter on the wind once he had them in hand. For that matter, when late in the game Karzac has one of the tablets right there in front of him, why does he waste time going off to talk to Pablo so Nico can steal it when if he just reached out and smashed the damn thing he’d win?

Then, of course, there’s the liberties taken with Mayan mythology and in the depictions of Central American peoples, the latter of which ranges from being deeply patronising to being outright hostile. Sure, Shadow of the Templars had an absolutely nonsense plot, but it was nonsense cleverly interwoven with the established historical facts about the Templars. By comparison, The Smoking Mirror relies on a completely invented not of rubbish around traditional Mayan religion, which relies on treating Tezcatlipoca as being “basically Cthulhu”, complete with the way he’s imprisoned using various Mayan tablets. (Note: Tezcatlipoca is Aztec. The Mayans might have had a deity who was a cultural antecedent to Tezcatlipoca, like how the hypothetical proto-Indo-European sky god may, according to that theory, have been a cultural antecedent to Zeus. But that is far from certain, and the Mayans would presumably not have used the Aztec term.)

Signs that the game was rushed is also evident in some aspects of the puzzle design; rather than having any climactic moment of gameplay to tie things together, the game just sort of ends rather abruptly. After spending most of the game struggling to obtain the three tablets, you don’t even get to use them meaningfully in the climactic gameplay: you just passively watch the characters using the tablets instead. It’s astonishingly anticlimactic.

Amazingly, audiences ate it up anyway, but perhaps Revolution realised that the Broken Sword franchise needed a bit of a rest after this; it would be six years until George and Nico found themselves exploring a strange new dimension…

The Sleeping Dragon

Once again, George and Nico’s relationship ended up cooling off when they didn’t have a globe-trotting adventure to save the world to keep things interesting. George has decided to specialise in patent law, because that never gets weird, but Nico didn’t want to give up her career with her newspaper, so they went their separate ways. (Note: though it is kind of sexist that it’s treated as Nico‘s career getting in the way rather than George‘s, it’s worth noting that retraining to practice law in different countries – especially a highly technical specialist area like patent law – is way harder than, say, moving career as a journalist, so the duo’s jobs tearing them apart isn’t that far-fetched.)

When we catch up with them at the start of 2003’s The Sleeping Dragon, George is trying to reach the remote Congo laboratory of a certain Dr. Cholmondely, who claims to have created a free energy device; when he reaches the lab, he’s horrified to witness Cholmondely being murdered by mysterious assailants. Back in Paris, Nico is on her way to an appointment with Vernon Blier, a hacker who had contacted her wanting to give her information about the strange weather and earthquakes that have been increasing in severity of late, only to discover that Blier has been murdered – and the killer seems to have gone out of her way to frame Nico.

Naturally, as George and Nico’s investigations progress, they eventually cross paths and both realise they are on the track of the same villain – Susarro, a survivor of the Neo-Templar organisation our heroes defeated in the first game. As it turns out, George and Nico’s actions only weakened the Neo-Templars rather than destroying them outright, creating the opportunity for Susarro to take over the organisation and remake them in his own image. Now they are the Cult of the Dragon – so-called because the secret telluric energy network Earth’s leylines that the Neo-Templars wanted to tap are known as the “Dragon lines” in some sources.

Back together as a team again, George and Nico must put an end to Susarro’s plot – and avoid getting killed off by Petra, Susarro’s assassin and primary assistant – before Susarro can unleash the stored Dragon energy of the world and remake himself as a living God – or break the Earth into smithereens with his tampering of its inner energy. But they and their friends are not the only ones on the trail. As it turns out, a fragment of the original Templars still survives to this day – but is their agenda the same as the Neo-Templars’ world domination plan?

In the commentary notes that you can unlock in Shadow of the Templars, Charles Cecil expresses regret at his declarations in the mid-Noughties that the traditional point and click adventure was dead, but noted it was necessary to pitch The Sleeping Dragon and The Angel of Death as 3D adventures rather than traditional 2D ones in order to get funding in the first place.

