The Tricolore café. Come for the almond croissants, stay for the abusive waiting staff.
One of the first characters you encounter in Broken Sword 5 is a disgruntled waiter, stood in the doorway of a painterly cafe in the artsy Montmartre sector of Paris. As journalist Nico Collard – one half of the Broken Sword series’ globe-trotting, crime-thwarting duo – you’re berated by this waiter for representing a new wave of despicable social creature. The thrust of his argument is that you’re a “pointy-heeled” woman more interested in the sweet delight of a quick almond croissant than the cultural and political strife that brought France to its present condition. Collard, he maintains, enjoys the pleasures of the present but is ignorant of the trial and error of her nation’s past that brought her here.
It’s hard not to see the waiter, weathered and wary, as representative of series creator and guardian Charles Cecil. Cecil, after all, has seen and tried it all: there was the move towards more dynamic action and adventure with The Sleeping Dragon, which rightly won a passionate audience but suffered from an over-reliance on mundane box-pushing puzzles and has since been scrutinised for changing the mechanics and abandoning the pace of the ’90s originals. Then came mob thriller The Angel Of Death, which more faithfully recaptured the flow of the early games but simultaneously suffered some control and perspective issues along the way. In terms of production and distribution, too, Cecil and company have been through the mill. The Sleeping Dragon was arguably compromised by its release on both console and PC platforms, while The Angel Of Death was a co-production with UK-based Sumo Digital.
Cecil and the waiter might share a common exhaustion with the modern customer and the constant changing of the times, but where they part ways is that Cecil clearly now has some perspective, using past experiences to inform his next step. The Serpent’s Curse suggests he sees the old days as the best days, and that Revolution is now fully committed to recreating them for its fans.
Both in story and looks, The Serpent’s Curse pays heavy tribute to previous entries in the Broken Sword series.
Those fans will be pleased to hear that this is back-to-basics Broken Sword. Kickstarted to the finish line, it feels like an unrushed and unashamedly old-fashioned throwback to Shadow Of The Templars, the game that started it all. The interface is an almost exact replica of that game’s (there’s an option to vie for a more modern HUD, though) and the opening setup – a murder, a group of suspects and a gorgeous hand-painted Paris backdrop – is a knowing echo of Shadow Of The Templars, going so far as to include some of the familiar faces that populated those pastel pavestones in 1996.
In adhering so rigidly to the formula and spirit of the first two titles in the series, The Serpent’s Curse inevitably brings with it the myriad elements that have made Broken Sword a divisive series. For a start, the challenges vary wildly in quality and enjoyment, from the thrill of well thought-out logic-based puzzles to the tedium of simply clicking through lengthy conversations, rifling through every topic in your action bubble until you strike gold.
There’s also a brand new problem introduced by this instalment: Just as there’s a shady character (or ten) obscuring the truth of the tale, there’s now a rather distracting character model obscuring the beauty of each environment. While Revolution has maintained the peerless quality of its hand-dawn backgrounds, with top tier film industry talent contributing to the compositions and framing, the new approach to depicting characters – strange, plastic-looking 3D rendering delivering some awkward, robotic animations – looks entirely out of place in each scene. It’s admittedly far less of an issue as Stobbart and Collard explore a beautifully drawn London in Episode 1′s final third, where the compositions favour long-shot framing over medium close-ups, but you’re continually dragged out of the experience whenever Stobbart’s bland, bulbous peachy noggin gets near the screen.
The Serpent’s Curse returns Stobbart to a beautifully hand-painted Paris, but the crude character models spoil the aesthetic.
Ultimately, if you can see past this jarring aesthetic element, you’ll find that The Serpent’s Curse offers much of the same charismatic virtual tourism and intrigue that has held the brand in such high regard for so long. The story – an intriguing, often spooky, yarn involving the Gnostic Biblical texts (admittedly less revelatory in a post-Da Vinci Code era) – achieves that crucial, careful balance between character motivation and circumstance driving events forward, and the script is economical but always prepared to spare a line or two for a laugh.
Stobbart and Collard’s travails certainly take and recreate some of the best elements of their previous adventures, then, but The Serpent’s Curse never quite feels as artistically consistent, nor as fresh, as its progenitors. Times have changed: the past few years alone have ushered in a whole host of top tier point-and-click adventures that excel where Broken Sword 5 struggles. This is just the first half of Cecil’s production, of course, with Episode 2 due in January, so there’s time and potential for the game to remedy some of its ailments and perhaps offer a narrative curveball to shock the series into a new era rather than simply riffing on its past.
As a reminder of the old days of the series, The Serpent’s Curse just about serves its purpose; it sounds the same, works the same and, mostly, looks the same. But as a contender on the modern point-and-click landscape it offers little to drag players away from the new age of superior soirees. As the waiter in the doorway would attest, arms folded and brow beaten as he watches young customers pass him by, progress can be a hard thing to keep up with.
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse Episode 1 is available now via Steam. Episode 2 is due for release in January.