Wot I Think: Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse (Part 1)

By Richard Cobbett on December 5th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

Its first half emerging from the depths of Kickstarter, Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse brings one of adventure gaming’s most beloved couples back to start a new journey into myth and legend. Has history been kind to its own champions though? Here’s wot I think.

Paris in any season makes for the perfect time to catch up with George and Nico, four-time thorns in the side of any do-badders planning to dig up a legendary MacGuffin with world-conquering potential. It’s great to have them back, and better still to embark on a brand new adventure by their side. Isn’t it? It feels like it should be. In many ways, it’s the closest the series has ever gotten to recapturing the original game, in mood, in nature, and the complete lack of box-pushing and quick time events and other things added when the games went 3D. I like the premise. The script is fun. This is clearly the game I wanted Revolution to make.

Right? Right.

So why don’t I feel particularly satisfied now that I’ve played it?

'So, the Serpent's Curse is...' 'A really bad gag reflex. I apologise if you were expecting more.'

The first reason is that this isn’t the whole game, though not in the way I expected. The Serpent’s Curse does ends at the 50% mark, with the conclusion not due out until early next year. That’s annoying, honestly, and I would much rather have had the whole game in one – but let’s be generous and just write it off as a necessary evil because of time, money or whatever. Fine. Forgivable, as long as the second part arrives when it’s meant to, and there’s no reason to suspect it won’t.

The catch is that as well as splitting the raw story in half, Broken Sword 5 has been thematically halved. The series has never truly been about myths and legends in the way that, say, Gabriel Knight devotes itself to exploring voodoo, werewolves and other monsters. It’s always pretended to be, but it’s not. They’re primarily enablers for the more traditional modern day mystery, breathing a sense of epic scale and importance and high stakes into what are ultimately pretty quiet, amiable, low-pressure tales. This is not a criticism. Far from it. While Charles Cecil always – always – talks a far deeper, meaningful and more involved story than Broken Sword games ever actually end up providing, the two sides have always complement each other as well as George and Nico themselves. Neither is the best at what they do, but together, they’re something special.

Whereas Broken Sword 4 fell flat by separating our heroes, Broken Sword 5 stumbles by actively splitting itself, into mundane now and mythical later, in a way that only makes sense for stories where the introduction of the strange and wonderful can actually be a twist.

'I thought that was happiness.' 'Only, my son, if your name is Mary. Or your name is Bob.'

Let’s get into specifics. Broken Sword 5 kicks off with George and Nico reuniting at a gallery, just in time for the owner to be gunned down and a single painting stolen – a Gnostic piece called La Maledicció. George is there because in this game he’s a (rolls dice) art insurance assessor whose boss threatens to fire him if he has to pay out, despite it not being worth that much. As for photojournalist Nico, the case gives her a chance to get on the front page that she can’t turn down. This doesn’t seem particularly realistic unless it’s a very, very slow news month, but never mind. What matters is that both are quickly reunited, and waste no time re-establishing themselves as one of adventure gaming’s best couples. They have a fantastic sense of chemistry, both in conversations and in crisis, shown best by their implicit trust in each other and the other’s abilities. In another game it could easily seem odd that they’d do something as silly as go to personally interrogate a mobster without any kind of support. Here, it doesn’t. They have their wits and each other. That’s all they need.

Of course, they’re not just involved in a simple art theft. What makes this a Broken Sword story is that the painting is said to be cursed by the devil, bringing death to all who come near it. Here’s where things start to go wrong. If you took out a single character, a priest whose every stern warning could be replaced with “DEVIL! DEEEEEVIL!”, this may as well be an adventure about tracking down The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies. There is no sense of big picture threat, literal or figurative, no tension and no feeling of high stakes. Instead, the action is bogged down with tedious questions of provenance and double-dealings and generic greed in a story that’s not bad, but is utterly reliant on the series’ reputation and the occasional “Oooh, that’s creepy,” to convey any sense that the painting will be anything more than a mild historical curiosity.

Yes, it goes nicely with the word 'villain' I have tattooed on my huge cock.