Fortunately, this wasn’t Revolution’s first time producing such a thing – various levels of 3D had been used in the two adventures they’d made since The Smoking Mirror – In Cold Blood and Gold and Glory: The Road To El Dorado. In addition, by the time the development got out of the concept stage, standards of best practice in making 3D games were much more universally accepted; whereas Sierra and LucasArts’ shift into 3D adventures was made shakier by the adoption of somewhat unfortunate control schemes, the controls in The Sleeping Dragon really aren’t that bad, especially when you set them up for use with a gamepad. (The game was simultaneously released on Windows, PS2 and XBox.)

You guide George or Nico around the screen with one of your analog sticks; different buttons allow them to run or sneak as appropriate, other buttons open the inventory or options menu, simple enough. In the bottom right corner of your screen are four circles indicating your “action buttons”. (Your standard A, B, X, Y/square, triangle, circle, cross buttons on your gamepad, in other words.) When you are close to an interactable item on the screen, or when you have an item in your inventory highlighted, appropriate icons appear in those circles, giving an indication of both what you might do with the items in question and which button you should press to do it, which is usually chosen in a fairly consistent manner. (The rightmost button is always the one you use to examine something; if you need to climb up, you’re probably hitting the upper button, if you’re climbing down you’re probably pressing the lower button.)

It’s all quite nice and intuitive, and by and large it’s implemented much more nicely than the rather idiosyncratic GrimE engine that underpinned Grim Fandango or Escape From Monkey Island, or the weird bespoke engine used in the final Gabriel Knight game. That said, there’s a few quirks which mean it is not quite as smooth all the time as it should be. The first is that sometimes the action buttons can take a bit of time to appear and be a bit fussy about where you need to stand to get them to appear in the first place, which can slow things down. The second is that often the game needs to wait until an animation cycle is finished before progressing or returning control to you, which can be annoying. The third is that you don’t have any form of camera control, and whilst for the most part the camera angles chosen are by and large sensible there’s a few instances where they are less helpful than they could be.

Though it is the only game in the series to use a “direct control” format rather than a point-and-click interface, The Sleeping Dragon still has plenty of adventure game DNA in terms of gameplay, with dialogue and inventory puzzles still very much in evidence, most of which are perfectly sensible but some of which are kind of over-fussy. For instance, at one point George and Nico are escaping from their adversaries, and must prop the door of an elevator open so the baddies can’t call it to come up after them. Nico holds the door whilst George must find some item to prop it open on a more long-term basis so Nico can let go. Of all the items in George’s inventory, a bottle opener will do it when no other one will function; if that were not bizarre and random enough, there’s a fucking corpse right next to the elevator door. Would it have been that hard to just drag it into place? It would have stopped the doors just fine.

What the 3D engine and new control system enables in this respect is a certain amount of puzzles resolved via timing, manoeuvring your way around obstacles, and shoving crates around. This doesn’t work out as well as it might. The obstacle course/puzzle platformer stuff is the best out of all of these, but is marred by being the bit of the game where the “teeny tiny area you need to stand in to interact with stuff” issue rears its head the most. The timing-critical parts of the game fall into two different types: segments where you have to sneak about evading guards, which boil down to either being trivial or hideously frustrating which not much in the way of a happy medium, and quicktime events with a really tight window of opportunity in which to act; both of these will tend to kill you if you get them wrong, though thankfully rather than forcing you to go all the way back to your last save the game will usually respawn you at a point just before you made your fatal error.

The quicktime events are not even interesting as far as quicktime events go; it’s the same button you have to press every time, the only real challenge is in realising that the action button display has appeared in the middle of what otherwise appears to be a cut scene in order to allow you to respond. In practice, this meant that each quicktime event killed me at least once, because it looked enough like a non-interactive cut scene that I wasn’t expecting to need to punch any buttons, and then the second time around I was expecting it so it was trivial.

