Seventeen years and several sequels after the first Broken Sword's huge retail box had hit shelves in 1996, the series' successful Kickstarter resurrected the adventure series with a new chapter.
The first Broken Sword began a fun romp through a string of conspiracies and "what-ifs" involving everything from the Knights Templar and an Aztec god to the Lost Ark. American everyman, George Stobbart, and his sometimes partner in crime, French journalist Nico Collard, were like apocalyptic trouble magnets drawn into saving the world. Sadly, as adventure games' retail presence waned, so did the series, with the last installment releasing in 2007 in North America. It's been a while since we've seen the two together, and fans showered the Kickstarter with support. Now here we are, nearly two years later.
The Serpent's Curse kicks off in Catalonia, Spain, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War as soldiers raid a small manor in the countryside. A man gives his worried son a medallion and urges him to flee. The man also attempts to escape with a painting, but he's killed, though not before his son and wife find safety. A mysterious man takes the painting from its former owner.
Fast-forward to Paris in the present. George is working as an insurance assessor, and he meets up with Nico, who is still on a quest for truth at her paper, La Liberte. Both are at an art gallery exhibit when a man bursts in with a pizza box, pulls a pistol from it, holds everyone at gunpoint, and snags a specific painting. The thief takes off, but not before Nico snaps a few shots with her phone.
The Serpent's Curse doesn't waste time simmering over warm reunions. I half-expected there to be more to interact with between George and Nico — an arrival at the airport, puzzling through a trip through Paris to reach the exhibit, something — and it won't be the only time the gameplay wastes little time on exposition and cuts straight to the chase. That's not to say that there isn't a lot of game to play through.
Revolution Studios took the unusual step of splitting the game into two "episodes" last year to give it more time to polish the ending. Despite doing so, the first half of The Serpent's Curse turned out to be a walk down memory lane to when old-school point-and-clicks dominated shelves alongside CRPGs and grand strategy titles. It's sentimental with its characters, good intentioned with its breezy humor when it works, and dives headfirst into puzzle-filled mystery.
More so than the last two games, Secret of the Ark (also called Angel of Death) and Sleeping Dragon, The Serpent's Curse has somewhat wisely zeroed back to the screen-sweeping trappings that began the series. The natural camaraderie between George and Nico, the 2-D art direction, and the cel-shaded 3-D character models make it feel as if the game picks up right where things left off many years earlier. The approach isn't as detailed as the animated cels used in the first game, but it works fine in showcasing the strengths of the series' earliest efforts.
The solid voice acting is backed by several of the original actors reuniting behind an impressive list of returning characters. Rolf Saxon, George's longtime voice actor, returns, and a new actress, Emma Tate, does a pretty good job with Nico's role. Every part is spoken, from the private thoughts of our two leads when staring at a puzzle to taking a closer look at a clue.
Puzzle-wise, most follow an intuitive logic that's thankfully bereft of obscurity for obscurity's sake. The GUI also makes it a breeze to save a game and explore George or Nico's infinite pocket inventory. Following the adventurer's adage of picking up everything that isn't nailed down, you can combine what you find and don't need to worry about leaving behind a piece that's necessary for a future puzzle.
Those two were walking warehouses by the time I finished the first half of the game. One of the more interesting puzzles pushes the boundaries of the player's imagination, sometimes with hilarious results for poor George. It's something you'll have to see for yourself, but it was helpful that the puzzle was designed in such a way that everything you need to do is accessible.
Many puzzles were also creatively integrated into the settings, though some of the solutions, even when I already had an idea of what I should do, stopped me cold for a while before I stumbled on the answer by experimenting. There's an integrated hint system that players can use if they're stuck, but adventure game veterans won't likely need it anytime soon, if at all, in the first half of the game.
The promised polish for the second half of The Serpent's Curse apparently focused on making its puzzles tougher to crack, though I'm not sure if that was due to a greater degree of obtuse logic or reducing the amount of feedback that Nico and George provide to the player. Wondering why George keeps that cockroach around? You'll find out, though appreciating it depends on whether your sense of humor lasts longer than your patience. Sometimes, the solution to a few of these relied mostly on guesswork to break through the otherwise opaque delivery.
For instance, one puzzle required two objects to unlock a secret passage, but once I found the proper position for both, I felt I had stumbled on the solution out of dumb luck rather than from any clues. Another puzzle had to do with creating a "church-like" atmosphere, which would seem bizarre anywhere else, but not for a Broken Sword title. Then there was deciphering an ancient script spread across multiple parts, and this does almost too good of a job of relying on opacity in summoning the player's inner Jean-Francois Champollion. It seems as if the designers recognized the relative ease of the puzzles in the first half of the game and felt they needed to raise the bar in the second half.
Unfortunately, the balance of puzzles continues to be heavily skewed toward George. He's a nice guy and a great lead, but Nico continues to get what amounts to leftovers, and the puzzles centered on her felt underwhelming in comparison. Figuring out how to sweet-talk coffee from the revolutionary maitre'd wasn't quite as tough as coaxing George into figuring out how to escape from a flower shop or work out a cipher. It's also disappointing to not have the opportunity to manually switch between these two to brainstorm a few more puzzles.
Not everyone will appreciate the game's sense of humor. Even as a big fan of the series who doesn't hesitate to snag this one on launch day, some of the situations seemed too forced and create awkward situations where silliness and camp sort themselves out between sobering moments. If the Hollywood production of Dan Brown's "Demons and Angels" had been reworked with Tom Hanks dropping groan-inducing one-liners every so often, it wouldn't be too far off the mark from The Serpent's Curse.
It almost seems as if there was too much story for the game, with how the script rushes its characters around. At one point, you fly straight into Iraq and land in the middle of a desert on a convenient airstrip that happens to be close to where you need to go. At another, a puzzle resolution due to a character's change of heart seemed too contrived. It might have worked in another game, or if there were better circumstances building up to it, but it just feels wedged in to move along the story. The villains also seemed to have an obsessive James Bond-like habit of giving our two protagonists more than enough leeway to get out of any situation over the course of the 12 hours spent needling through its twists and turns.
Seen as a straight-up adventure game hearkening back to when sweeping the screen for hotspots with a cursor was the norm, The Serpent's Curse clutches the 2-D milieu of its earliest peers with a death grip. On the other hand, the occasionally gawky mix of conspiratorial seriousness and cartoonish humor might not be for everyone, especially if they're not familiar with the history between George and Nico.
For fans of the series, there's enough glittery nostalgia and polish in Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse to gloss over the rough edges. The lighthearted banter, the brightly colored scenes, enticing mystery, and solid puzzles make this something that the original Kickstarter campaign promised: "fan service aimed directly at those aching to experience one more story involving one of adventure gaming's favorite teams."
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