If you had asked me back in the 90s which of the popular and/or long-running adventure series would be more or less the last one standing almost 20 years later, I doubt I would have guessed Broken Sword, but here we are. With the dissolution of Lucasarts likely putting Monkey Island to rest forever, Sierra being completely eradicated in the Activision-Blizzard merger, and the huge breakout success of The Walking Dead (Free) making it increasingly unlikely we’ll see any further Sam & Max games or the planned King’s Quest revival from Telltale Games, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse ($4.99) appears to be the only survivor from that golden era. Amazingly, the series is still in the hands of its creator, though this new chapter needed some help from the fans to make it to fruition.
It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous of me to group Broken Sword in with many of those old franchises. With the first game releasing in 1996, it arrived in the tail end of the era of the point and click adventure, and as a result, really only co-existed with the later Monkey Island games. By that time, the earth had been well and truly salted for this genre, which made the success of Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars ($4.99) all the more remarkable. Not that it didn’t deserve that success; it did the Knights Templar thing well before The Da Vinci Code made it cool, and, at least in my opinion, it did it quite a bit better, to boot. The globe-trotting adventure was extremely rich in detail, had massive amounts of dialogue, and featured a great cast of characters, some of whom managed to impress themselves on you with only a brief part to play. It carried a nice balance of humor and seriousness in a genre where games tended to lean hard one way or the other. Also, there was a goat. Maybe you remember him. The game still holds up very well, and I recommend you check out the enhanced iOS version if you’ve never tried it.
With the first game being a surprise success, it wasn’t long before a sequel arrived. Broken Sword 2 ($4.99) didn’t drastically change the gameplay or style, but it bring protagonists George Stobbart and Nico Collard back for another exciting adventure. Nico had a much bigger role in this game, something that would continue through the series. It’s another very cool adventure game, and you can also find it on the App Store. By this game’s release in 1997, things started to go sour for the primary publisher of the series, Virgin Interactive, which, combined with a serious drop in interest in the point and click adventure genre, meant that it would be several years before we saw George and Nico again. They did finally return, in a more realistic 3D style no less, in 2003, followed by another sequel in 2006. These sequels weren’t quite as well-received as the first two games, which might be why the series went quiet after the fourth game, apart from a couple of excellent remakes.
Still, the series had some pretty passionate fans, so passionate they even cobbled together their own fan game, known as Broken Sword 2.5, so it’s perhaps no surprise that when Kickstarter began to gain popularity among gamers, developers Revolution Software were easily able to crowdsource funds for a fifth game. It’s also not much of a shock that Broken Sword 5 hews a lot closer to the first two games than anything else, both in terms of gameplay and style. Calling back to the first game’s opening, this game kicks off with a murder in Paris, and it features several returning characters from throughout the series. In terms of gameplay, it’s as straight-up a point and click adventure as the first two games are, albeit a lot more linear in some respects. The biggest difference between this game and the earlier ones is that it is being delivered in two chapters. The unfortunate result of that is that this game is just a very big set-up with no kind of satisfying conclusion.
That won’t be a problem in the long run, as I’m sure the second part will come and create a more enjoyable whole, but, as I’ve said before in prior reviews of episodic games, one of the key points of getting away with this kind of storytelling is to make sure each episode stands on its own to an extent. In terms of length and polish, Broken Sword 5 easily meets that criteria, but the story and scope of the first episode show all the signs of a game that was divided after the fact. You’ll only hit up two locations, Paris and London, and the story stops right when it’s getting good, with virtually no questions answered. To be honest, I was kind of caught by surprise when the chapter ended. Sure, it had been several hours, but it felt like more than half of that was the initial setup, and where it ends isn’t terribly remarkable.
Like the first game, Broken Sword 5 is extremely dialogue-heavy. It’s also very well-written, but even the best writing can sometimes get tiresome if the plot is moving too slowly, and that’s certainly the case in the first half of this chapter. It doesn’t help that the difficulty of the puzzles ramps up equally slowly, either. The game tends to keep everything you need to solve a puzzle within the immediate vicinity of it, which is convenient, to be sure, but since most of the puzzles are just a matter of using the right item on something else, it means all you really need to do is click around on hot spots until George or Nico stumble on what they need. The puzzles start to pick up right around the same time the plot does, at least, so as long as the second chapter hits the ground running, it’s probably going to feel less irritating once the whole game is out. Here, it just feels like the game spends too much of its time talking about nothing and holding the player’s hand, and too little on the game proper.
The good news is, that’s most of the bad news. The game looks great, as lush and colorful as you would expect a Broken Sword game to be, and the extensive voice work is generally excellent, though the new voice actor for Nico overplays things a bit. Another thing about the VA is that other than Rolf Saxon returning to play George, the other returning characters seem to have new actors. Given how much time has passed, it’s understandable, but still kind of disappointing. I guess at this point, having a different voice actor for Nico with each game is sort of a series tradition, anyway. The interface is great, considering this is a game basically designed around mouse controls. Touching and holding the screen shows nearby hotspots. Tapping on them brings up icons to examine, talk to, or use the item of interest. You can touch anywhere to move your character to that spot, and items in your inventory can be dragged onto any other item, character, or hot spot to use it on them.
Since this is a Broken Sword game, some of the puzzles do involve timing, but there’s nothing that will get your goat the way the first game sometimes did. The solutions to the puzzles are sometimes silly, but rarely hard to figure out, since your options are always limited enough that even if the solution doesn’t immediately strike you, there are only so many things to try. The puzzle design feels very much like an adventure game of the mid-90s, with a dash of modern linearity to keep things from going too far off the rails and annoying less genre-savvy players. By that period’s standards, there’s nothing terribly special happening in Broken Sword 5, but simply getting a new game with those sensibilities is pretty special in its own way. Adventure games simply aren’t made this way anymore, by and large, with the genre shifting focus more to dialogue trees and room escapes. For the adventure gamer pining for a new adventure in the classic style, this game, even with its relative simplicity and linearity, should help quench their thirst.
The strongest point of this series has always been the memorable characters, and in that respect, this game stands well among its predecessors. While several of the characters are returning favorites, the new characters are just as great, handling much of the game’s comic relief with their expressive, unusual personalities. As ever, you can get a lot of funny reactions by using certain items with certain characters, which makes it fun to experiment. The chemistry between George and Nico is still quite well-done, although it is hampered just a bit by the weaker voice acting coming from Nico. All in all, it’s a decently large cast, without any real throwaway characters thanks to the charm of even the minor players in the story.
It’s hard to judge a game that has been somewhat unceremoniously cut in half. Without knowing how the second part will turn out, I can’t exactly guarantee that the game will end up satisfying. This first half, taken on its own, is certainly lengthy enough to be worth the price, and what’s here is certainly shined up very nicely. The pacing is pretty horrible, though, with the first half of the chapter being far too heavily steeped in dialogue and simple puzzles, and that is something that can’t really be fixed even if the concluding chapter is brilliant. This chapter stands alone very poorly, with absolutely no resolution to be found in the ending, if you can call it that. It also lacks the thrill of traveling to a variety of places around the world, which is one of the things I loved about the previous games. There’s promise here for Broken Sword 5 to stand confidently alongside the beloved first two installments of the series, but for now, it’s really just a promise. We’ll have to see if Revolution Software can follow through.
Oh, one more thing: there’s a Flappy Goat mini-game.