Perhaps the worst of the new puzzle types, however, is the crate-shoving. It happens too often, it’s always annoyingly slow and awkward to do even once you know what you need to do, and it’s used a bit too frequently. None of these three puzzle types are used to such an extent as to absolutely ruin the game, but the crates come up often enough that they begin to feel like an attempt to pad out the running time – which is ironic, because I think a version of the game with the crate puzzles patched out would have a better reputation, since in general when I see people griping about The Sleeping Dragon the crates are one of the things they complain about.

As far as the plot goes, this is very much a sequel to Shadow of the Templars, to an extent that it may well have limited the game’s appeal – a few parts of the narrative won’t make a whole lot of sense, or won’t have the same impact, in the eyes of players who haven’t played the first game. Tony Warriner, Revolution’s co-founder and lead programmer, has noted that the game sold more or less the same numbers as the first two games, and to more or less the same audience; on the one hand, that means there was at least a loyal audience out there who were happy to keep buying Broken Sword games, on the other hand it meant they didn’t manage to broaden their audience.

That said, the game by and large does a good job of both bringing new players up to date and expanding on subject matter which the first game didn’t delve too deeply into. Shadow of the Templars kind of glossed over the actual nature of what it was the Templars were looking for; you got some flashy spectacle at the end, but unless you’d read Foucault’s Pendulum and realised that this was a “what if that telluric energy source they were after was actually real?” scenario, it’d just look like generic magic to you. Here, the telluric energies/leylines stuff is explored in more detail and more satisfyingly.

The story also pulls on a thread which a lot of similar “ancient conspiracy concealing astonishing technology” yarns don’t, which is the question of “if this technology was discovered once by ancient cultures, why do you need to dig up their stuff to use it when it would be just as viable to rediscover the same technology from first principles?” In fact, once it is known that a particular technology existed, it would be easier to rediscover it than it would have been to discover it for the very first time, since you are at least aware of what you are looking for, what the prerequisites may have been, and so on. Hence the Cholmondely plot: Cholmondely independently discovered the basic principles of the leyline energy Susarro wants to tap into, hence Susarro needing to assassinate him to maintain his intended monopoly.

That said, some aspects of the plot – and the fact that the game’s running time would be substantially shorter without the crate puzzles – suggests that some aspects of the game were rushed. Nothing truly essential seems to be missing, but that just means the game was developed in a sensible manner, with the vital skeleton of the plot implemented first and then additional fleshing-out proceeding later on, but there’s spots where it feels like further fleshing-out could have happened, but it doesn’t.

For instance: Vernon was brought in specifically to decrypt the famed Voynich Manuscript, which in the story yields vitally important information relating to the leyline network – but the Voynich Manuscript angle disappears from the plot, despite on the face of it being an ideal concept to build a puzzle around. What better way to make the player feel like they are piecing together the same puzzle Vernon did than to have them decrypt the Manuscript for themselves, perhaps with the aid of clues Vernon hid away somewhere as some sort of failsafe backup?

In addition, there’s hints that George has some kind of special destiny going on – he interacts with the telluric forces in a somewhat different way from others (like being able to put his hand through a force field that Nico can’t penetrate), and he gets knighted by the remnant of the true Templars at one point – but this really isn’t unpacked to nearly the extent that it could have been. Perhaps the section of the game which seems the most rush is the ending, which gets extremely silly and perhaps is the bit which is hurt the worst by the lack of prior exploration of George’s apparently special nature, but frankly it’s exactly the sort of absurd spectacle necessary to really push the plot to the next level of weirdness.

Aside from some places where things are rushed, the writing and characterisation is actually pretty good here. Susarro is substantially more interesting than the Grand Master was in Shadow of the Templars because we actually learn stuff about him and encounter him over the course of the game, and so the narrative gives itself a chance to actually develop him as a character. A particularly fun plot point is the idea that he needs to unleash the Dragon energy; his experiments with it have left him weakened, feeble, and ailing, and so he’s now too deep in the hole to pull out and just end his conspiracy.