Sadly, even if the next chapter immediately gets started on that, and I really hope it does, this episode will still remain little but six hours of heavily padded prologue where the far more interesting story should have kicked off. The painting promises a fascinating premise for a Broken Sword game, moving away from the now firmly played out Templars to a much fresher clash between religious factions and ideologies that Dan Brown has yet to shit his terrible words over. That’s the mystery I wanted to be investigating here, not digging around in art fraud and dodgy security companies. Nobody cares whether George’s employer has to write an insurance cheque! I was promised evil paintings, epic conspiracy and Nico dangling from something high! Get to the bloody meat!

(Also not helping matters is that every time the priest character starts ranting vaguely about ‘evil’ Gnostics – a little unfairly, since their frying pans at least are extremely useful – I really wanted George to shoot back “Wow, yeah, they sound like real jerks. Say, guess what the Vatican was up to last time I was in Rome…” Though officially or not, the complete lack of any discussion on that adventure seems to suggest it’s been stricken from the record as far as BS5 is concerned.)

Zip that up, young man.

Let’s step back a little though, not least because there’s still plenty of time for The Serpent’s Curse to ramp up in its second half. It’s a great looking game, once again creating a perfect slice of Paris that begs to be stepped into. Backgrounds look great, and somewhat surprisingly, so do the characters. Obviously, hand-drawn 2D sprites would have been best, but there was no way that was happening without lots more Kickstarter cash. Instead, we get 3D models rendered as sprites, and it works better than you’d think. They fit against the backgrounds just fine, and most importantly, have enough animations to avoid every action coming out of the same can. Sure, the effect isn’t perfect, with characters sometimes being a bit blurry (and oddly, having seams on their necks that suggest Robespierre guillotined their ancestors hard enough that their great grandkids still keep a needle and thread on standby), but it’s a good compromise between the old games’ style and this one’s budget that allows for both excellent artistry and economy of production against the old school environments.

Dialogue is another highlight, mostly. George is still the easy-going adventurer we remember and love, complete with habit of carrying around random bits of crap purely to show people and confuse them, and Broken Sword is still the series that will never just add a generic exposition character if it can put a quirky one down instead. This is a world where mobsters’ assistants want to talk topiary, where nobody bats an eyelid at a cafe waiter thinking himself a latte-slinging Enjolras, and where it’s never quite clear whether a widow keeping the husband’s corpse in her house for literally days is doing it intentionally. Conversations are constantly witty, never trying too hard to be funny, with some great individual lines that I won’t spoil but can’t promise not to try and steal at some point if I think I can get away with it. Like the dice rolling thing above, from SF Debris. (Did it work?)

I have to say ‘mostly’ though, because just as the story is frustratingly disconnected from what it seems to think it is, the dialogue and character actions can sometimes be at complete odds with what’s actually going on. A really nasty moment comes right at the start, where characters in a gallery who just witnessed a man being gunned down in front of them seem to be having a bit of a sociopath-off, with the corpse still lying there being completely ignored as they trade quips. Even George gets in on it, his more than little inappropriate description of the corpse being “Henri’s fashion sense was criminal, but he didn’t deserve to die.” Ooof. Too soon! At other times, there are big clashes between the narrative and what’s actually happening, especially in terms of how dangerous a situation should be, or why George/Nico are being allowed to do their thing. No individual one is that big a deal, but the result is a game that regularly feels like it was scripted, designed and built in isolated bubbles, with the pieces stapled together rather than truly meshing.

Very well, you're fat, ugly, you smell bad, you only wear those clothes because the bin and the charity shop are fighting over who doesn't have to take them, and your farts have to apologise for you. Champagne?

Even with its problems, I enjoyed spending a new evening with George and Nico. What I soon realised though was how much that was based on over a decade of existing fondness for these characters and and their adventures. Had this been the start of a new series from, say, Daedalic, I suspect that its slowness, the sidelining of the interesting story for something far less so, and more than a few hokey and padded-out puzzles (including a staggeringly misjudged riff on an infamous adventure crime that really couldn’t have been handled any worse if it had tried) would have left me leaving early, thinking “Nice graphics, nice script, shame the game is kinda dull.”

