Wot I Think: Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse (Part 2)
From the Gnostic frying pan into the fire
Last December we saw the first part of the Kickstarted Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse. It was a pretty game, and made for a warm reunion with two beloved characters, but one with more than a little cause for concern. Now, the second part is finally out. Here's Wot I Think.
This isn't going to be pretty. The first episode of this new Broken Sword was like catching up with old friends after a long absence; a warm nostalgia that helped paper over many of the cracks and turn a largely bland - if pretty - adventure into something comfortable and fresh. This second part? That's several hours later, when the wine and nibbles are all gone, and all the old stories have been told. You yawn, you check your watch, you say "We really have to do this again," and then inwardly sigh as you see a glass being refilled and a new photo album. Except with some very silly puzzles, and a lack of narrative chops that would be stunning if it wasn't too busy being depressing.
The story so far. Our heroes George and Nico spent the first episode on a largely uneventful investigation into a painting called La Maledicció, said to have been cursed by the devil, but which was inevitably going to be a glorified treasure map because that's what all mysterious artefacts turn out to be in the Broken Sword universe. It bounced from Paris to London with a measure of quirky charm but little drama, even when doing things like breaking into the home of a Russian gangster who has a name but is clearly meant to be Vladimir Putin, being fingered for murder, or dealing with an Interpol agent who was instantly obvious as a villain due to being a friendly and efficient official in a Broken Sword game. (And also having those magic Interpol powers that they only get in badly researched action movies and Lupin III. Semi-related: Aaargh! Writers! Stop doing this!)
It was a pretty game, as indeed is this second part, doing a great job at recapturing the vibe of the early Broken Sword games on its limited budget and providing good reminders of why the idea of going on adventures with George and Nico has always been so pleasurable. The puzzles weren't anything to write home about, with the exception of one staggering clunker, but it was... okay. It was a problematic game though, struggling in particular with the fact that splitting the mundane bit of the modern mystery from the magic and mythology supposedly at the core of the story was not exactly in its favour. As goals go, saving an insurance company from having to pay out is not exactly a genre high, especially when any sane one would happily cut its losses over the one cheap painting lost and send George off to check on some actually valuable statue in Guam or something.
Back in December, I said "There is no sense of big picture threat, literal or figurative, no tension and no feeling of high stakes." My hope was that would be fixed in this part. But no. Having finished the game, you can take that complaint and multiply it by ten. A real low was noticing I was 75% of the way through the story, and there had still to be one scene - one scene - where The Serpent's Curse did anything to demonstrate the power or threat being dealt with here. There's talk of dire consequences, yes, but a priest doing little more than (inaccurately) yelling "Devil! Devil!" and a crusty old man claiming grandiose things on behalf of his faith just don't cut it. Nothing remotely supernatural happens until the last scene, with everything up to then simply assuming that we'll just give the details a nod because that's the kind of story we're in. This isn't so much a narrative shortcut as Broken Sword calling a taxi and asking to be woken up in time for the finale.
This isn't the only problem, but it's one of the big ones in a game with such a poor grip on drama that finally has its big moment, and then immediately backsteps on it to the point of deploying and then downgrading the literal power of God, presumably so that the next game can pretend the whole thing never happened when its next villain has to steal the goddess Ereshkigal's girdle or whatever without an unfortunate theological clash. Much better to sweep everything under the rug, like both this game and all sensible people who played Broken Sword 4 do with Broken Sword 4. Shudder.
It might be okay if the underlying story was able to save this, or if the minute by minute adventuring was fun and frothy enough, but neither is true. The Serpent's Curse isn't so much about Gnosticism as the fact that its developers have been reading about Gnosticism, dumping historical backstory like some kind of Wikipedia gunge tank and then pulling out an interpretation so simplistic and, well, videogame that it makes the Indiana Jones movies look like masterful scholarly works.
Let's step back. Put simply, the subject matter here is interesting, but one both too broad and limiting for its own good - its big secret having to be manufactured because there isn't a convenient thing to bounce off in the same way that past MacGuffins like the Voynich Manuscript were able to provide, and its philosophical core far too complicated for a light-hearted globe-trek. Even at its best, it's a bad fit for Broken Sword's weaponised mythology, and does it a disservice by having to crunch it down to one old man who can't speak for all Gnostics and the many beliefs that word encapsulates. There are reasons stories like this tend to stick with groups like the Templars and their easily digestible legends, or dive into ancient mythologies where a writer can make up any old nonsense.
Even so, the sheer scale of what the story thinks it is makes it all the more amazing that it's so flat, not to mention more tonally confused than a man farting La Marseillaise through a kazoo. As with the first episode, it simply doesn't feel like a coherent game so much as a whole series of bits, produced in isolation based on a general outline and glued together with little insight or self-awareness. And I'm pretty sure the inability to pronounce the word 'ouroboros', though I can't be absolutely certain.