That being the case, it’s profoundly irritating that he gets wiped out before the final segment of the game and the dull old Neo-Templar Grand Master ends up being the final big bad, because to be honest I don’t see much reason why this was even necessary; pretty much the exact same gameplay and plot beats would have been abled if Susarro was the main adversary all the way through, and I don’t get why Charles Cecil and Revolution thought that the Grand Master was so interesting as a foe when, again, you barely encounter him in the first game and never really learn that much about him. It’s almost as though they’d developed extensive notes on the character and were super keen on him based on that, but forgot that they’d only been able to implement a small scrap of that profile in the first game so players couldn’t be expected to share the same enthusiasm.

Perhaps because of good feedback to the bits where you control Nico in The Smoking Mirror, you get to control Nico significantly more this time around, although irritatingly whenever George and Nico are in the same place it’s always George you are controlling – there’s no segment in a game where you are controlling Nico and George is following your direction, it’s always the other way around. (To add to the indignity, Nico is added into George’s inventory during these segments, though on the other hand this does help enable some puzzles which require you to talk to Nico to ask her to do things without walking over next to her to give her the instructions.)

At least in the dialogue she establishes herself as no pushover and gets a few jokes in at George’s expense; in fact, the repartee between George and Nico is a highlight of the writing, the Revolution team realising that it’s one of of the strengths of the series and wisely doing a good job with it. Still, despite this and Nico all too often being relegated the “be sexy at people to distract them” tasks, it could be much better.

By and large, adventure games were considered to be a mostly dead genre in 2003, but The Sleeping Dragon is one of a clutch of games from that year that proved there was life yet. Yahtzee’s 5 Days a Stranger, though hardly the first example of a hobbyist using Adventure Game Studio to produce freeware adventures, perhaps represented the most widely successful example of one, and woke a lot of people up to the possibility of bedroom programmers producing point and click adventures by themselves that could still be entertaining and fresh to modern game players. The first Black Mirror game showed that a small publisher could produce a traditional point-and-click adventure and still find an audience in the early Noughties.

The Sleeping Dragon is the least “traditional” graphic adventure out of these three, but it too demonstrated something important: that it was possible to overcome the teething troubles that Sierra and LucasArts had faced and produce a graphic adventure using modern control schemes suited to current-generation consoles and still do good business. For all of its flaws, I still found it entertaining enough to play it all the way through and by and large only resented it when it was wasting my time with crate puzzles.

The Angel of Death (AKA Secrets of the Ark)

Another sequel, another breakup for George and Nico. Once again, George has moved back to America; when we catch up with him, he’s working as the in-house lawyer for an impoverished bail bond company in New York. This is an absurd career choice for someone who’s supposedly a capable patent attorney; perhaps you can justify it on the grounds that George was helping for idealistic reasons, but I feel like a more effective way would be to stay on a patent lawyer’s salary and donate extensively to bail fund charities instead of retraining to shift the focus of your practice late in your career.

Either way, that’s where George is at the start of this game, when the mysterious Anna Maria comes to his office seeking help – she’s obtained an old manuscript she claims leads to treasure, and Italian mobster types are chasing her to try and find it. Fleeing your office as the mobsters try to batter their way in, George finds himself off on another adventure…

Which I didn’t follow him on.

The Angel of Death is the second 3D Broken Sword game, and was developed solely for PC, breaking from the series tradition of the games being developed for both PC and console platforms. Supposedly, this was so that Revolution didn’t have to be constrained by the limits of console platforms and could go a bit more ambitious with the graphics.

Little of this is evident in the first few sections of the game, covering George and Anna Maria’s escape from the bail bond agency and through dilapidated New York warehouses and attempt to reach Anna Maria’s hotel room to retrieve the manuscript. These drab and dreary sections are, to put it kindly, graphically unambitious, and this extends to the character models, who have an unfortunate tendency to just stand stock still except when their are promoted into animation – when they get to the rooftop George and Anna Maria just stand around like lemons, not reacting to the rain in any way.

Although the graphics clearly represent a step forward in terms of resolution over The Sleeping Dragon, the world here somehow feels faker and less immersive than that one – like with the lack of idling animations I noted above. Perhaps part of it comes down to the warehouse section being rather sparsely-populated when it comes to stuff you can interact with; another part of it comes down to the dialogue being rather sparse and functional, which is a significant and annoying shift away from the scintillating repartee which was a strong point of the previous games.

