The unnoticed goes unappreciated. Example: 20 years ago the adventure game, for all its verbal artistry and sophistication, was dying. Why? No-one cared about text any more. The genre would have to adapt to survive, and out of its ashes rose the point ’n’ click, a spin on the narrative-led experience that let players forgo their keyboard input in favour of mouse-led journeys around lush paintings. These were the most glorious, sumptuous pieces of software available, their sedate nature allowing developers to illustrate backdrops in glorious detail.
Proving that human nature is a graphics whore at heart, the genre’s popularity held in proportion to its aesthetic appeal. People came for the looks, and stayed for the stories, and three companies led the field: Sierra, LucasArts and Revolution.
But just as progressive technology formed the genre, so it would eventually kill it. When faster processors and better consoles allowed developers to manipulate detailed environments in realtime, we all leapt eagerly into three dimensions, mistaking visual depth for physical involvement, and left the static adventure behind. LucasArts chased after the market with Grim Fandango, a dark and dazzling pseudo-3D masterpiece that quickly found itself forgotten, buried by more instant thrills. The US company shrugged, and turned its attention to mostly poor – but predictably lucrative – ‘Star Wars’ titles.
Sierra’s franchises offered diminishing returns, and they were consumed by Vivendi. Revolution? It tried its hand at 3D action-adventure with the awkward In Cold Blood. It didn’t work out. It slipped away. It slept.
It’s like that film, isn’t it? The fairytale, the end of act two, where everything seems lost, and you’re despairing for the hero, but you know that somehow, secretly, he’ll fight back. Because, hell, it can’t end like this, it just can’t. Revolution’s games – the first two parts of the Broken Sword trilogy in particular – bred the kind of devotion that makes comebacks inevitable. It’s about the love. People really, really love George Stobbart and Nico Collard.
So, Broken Sword III: The Sleeping Dragon is the comeback, Revolution as revolution, a played-straight sequel to a point ’n’ click adventure. It contains the same characters, and expects to draw the same audience, but has entirely new technology driving it. That is the first problem Revolution will have encountered, of consistency, and it’s one it sidesteps with grace and humour. The game operates almost identically to its predecessors: players control George or Nico with the left analogue stick, and use an on-screen context-sensitive menu to interact with objects in each environment. Objects that can be manipulated are illustrated by small sparkles. It is a fluid, intuitive interface, and it’s to the game’s credit that Edge didn’t even notice the system for a good number of hours. As mentioned above, the unnoticed goes unappreciated.
It’s difficult, this, treading that fine line that avoids revealing surprises but provides some clue as to the game’s breadth. Still, Edge tries: players will visit a handful of locations across the world, some of them on several occasions. Each area contains a number of rooms, and most rooms contain a number of interaction points. Some of these points are red herrings, designed to mislead players whose strategy is to use every object in their inventory with every other object. All of Broken Sword’s puzzles are logical, and while players will almost certainly find themselves stuck and frustrated at some point during the adventure, discovering the solution will bring them to blame themselves, not the puzzle. It’s a rare game that makes players accept their own stupidity. Broken Sword III is it.
Perhaps part of that willingness to take the blame comes from a reluctance to denigrate the lead characters. George and Nico are the among the most sympathetic digital creations of all time, and the near-perfect script is delivered with humour and subtlety by a brilliant cast. It’s not just what they say, or the way they say it, either. The magnificent facial animation system says as much as the dialogue, adding nuance to the simplest of lines. Delivered by dead-eyed mannequins, George’s self-mocking quips would fall flat and Nico’s Gallic sulkiness wouldn’t seem nearly as appealing.
The characters have life and style when things go right. When things don’t, Broken Sword begins to break down. It is upsetting to watch, like seeing relatives stumble over their lines in a packed playhouse, and normally the interplay between the actors is fine, quickfire, smooth. Occasionally, though – not all the time, maybe a few times an hour – a frame of George’s animation will appear for a split second in the wrong part of the screen, or Nico will perform the wrong action in an in-engine cut-scene. It’s not critical, but it splinters the illusion. Another month in development, perhaps, but given the precarious nature of independent development, another month and we might not have seen it at all. The other problem is the loading, which happens in bursts of around 15 seconds every time you move between the sub-areas in locations. These clusters of rooms are separated intelligently, so most puzzles can be completed without crossing loading boundaries, but they interrupt the narrative flow. It’s particularly obtrusive when they bracket Broken Sword’s action events, one-shot Dragon’s Lair-style moments intended to inject some adrenaline.
It’s hard to be surprised by an out-of-shot enemy when his approach is signalled by a long pause and a whirring drive, you see. That’s technology, perhaps. Edge is no coder, but if it came down to losing some of the intricate detail, the beautiful lighting, Hollywood camera direction or spot-on voice acting for the sake of killing the dead time, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Extravagance was one of the signatures of the graphic adventure: extravagance to bring them in, and a cracking story well told to keep them. Both tenets of the Broken Sword series remain intact here, and that’s all the devoted fans could have wanted. A fairytale comeback.
They will buy this, but that’s not enough. This is the adventure’s glorious return, perhaps the start of a genre renaissance that can only serve to broaden gaming’s appeal, or perhaps the final nail in a niche’s coffin. Edge doesn’t know which. In terms of narrative-led videogaming it is leagues above anything else in recent times, but recent times have not been kind to games that value story over instinct, intelligence over impulse. The unnoticed goes unappreciated, you see.
This, Edge genuinely hopes, will do something to change half of that. The rest is up to you.
This review originally appeared in E131, Christmas 2003.