Now, yes, Broken Sword has always tempered its serious side with a playful one, and that's fine - it's a quirky series, that's where much of the fun comes from. But that's only when it actually works, and not an excuse for anything to go. In one scene for instance, George is looking down the barrel of a gun held by the game's villain, and it's a big dramatic moment. Literally in the next scene he's facing the same situation from another, Vladimir Putin's lawyer-safe doppleganger, and making quips about the guy sounding like a Bond villain. In another odd moment, the first real puzzle of the second episode is a cute callback to the first game's infamous goat puzzle... and it works well. But then the last area rolls around and we get another one, which is not only a truly idiotic puzzle (in a game that already mistakenly riffed on Gabriel Knight 3's moustache one without remembering to add anything that made it, y'know, a joke rather than simply stealing an infamous genre low) but a bit of fan-service too far. And that's saying something for a game already so weighed down with references and returning characters that it may as well just have fully pandered to the Kickstarter base and had George and Nico finish the game shirtless. And then get married. In Union City. By Joey.
None of this is simply picking away at bits; they're all examples of just how poorly Broken Sword 5's story is told throughout. It has absolutely no understanding of how to tell a good one, and that's just shocking for the fifth instalment of anything - up to and including Links: The Challenge Of Golf.
The pacing, already hobbled by an episodic split clearly born of budget rather than the best way to tell the story, makes everything go on far too long for the sake of padding rather than complexity in narrative or puzzles, and the puzzles thrown in to pad it out further are often tenuous beyond belief. Fixing an electrical panel with a cockroach and a Rich Tea biscuit. Playing Ave Maria on construction equipment, in total violation of the new gaming rule that nobody is allowed to play that without Agent 47 coming in and garrotting someone. Escaping a locked room by means of the most needlessly slow combination lock ever. A bad comedy bit that expects you to interrogate multiple guards who are never, ever going to let George and Nico past, despite the fact that they're only alive after approaching them because the villain has conveniently forgotten to issue a photo of the meddling
kids sexy young adults currently actively working on foiling his evil plans.
Of course, there are some good puzzles too - a basic letter-substition cypher to decode, a map investigation and a more complex bit of codebreaking to find the location of the game's last big secret all standing out. There are also some really entertaining bits of writing, particularly between Nico and George, whose continued inability to actually get together has resulted in a wonderfully strong friendship that feels both earned and capable of handling situations like this. Nico is reduced to much more of a tag-along character for this one though, even in a game where both characters' reasons for being involved (beyond mild curiosity) largely dissolved by the end of the first episode.
(This is a plot hiccup that only gets more notable when the two try to dissuade a young woman whose father has been kidnapped by the villain that she should stay out of the way and let them handle it. Yes, never mind that you're the one character who actually has a verified stake in this, citizen! Stay back, George might as well declare, for while you may have justice and righteousness and both a gun and the stones to use it on your side, I have... a basic grasp of Latin, a pack of safety matches, and my occasional girlfriend's distracting legs! Team Broken Sword, away!)
To be clear, all of this bitching comes not from hate, but frustration. Broken Sword has always been a series in at least a five-way tug of war with itself over exactly what it is, with the globetrotting thriller elements fighting with the quirky characters and the comedy and the danger in a way that's traditionally made for a really enjoyable fusion. Broken Sword: The Angel Of Death's biggest crime was... well, it was having a puzzle where you get a manuscript out of a cabinet by pushing the whole thing into an industrial bone-chipper. But its second biggest crime was simply not knowing itself; losing the fun, losing the enthusiasm, and for much of it, losing the core relationship.
The Serpent's Curse is a far better Broken Sword game than that one was, but its problems come from the exact same place - a lack of self-awareness about what a Broken Sword game is that leaves it feeling at best like a new developer trying to copy the magic, and at worst, like fan-fiction - especially during the eye-wateringly awful ending. It's a bit of a thriller and a bit of a comedy and a bit of an mystery and a bit of an adventure holiday, but where the previous games took those bits and created an enjoyable fusion that went above and beyond all of them, The Serpent's Curse is constantly trapped by its limitations. And in the case of the plot, trying to be too clever in a game that was never going to support the philosophical themes it so badly wants to explore.
Would I like to see another Broken Sword game though? Absolutely. While this one was not the adventure I wanted, the idea of another trip around the world still appeals. The charm is still there, the strengths ready to be played to in a more suitable story with the pace and drama that can make its mystery sing. Sell me that game, that adventure, and nobody will be happier... not least because I live in the same town as Revolution at the moment, and kinda suspect I might need a disguise and really big pair of sunglasses the next few times I pass by York Minister...
Hmm. And I just remembered I have to go and buy some trainers this week...
I, ah, did mention the graphics were good, right? Cool. Just, ah, just checking.