The broader consensus seems to be that the dialogue does perk up later in the game – but sporadically, with a lack of polish and consistency being noted by others. Still, it’s particularly annoying that one of the slack patches comes right here at the beginning, when we’re supposed to be getting to know Ann Marie and George is surely full of questions about what her deal is. This is perhaps the worst time for the dialogue to go flat and utilitarian, because this is when you are supposed to be booking the player.

Indeed, it’s my understanding that generally speaking the start of a game – especially games with strong narratives – often have the most care and polish taken on them, precisely because they’re meant to hook the player. Fahrenheit (AKA Indigo Prophecy) is generally (and correctly) considered to be a game which, in the final analysis, was an absurd, incoherent, self-indulgent mess, but David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream were able to generate a ton of pre-release buzz on the strength of a demo comprising the first (and by far the best-executed and most intriguing) section of the game. Angel of Death, if anything, takes the opposite approach: making its opening section as miserable as possible in order to drive you away from the game.

Aside from the drab graphics and perfunctory dialogue, the early section of the game also has off-putting puzzle logic; puzzles range from trivial to infuriating in a near-random fashion which I am assured continues over the span of the game. Worse still, some of these puzzles are frustrating because of fairly basic interface and graphical issue; in one case I had to do a bunch of pixel-hunting to find an astonishingly thin chain, thanks to the game using a camera angle which left the chain almost totally invisible next to the background.

In another case, I got stuck on a puzzle involving helping Ann Marie cross a bit of a gap in the floor of a disused warehouse, through which George and her were trying to escape from the mobsters. (She couldn’t use the route George had taken to get to the other side because in the process of so doing he ended up breaking something, making it impossible to follow.) As it turned out, the solution to this was to bolt the door next to the gap from the other side and then give it a good kick, which due to the weakened architecture causes the door, the surrounding door frame, and a good chunk of the brickwork around it to fall over, bridging the gap. (If George kicked the door when it was unbolted, it would just fly open – logical enough.)

There’s two problems here. The first is the awkward control system, which as well as having fairly small zones of interaction prompting an annoying amount of pixel-hunting also somehow manages to make an icon-based point-and-click interface counterintuitive. You see, the default action when you mouse over the door in question is “open door”, and apparently that doesn’t mean you kick the door – you have to right-click on it and click “use” instead, which is a bit of a hassle. (It doesn’t help that the icons seem to be drawn rather similarly to each other – “Look at” and “Talk” didn’t seem immediately and obviously distinct, for instance.) Even then, it doesn’t tell you that “use door” means kick the thing – you have to figure that out for yourself through trial and error. It is a puzzle which, thanks to this interface, is more likely to be solved through brute force than actual consideration.

The other problem here is that the puzzle is an example of utter moon logic. Not only is there no way that George could have known that the gambit would work out so smoothly, but there’s no way he could have even expected it would have worked at all. The only reason the gap is successfully bridged is because the door brings a chunk of surrounding wall with it – without that the door doesn’t look long enough to bridge the gap by itself. (Honestly, it looked to me like if you did kick the door hard enough to break it, the most likely outcome would be that it’d pop out of its hinges, scatter forwards across the floor, and fall down the gap.)

To add insult to injury, this introductory section makes it very evident that crate-based puzzles – perhaps the most widely hated element of The Sleeping Dragon – are back on the menu. OK, an air conditioning unit is involved in one of these. But fundamentally, it is still a crate-shaped object you shove around to solve puzzles; just because you disguise your crate as something else doesn’t mean you haven’t yet again resorted to a crate puzzle. Apparently, the game never gets into the really annoying and fiddly type of crate-shoving puzzle that The Sleeping Dragon relied on too much, and in fact is quite sparse on crate puzzles – but putting one in the opening section sends 100% the wrong message.

