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.
So why don't I feel particularly satisfied now that I've played it?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.