"The Serpent's Curse presents a typical adventure for George and Nico, who seem to take everything in stride as if it's just another day at the office."
I never expected to see a new Broken Sword game this year. There hasn't been a new installment in the series since 2006, and even that one flew under my radar. The first Broken Sword game, Shadow of the Templars, is one of my all-time favorite graphic adventures. The second game, The Smoking Mirror, was fantastic as well. I never had the chance to play The Sleeping Dragon or The Angel of Death, but while both of those games were critically acclaimed, some fans weren't taken with the new direction the series took. And now, in 2013, we have the first half of The Serpent's Curse, a brand new Broken Sword game that intends to be love letter to longstanding fans of this veteran series; it largely succeeds in that endeavor. Visually and stylistically, The Serpent's Curse is everything a classic Broken Sword game should be and is a solid graphic adventure that really does nothing wrong. One mystery befuddles me, though. As good as this game is, why was I not as enthralled with it as I was with the classics? Would I need to take a look at the game from a new adventurer's fresh perspective?
Unfortunately, taking the fresh perspective of someone new to Broken Sword is nearly impossible. Anyone venturing into The Serpent's Curse should at least have played Shadow of the Templars, because the two main protagonists here are already well-established characters with a well-established interpersonal relationship that has had its ups and downs over the past four games. The Serpent's Curse does nothing to summarize the events of the first four games, nor does it have a codex of characters, so even series fans will probably have to look up plot summaries to recall what's gone on between them.
For those still on board, Broken Sword 5 reunites protagonists George Stobbart and Nico Collard at a French art gallery. It has been a long time since the two have seen each other, but there is no time for happy reunions. While George and Nico are at the gallery, a pizza delivery man wearing a dark motorcycle helmet bursts into the gallery, steals a painting, and point-blank shoots the gallery owner before making his getaway. Before they know it, George and Nico are once again embroiled in a globetrotting mystery involving greed, sex, and multiple murders that runs them afoul of art thieves, mobsters, incompetent constables, ancient conspiracies, all manner of swindlers and liars, possibly even the devil himself. In other words, The Serpent's Curse presents a typical adventure for George and Nico, who seem to take everything in stride as if it's just another day at the office. The game ends on a cliffhanger after about 5-7 hours, and the latter half should be available mid-January 2014. I would have preferred to have the whole game in one fell swoop, but since the game's price includes both episodes, it's almost "no harm no foul."
That said, I think I may have figured out why the game didn't grip me the way it should have. George and Nico are established as being damn near pros at this sleuthing thing. They handle crime scenes like a walk in the park and speak with shady characters as if it were ladies' tea. I liken it to the original Star Wars trilogy. Return of the Jedi was a great movie, but it wasn't the fan favorite that The Empire Strikes Back was. In A New Hope and The Empire Strikes back, Luke Skywalker was still impetuous and naive like a young adventurer still figuring things out. This made tense moments like running afoul of the thugs in the cantina feel more visceral. In Return of the Jedi, however, Luke is a fully-trained Jedi knight and handles his business like a pro. Regardless, the key factor that keeps both Star Wars and Broken Sword engaging is the evolving chemistry between characters. The chemistry between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo changes over the course of the movies, as the chemistry between George and Nico has changed a lot over the course of the Broken Sword games, and it's their chemistry and interactions that keep the game interesting.
Nico's and George's voice actors absolutely nail that chemistry. George is still a smart-aleck and Nico is still inquisitive to a fault, but they have matured noticeably, and the voice actors express the subtle nuances of their maturity very well. The other voice actors play their roles very well too. The acting itself may not win a Tony or an Oscar, but it's the kind of acting I expect from a Broken Sword title. I definitely think the actors who played the comic relief characters had a lot of fun with those roles. It's great when voice actors really get into their characters, no matter how small their role in the story is. As good as the voice acting is, the music is, sadly, very forgettable. Then again, Broken Sword is not a game series anchored by music, so this is no skin off its apple.
The visuals have changed noticeably over the course of the series as well. Shadow of the Templars and The Smoking Mirror still look good in that classic cartoon way. The Sleeping Dragon and The Angel of Death went the 3D route, and their graphics haven't aged quite as well. Their more realistic character art is also hit or miss with some fans. The graphics of The Serpent's Curse are a glorious return to form but with modern touches. Imagine the classic look of the first two Broken Sword games, but in high definition with cameras that often pan closer to the characters, really making you feel like a part of the action rather than an omnipotent outsider looking in. Subtle animations, particularly in facial expressions, are quite detailed, and I really felt like I was in a top-quality animated TV series. Some of the movement animations, such as walking, look a little stiff, but it's easy to overlook. The environments don't seem as intricately detailed as in the first two games, but they look great, and the lovely character models integrate with them very well. In short, this is what Broken Sword should look like.
There is really nothing to say about the gameplay except that it's classic point-and-click gameplay. Depending on the scene, players either control George or Nico as they explore their environments, seek out hot spots to investigate, collect and manipulate items, worm information out of people, and solve all manner of logic puzzles. Classic Broken Sword games often had challenging puzzles that required some lateral thinking. To this day, I still can't figure out how I solved the infamous "goat puzzle" in Shadow of the Templars beyond dumb luck. The Serpent's Curse, on the other hand, has perhaps the easiest puzzles I've encountered in a Broken Sword game. None of the puzzles particularly broke my brain, and some scenarios had useful items laying around just a little too conveniently. Making the game even easier is a multi-step hint system that holds your hand through every puzzle. Of course, there is an option to disable the hint system, so nobody need cry foul. The only issue I have is that George and Nico walk very slowly, making even short jaunts from one room to another feel lengthened. Some graphic adventure interfaces are such that double clicking makes a character run, and there were times I wished George or Nico had a dash option.
So is Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse a glorious return to form? Yes and no. It contains every positive element a classic Broken Sword game should have, and it's great to see George and Nico again, but the mystery feels more familiar than mysterious, and there is even a point where a fan-favorite character from a previous game feels shoehorned in. I'll definitely play the second half of the game once it's released since I'm already invested in the story and I like the series, but it's not a classic on par with Shadow of the Templars or The Smoking Mirror.