The fact is though that it does have those characters and it is part of this series, and that for me and for its supporters, does count. As I said at the start, this is the closest the series has gotten to recapturing the magic of the first game – BS2 being so thematically different and BS3 chasing different goals entirely. It shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s also picked up a few of its flaws, especially in terms of pacing. On the plus side, this episode’s biggest crime is being all about the set-up, and the set-up is now done. That clears the way for the second to take a potentially fascinating bit of religious history and actually use it as more than just wallpaper, as well as for the stakes to blossom into something more meaningfully dramatic for George, Nico and the world.

At least there isn’t going to be too long to wait to see if it pulls it off.

The first half of Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse is out now. Both episodes are included in the purchase price. Part 2 is due in Q1 2014.

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38 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    AngelTear says:

    So why don’t I feel particularly satisfied now that I’ve played it?

    If I were to answer, the “It’s/its” grammar mistake in the picture following the question would be a pretty significant reason.

    • Tychoxi says:

      nevermind. You are completely right!

    • Ross Angus says:

      I think that was mentioned in a backer update. Presumably Richard played the beta (I could be wrong) and Uncle Cecil mentioned that people fed back about punctuation.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Yeah. It was a dedicated review copy code sent on launch day, with a couple of caveats about lip synch and other minor issues. Was still playing after the official launch, but I hadn’t had any problems and didn’t want to risk a Steam update that might have invalidated my saves. Honestly didn’t spot the typo in the screenshot or I’d have used another one; there were a few in the code, but not enough to really jump out as anything major.

  2. MuscleHorse says:

    Is George wearing a suit jacket with jeans? Good grief.

    • tnzk says:

      If that’s a sports jacket with a polo and light wash denim…. he could actually go toe-to-toe with Lapo Elkann.

  3. SominiTheCommenter says:

    Kudos for the alt text. It’s like Broken Sword, I click characters and get a couple lines.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    I started this last night. Not played too much of it, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve got through so far (Nico has just distracted the inspector.) I was a little unsure about the art design when I first saw it in a trailer a few months ago, but it really has grown on me whilst playing the game. Some of the animation can be a tad jarring, but the 3D models actually do look surprisingly good.

    I haven’t gotten far enough to make any of the types of judgements made here about story and plotting, but I’m intrigued enough already, even if I have met the priest shouting about evilness. It is Broken Sword game though, so it doesn’t feel particular out of place at the moment.

  5. tomimt says:

    Personally I enjoyed the game immensly and did not find at all dull. It pretty much stands among the best adventure games I’ve played this year, small flaws and all. Oh, and the blurring apparently comes from that the game assets aren’t in proper fullHD scale. That is going to be updated either before part 2 or with it.

    There’s two big name Kickstarter adventures released this year, this and Larry Reloaded. Reloaded is a tough one to recommend for people, as while it’s fun, it’s pretty much one, long Kickstarter joke. BS5 on the other hand is more of a proper game, that doesn’t need the player to know that it was funded a bit differently than, say, Call of Duty.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      “Oh, and the blurring apparently comes from that the game assets aren’t in proper fullHD scale.”

      Generally it was fine. There are some scenes though where the characters were super-blurred, as if out of focus. It’s those that irked. Glad to hear it’s being fixed.

      • tomimt says:

        Yeah, I noticed some extreme blurriness as well. There’s other technical stuff there as well that need some polishing still, but overall the game was more than a positive experience for me.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          I’m hoping to like it more when the second part’s out, but I suspect my thoughts are going to be that this bit of the story should have been done in a couple of hours, max, and given itself more time to explore the ‘real’ plot. Provided that’s how it goes. I’ll be disappointed if the really interesting backstory gets no deeper than “Treasure map. Artefact. Evil guys in black hoods.”

  6. Premium User Badge

    Gap Gen says:

    Serpent shouldn’t have annoyed that gypsy woman.

