Secrets of the Ark: A Broken Sword Adventure
Publisher: The Adventure Company
Developer: Revolution Software
Release Date: February 13, 2007
European and Australian players have been playing Secrets of the Ark: A Broken Sword Adventure for the past six months, although it's known in those territories as Broken Sword: The Angel of Death. Its adventure pedigree is readily apparent on other shores, and although the connection is tad de-emphasized in the North American packaging, even the game's title screen is bit schizophrenic and reads, Broken Sword: Secrets of the Ark.
The alphabet soup of its nomenclature does little to change the fact that the Broken Sword series has had some pretty sweet offerings that adventure fans should look into. The series has four games, a few ports (including a Game Boy Advance version), and, in my opinion, rather spotty packaging. This view isn't swayed by the Egyptian artwork box and minimal contents inside of Secrets of the Ark, but box art doesn't define games, and it certainly shouldn't be a turn-off to fans of the series or genre.
The good news about the gameplay is that Grim Fandango controls aren't in place here. Secrets of the Ark is full 3D and point-and-click, a combination that, frankly, should have been the norm from the onset of the 3D adventure genre.
Even better news is that the title boasts the cleanest and most useful interface and options menu I've seen in a long time. Never underestimate a game that has all that you need and nothing more. Click on an object for its default reaction, right-click for other options, and scroll the mouse to the top for inventory manipulations. In case this isn't enough, you have the arrow keys to more accurately manipulate movement. The interface is effective for one-handed or two-handed play, but you may need just a little luck to get exactly what you want out of the items in your inventory.
The other half of a good adventure game is in its story, and how well the puzzles fit in with it. Luckily, this is a strong point for Secrets of the Ark and, for that matter, all of its predecessors. As George Stobbart, patent lawyer-turned-bail bondsman, you haven't heard much from Nico Collard since the events of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. Then Anna Maria, followed by a bunch of mobsters who want her dead, shows up at your office, and after saving her, you get pulled into events that will ultimately lead to that overused artifact of doom, the Ark of the Covenant, which, in this game, holds blueprints to some sort of super-weapon.
Don't let yourself think this is just a super-dramatic, world-is-at-stake adventure. Stobbart has a dry sense of humor, forgets Anna Maria's name (and calls her Nico multiple times), and generally finds himself in humorous, but never over-the-top, situations as things progress. While it's no Monkey Island, the more subtle humor that marks Secrets of the Ark might be better suited to a certain contingent of players.
The puzzles, on the other hand, are marred by a mouse that seems to shake unnecessarily, unintuitive and often overly precise hot spots, the manual not being well-written enough to let you realize things such as your PDA also being your cell phone, and occasional flat-out obtuseness. This game does follow the classic adventure game rule of "don't punish the player's stupidity," so in general, trying anything and everything will eventually get you through, and every puzzle has at least one line of logic to it (no cogitating elephants here). Remember: If at first you don't succeed, try the golf club.
Secrets of the Ark suffers from some significant downsides. To be frank, the audio shouldn't be a detriment, since the music is beautiful and excellently moody, and the sound effects are appropriately ambient and excellently mastered. The voice acting is great — until Candle Jack shows up and lines either go unspoken or stop in —
Some lines simply disappear entirely, no less, which can ruin the effect when George enthusiastically tries to sell his retractable golf club to someone, only to stop in mid-sentence, have a three-second pause, and then gets rebuffed on his efforts.
Another fault is perhaps a minor annoyance at most, but it's worth noting. Even if you can see an object that would be the solution to your puzzle, you have to try and use it first, or walk toward it until George comments on it before you can interact with it. It gets annoying after a while when you see what you need to do, and you have to backtrack so that George sees it, too.
Graphically, Secrets of the Ark doesn't hit the point of being realistic, nor does it seem intentionally cartoonish like the first two titles. Rather, it uses a number of effects that are reminiscent of both, resulting in a game that's akin to a college project that has been polished to a mirror sheen without losing the same overall quirky charm. To say things aren't detailed is an absolute lie — I haven't seen games this detailed in quite some time, with individually rendered and light-sensitive raindrops among other features. The game's motion is imperfect, however. Even on a system way above the recommended configuration and with settings lowered, Secrets of the Ark moves at a low framerate, the mouse exhibits the shaky behavior to which I alluded earlier, and animations have odd hiccups. Nothing is too egregious if you don't look too closely, though.
The game has a modest extras menu, with some concept and advertising art, credits and, just in case you're really getting frustrated, a web link for the complete hint book, which is listed as being for Broken Sword: The Angel of Death. Although we were unable to test it out, this title is the first on any platform to support amBX technology, which is a combination of game-controlled atmospheric lights, fans, etc.
If control flaws don't completely ruin gameplay, they can be overlooked with decent writing, placement, and other typical adventure game qualities, and Secrets of the Ark: A Broken Sword Adventure delivers. It's not a masterpiece, but it's hilarious, brilliantly moody, and worthy of attention from any fan of adventure or humorous games — or graphics effects nerds. It's great to see adventure franchises succeeding, and I only hope that this one does well enough to make Lucas Arts notice. (The Voodoo Lady's contract needs to be settled!)