Speaking of not understanding what people liked or disliked about your previous games, let’s talk about the rather anemic role of Nico this time around. She doesn’t even show up until around two thirds through the game, and apparently she’s only controllable for one desultory section. It’s like if the creative team of The X-Files made a season where one of the iconic Mulder and Scully duo were missing for most of the season and only showed up in the last third or so of the season, and yeah, they actually did that, but it wasn’t a good thing when they did it and it’s not a good thing when The Angel of Death does it.

Perhaps more than anything else, the comparatively light involvement of Nico suggests that, even four games deep into the series, several of the creative minds at Revolution still didn’t understand the appeal of the double act and how crucial she was, and this makes me more inclined to blame Revolution for the game’s shortcomings than I might otherwise be. See, Revolution couldn’t afford to maintain a big game-producing team in-house, and so they decided that rather than programming the thing themselves they would restrict themselves to the design work, and partner with Sumo Digital who would do the actual production work from the design. The graphical issues, the rather awkward control system (which somehow combines the worst of 3D direct-control interfaces and point and click), and a swathe of other problems could potentially be laid at Sumo’s feet – but puzzle design and the overall plat was all down to Revolution, and here they seem to have drawn a blank.

The overall plot involves yet another splinter faction of the Templars going after the Ark of the Covenant, which it turns out is a genocidal superweapon that kills all unbelievers in an area once you fill it with monatomic gold and sacrifice a human being to turn them into the titular Angel of Death. On the one hand, this is all solidly within the genre of pseudohistory which Broken Sword has played with from the beginning; on the other hand, I think there are extremely good reasons not to be glib about positing the existence of secret human sacrifice traditions within Judaism, even if it isn’t meant to be taken seriously, because we have the whole wretched QAnon movement as a case study in what happens when you normalise antisemitic tropes like that.

The Serpent’s Curse

Six years after The Angel of Death was released, Revolution ran a Kickstarter to fund the creation of a new Broken Sword game, which was promised as being a return to the classic 2D point-and-click approach of the first two games. The resulting game, The Serpent’s Curse, was first released in two episodic halves in 2013-2014 before being stitched back together for the retail version.

As has now become customary each episode, George and Nico have once again drifted apart, and George has made another shift, exiting the practice of law altogether to instead act as an insurance investigator. When we catch up to him, he’s come back to Paris because his firm has insured an art exhibition at the art gallery Le Lézard Bleu, and he and Nico run into each other there.

Before they can do anything in the way of catching up, however, a gunman disguised with a motorcycle helmet bursts in and, holding the assembled guests at gunpoint, helps himself to one of the paintings – the eerily symbolic La Maledicció. Gallery owner Henri Dubois attempts to intervene, only to be shot dead on the spot for his troubles, and the killer flees on his scooter.

As Nico hustles off to try and get more shots of the fleeing assailant, George is left with a dead man and an enigma on his hands – a puzzle which only becomes stranger when he realises that the alarm system on the painting in question didn’t go off because it had been sabotaged. In fact, it’s the only painting whose alarm system had been tampered with – raising the spectre that this was an inside job, mounted solely for the purpose of taking that one specific painting. But what is such a big deal about La Maledicció? Why does the secretive Dominican priest Father Simeon believe it is associated with dreadful evil? And if there’s any truth to that, is this a mere insurance scam, or are there darker forces at work?

I got deeper into The Serpent’s Curse than The Angel of Death before the plot became more annoying than entertaining, but I still didn’t finish it. Too much of it felt like a Broken Sword-by-numbers plot, continuing to press on with the series’ core schticks without really developing them any further or deeper than previous episodes had, and working in regularly-featured plot points more or less by rote without really bothering to justify them.

For instance, in this instalment, the writers basically don’t bother to offer any details as to what’s been going on with Nico and George and why they separated again between the previous game and this one: we are just meant to accept that it happened, and that even though George was working in Paris on an art insurance job he didn’t bother to mention this to Nico at all. This reflects an increasing sloppiness on this front as the sequels have progressed. In The Smoking Mirror we were given a really plausible-feeling reason for their separation – George’s father was dying. Then in The Sleeping Dragon we were told that there was some sort of resentment about Nico’s career ambitions, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Then The Angel of Death spends a long stretch Nico-free without really establishing why that is, then this.