  7. jfrisby says:

    I’m so thankful this game has some real character to it, even if it’s a plodding Charles Cecil surreal/generic/ludicrous romp, and a 6-hour+ intro story. It really felt like it had a bit more movement, place and life than a lot of what the adventure genre has gotten lately…

    I thought the cat-mustache homage was a nice nod/warning-shot at Jane. Dress-up sim with George! Charles is a mad man who doesn’t give a shit! You will adventure! Put the lipstick on!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The series with the goat puzzle and a bit where you retrieve a priceless manuscript by pushing the cabinet it’s in into an industrial wood chipper has exactly no business mocking other peoples’ puzzles. Be that as it may though, the way to parody that is to offer it as an apparent solution, only to have the target go “Wait, is that… cat* fur? You actually thought that was going to work?! What the hell is wrong with you? Get out of here!”

      Simply doing the crap puzzle again is no better than when other parodies use boring or unpopular mechanics and then go “Wow, that was stupid!”, especially when getting the gag requires a specific, decade old reference point and it’s not acknowledged in-game as anything other than a perfectly serious solution to the problem.

      Like I said, it could not be a worse handed riff.

      (* Dog here, but ideally it would be cat)

  8. nindustrial says:

    Always a pleasure reading Mr. Cobbett, thanks for the great review. (And one of the few who consistently give us RPS alt these days)

  9. SteelPriest says:

    Argh this game infuriates me – the backgrounds are lovely but the character animation is so fucking awful! :’(

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Haven’t found anything particularly awful about the animation, much less swearworthy-awful.

      • SteelPriest says:

        It looks like one of those cheapo generic cgi childrens programmes, which really grates against the lovely background art.

        Basically i dislike whatever middleware they made the game in. The fuzzy edges of the character models in panning shots! sigh.

    • S Jay says:

      I found the animations quite ok for an adventure game. The only odd thing is that sometimes the characters seem to wait too long to speak, like “oooh, let me just change my instance realllyyyyyyy slowly than I will speak”

    • mrbungle says:

      I work with one of the artists on this project. He said that the animation is unfinished, in fact, they only got as far as blocking it out. Problem was, there was too much money put into the project through kickstarter.

      • grechzoo says:

        I was about to speculate,

        I’m an animator and i can clearly see this animation is quite honestly just off. Development must have had a spanner in the works in the animation pipeline, cause I know of no professional animator getting paid that creates motions that wooden, unless the animators are artists or programmers branching out due to budgeting issues.

      • Jón says:

        What? They got too much money so they couldn’t finish the animation?

  10. intruder75 says:

    Hm seems my Kickstarter backing was well spent so far.
    Only minor caveat for now: Why do I have to choose to either get a GOG.com key OR a Steam key?
    Most indy games in bundles offer BOTH (well a DRM-free version not necessarily on GoG.com) once they are greenlit on Steam.

    I will wait for the full game to arrive before I plunge in it :)

  11. XhomeB says:

    Waiting for the second episode to come out before starting the game, here’s hoping Cecil has conjured up a story that isn’t your typical anti-Catholic, anti-religious nonsense you find out in literature and movies these days. Previous Broken Swords were rather neutral in that sense and I liked them a lot because of it.

  12. Contrafibularity says:

    What a shame I actually backed this. I guess I should’ve taken off my nostalgia-goggles and recognized that post-BS1&2 it just turned into something embarrassingly like Dan Brown, an author desperate to cling to and moreover spread and glorify a religion that inflicts so much harm on the world, and has ever increasing influence on billions even as its power diminishes elsewhere.

    I might still play it when the second half appears purely because I backed it, and then I will bitch and moan about how it bored me to tears with its religious themes and subtle proselytizing, and bad puzzles apparently. Or perhaps cut my losses and leave my fond memories of BS1&2 intact.

    Thanks Mr. Cobbett for at least acknowledging not everyone will enjoy (even) a fictional whitewash. Especially of such vile organisations bent on total domination of human thought and all of the evils that flow from that. Putting aside the fact using religion like a crutch is like the cheapest, laziest form of expressive thought any authors could stoop to. Sure it sells, and that’s about the least bad thing to say about it.

  13. beauwyselaskie says:

    Abby. although Denise`s story is flabbergasting… on wednesday I got themselves a Land Rover Defender from bringing in $9333 this last month an would you believe ten-grand this past month. it’s by-far the most-comfortable job I’ve ever had. I started this 9-months ago and pretty much straight away startad earning over $87… p/h.
    try here……. http://goo.gl/iITlPP