It’s so sudden and perfunctory that it feels pointless – like Revolution could have just said “George finally bit the bullet and moved to Paris after The Angel of Death and that’s where he shifted career into art insurance”, and it’d have changed pretty much nothing. Maybe the plan was to shift their on-again off-again romance into platonic friendship, but if that is so why wouldn’t they have kept in touch with each other between games? Long-distance friendships are a thing, Revolution.

My gripes about George’s weird career path might be a bit pedantic, but I have a point I want to make here: out of the two characters, Nico feels by far more interesting than George, in part because she has particular definite character traits that are consistent across the games, including her dedication to her job. George, by contrast, feels a bit more shallowly realised as a character, and Revolution’s inability to settle on what his actual professional background is feels like a major symptom of this: it feels like he’s putty in the writer’s hands, there to be reshaped into whatever job niche the plot demands, which makes him feel more like a plot device or a featureless stand-in for the player and less like a person.

Another thing which bugged me is the handling of the central plot, which at least purportedly revolves around Gnosticism and the Cathars but very soon slips into an absurd fantasyland invention of Charles Cecil’s which doesn’t quite work. If the Gnostics had an artifact which could make Lucifer rise up and strike down Jehovah, who they believed to be the evil creator of the material universe, doesn’t that kind of justify Father Simeon’s highly disapproving view of them, especially since the end of the plot has the rise of Lucifer portrayed as an unambiguously bad thing? And what sort of absurd Cathar survival would see their purpose as maintaining a “balance” between the Gods? The Cathars were pretty much unambiguously on the side of the God of the higher spiritual realm and against the creator of the world of corrupt matter.

Cecil claims that he chose the subject matter because the Gnostic Gospels are not in the public consciousness, which given that The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and similar were publishing phenomena sounds like utter nonsense to me. I feel like anyone who has spent half an hour looking into Christian heresies has run across the Cathars; there is a mini-tourism industry surrounding them in the Languedoc (and particularly surrounding conspiracy theories relating to them such as the Rennes-le-Château stuff that The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was based on). In particular, adventure game fans are highly likely to be aware of them from the third Gabriel Knight adventure.

One begins to suspect that Cecil is one of those people who believe that they are extremely erudite and well-read when in fact they’ve merely shallowly picked at a few subjects and assume they’re full of obscure knowledge when in fact they only have a lazy surface-level reading of them; this would certainly explain why so many of the historical conspiracies in the series allude to subjects with all sorts of deep lore associated with them but at the end of the day tend to only have a very superficial treatment of them, and equally would explain why he’d think that the general public (or that section of it likely to be interested) would not already be well aware of a topic that had been the subject of multiple major publishing sensations.

And let’s not forget that the entire plot hinges on secret heretical teachings associated with the Cathars being concealed in a painting, which is the entire schtick of The Da Vinci Code. I’m sorry, but if you are riffing on a plot which has already been the subject of a publishing phenomenon that’s been far, far more successful than the sloppy writing involved actually merits, you cannot say you are dealing with subject matter which isn’t in the public consciousness. You are not bucking the zeitgeist, you are chasing it, hoping to ride that bandwagon as hard as you can.

It’s particularly astonishing of Cecil to take the line he takes in the interview because he talks about how they decided to move away from Templar-focused plots in response to the likes of Dan Brown making them rather passé, when the ideas in this game basically come from, if not the exact same sources as the Templar conspiracy stuff, then at very least highly closely related bits of the bookshelf.

Still, though the story was a bit stale, other aspects of the writing are a bit better. For what I think might be the first time in the series – bearing in mind that I didn’t finish The Angel of Death, there’s sections where both George and Nico are present but you are controlling Nico, not George, Revolution perhaps finally realising that she should be seen as a full-fledged co-protagonist rather than a sidekick. (You are still controlling George in the final confrontation, however, because Nico hasn’t quite been given enough co-protagonist status to actually be given the “solve the last puzzle and save the world” task.)

In addition, the actual presentation of the game is gorgeous. With lavish 2D backgrounds, with character animations prerendered in 3D and then converted to 2D sprites. This results in a look which, whilst it feels like it isn’t quite as eye-popping as full 2D animations would have been, is still very appealing. Unfortunately, this seems to have also made the game rather unstable – even on the current GOG version, on a pretty decent gaming PC, I was still getting crashes to desktop with errors like “INVALID TEXTURE” or failures to assign memory. Invariably, I’d be able to continue playing just fine past the point in question once I started playing again, so I guess this latest iteration of Revolution’s venerable Virtual Theatre engine might not be closing off processes properly or something.

I also found that the game had a lot of parts where there were odd, long pauses before characters acted, like they needed to wait for an animation loop to hit the right point before proceeding. This seems sloppy; it’s the sort of thing which older games had back in the day, but which it really feels like should be a solved problem by now.

Other technical flaws exist. The game also continues an appallingly bad habit inherited from previous episodes in the series, wherein although in theory separate volume controls are provided for music, speech, and sound effects, all of the cut scenes base their volume level off the music volume – so if you turn off the music (say, because you want to listen to your own music while playing), the cut scenes are all silent.

To me, this seems like an absolute crock of shit. I’m sorry, but if there is any compelling technical reason why it would not be possible to provide the cut scene audio as separate music, speech, and sound effects tracks with volumes respecting the same volume sliders as work in the entire rest of the game, it is totally beyond me. I can see why this might not have been possible in earlier days bound to the limitations of physical media, but for a game primarily consumed and played via download I really don’t see why this would be a big ask.

Again, some puzzles are a little poorly-designed. Sometimes this is being too obscure, or relying too much on pixel-hunting, like spotting that a squiggle on the floor of a darkened scene is a crowbar. (Putting in a “hit this button to highlight all the interactable objects” function would have largely eliminated such irritations.) A particularly bad example was a puzzle where to get access to an electrical cabinet which is otherwise out of your reach you need to shove a box (no, it’s not a full-blown crate puzzle) underneath a girder which you can then shimmy across hanging from your hands to get to the cabinet. The thing is, the girder is this thin line right at the top of the screen which is very easy to miss, and a much more plausible solution would have been to just shove the box over to the other side of the corridor so that it was under the box and then stand on it there, which to me the art looks like it should have worked.

This touches on another occasional flaw of the puzzles – failure to think through what the characters might logically try given the stuff they had to hand. For instance, there’s a bit where you go into a darkened room and to find out where the light switch is you need to light a match. Except… George is carrying a phone. Since when did you last have a phone which didn’t have a flashlight function on it? Specifically, since when did someone who worked in well-paid professions like George’s last had a phone which didn’t have a flashlight on it?

Around the point I lost interest in the game, the designers decided to throw in a puzzle referencing the infamous goat from the first game – and, despite claiming to have learned their lessons from it, Revolution manage to make it annoying again by requiring you to solve it by clicking on something, then whilst George is in the middle of interacting with it clicking on some other hotspot on the screen – again, a violation of the game logic up to that point. Even if you are making a self-deprecating joke about a shitty puzzle you mishandled in a previous game, that doesn’t mean it’s a good design choice to make similar mistakes in a new puzzle.

By and large, this fifth Broken Sword game is very much a Broken Sword game: it hits a lot of the tropes of the series in its writing and plot and general design style, and it also carries over a bunch of nagging issues with the games which it really feels like they should have grown past by now.

In retrospect, the Broken Sword games now feel to me like the sort of videogame series which were more interesting for what they could have been rather than what they actually were, which in some respects was also how I felt about the Gabriel Knight games, which I can’t help but suspect were their major stylistic inspiration. That said, Jane Jensen did manage to provide much more in the way of historical depth and character development in those games than Revolution did with these, and so now I have had the chance to enjoy the Gabriel Knights I don’t see myself revisiting Broken Sword very often, since the use of local colour and historical enigmas in the games all too often seems to be much more superficial and shallow than the deeper dives that the Gabriel Knight games (especially the second two) get into.

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