The amount of games being ported to or remade for the Game Boy Advance is staggering. Be they ports or remakes of games from older systems like the SNES or more current systems like PlayStation, Nintendo's powerful little handheld is seeing lots of great remakes. But one remake I never expected to see was a remake of Broken Sword, a point-and-click graphic adventure for the PC and PlayStation first released back in the mid 1990s. While Revolution's Broken Sword series isn't as prolific or as well known as Lucas Arts' series such as Monkey Island, it enjoys a cult following among graphic adventure fans and for good reason. Broken Sword is among the best point-and-click games I've ever played.
The original Broken Sword featured FMV anime cutscenes and full voice acting. Of course these were cut for the GBA version. Instead, the cutscenes feature hand-drawn anime stills. While I had not played Broken Sword on a larger console, the lack of voices and FMV did not hinder the game. In fact, the overall presentation was nearly flawless and optimized the GBA hardware wonderfully.
The graphics are unbelievably good. I never thought I'd see graphics this good on a handheld. The character sprites are large and quite detailed with minimal pixilation. Even from far away, they still retain a good amount of detailing. Every last NPC has a unique sprite, which adds considerably to the game's heterogeneous feel. The sprites all animate fluidly and realistically. My only caveat is that the character designs are a bit bland and somewhat uninspired. But it works well to convey that these characters are plain folks like you and I.
The backdrops look hand drawn and have meticulous detailing. In particular, the outsides of the buildings in Paris impressed me quite a bit. The game takes place over multiple European countries and the art and architecture of the backdrops beautifully represented their respective locations. The presentation in this game is top notch.
The weakest aspect of the graphics is the overland map. There are two overlands- one featuring multiple locations in Paris, and a larger overland featuring the European continent. The overlands have a nice browned map look to them, but are not as impressive graphically as the rest of the game. The overland is more-or-less a 'point and click' overland like in Grandia with accessible areas marked with yellow dots and inaccessible areas marked with grey dots.
The sound was also quite impressive. Broken Sword utilizes a decent amount of music and all of it is quite good. The instrumentation is quite varied and the synth is quite good, considering this is a GBA game. From the string-like sounds of the overland theme to the Mediterranean sounds of the Syrian street market, all the music is distinctive and adds the appropriate flavor to its respective location or event. There are also many instances where there is no music, thus letting the ambience of the setting breathe. Excellent. However, the music itself does not stand alone very well outside of the game. It is all beautifully composed with varied instrumentation but the tunes lack catchiness.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the sound effects. I'm not always one to notice them, but from the get-go, Broken Sword's sound effects jumped out at me. From the chirping of gulls to the starter of an old truck, the GBA replicated the game's sound effects as realistically as possible.
If you've played a graphic adventure before, then the gameplay will fit like a glove. You frequently talk to NPCs, explore your surroundings with a fine-toothed comb, collect all manner of items for your inventory, and use them in myriad ways to get yourself out of jams. The puzzles themselves are well integrated into the plot and you almost never feel as if you're solving puzzles. Some are easy, some are hard, but all make sense in conjunction to the plot. The puzzles were a lot of fun, and even the ones that required timing were reasonably forgiving. One thing I've always liked about the genre is that it forces you to think out of the box. Oftentimes the seemingly weirdest ideas see you through the day and you say to yourself, "why didn't I think of that sooner?" Sure there were times when I got stuck, but trial and error saw me through. Plus it helped that a chime would sound if you hit upon a trigger event, so you knew you were on the right track.
The directional keypad moves our protagonist, George Stobbart, around the screen. If he is near something of interest (a hot spot), various icons will pop up. A magnifying glass icon signifies something observable, a mouth icon means you can talk to an NPC, a gear icon means you can use something (either an item or open a door) and a hand icon either allows you to pick something up or move on to the next screen. The right shoulder key highlights the various hot-spots on the screen. This is quite helpful in exploration. George walks at a leisurely pace, which is wonderful because you want to patiently explore every inch of every screen and not miss a thing.
The left shoulder key opens up the inventory. Press the left and right directional keys to cycle through it. If you want to combine items, go to an item, press up to isolate it, press left and/or right to find the item you want to combine it with, then press A to combine. This method is well optimized for a console controller rather than the 'hold down mouse button and drag item' method used for PC. And if an item or combo is unusable, George will shrug his shoulders. One thing I like about the inventory is that many items can be used repeatedly rather than one time only. Thus there is another good reason to pick up everything you can.
The A and B buttons serve different functions. The A button is the action button. When George is at a hot spot or wants to use an inventory item, the A button makes him perform that action. The B button, on the other hand, is the observe button. Pressing B while an inventory items is highlighted or at a hot spot will have George describe it for you. It is often a good idea to do this before performing an action in case a hint lies therein. Also, some of George's commentary is quite amusing.
So all these wonderful elements have come together and only serve to enhance Broken Sword's crowning feature- its story. Simply put, this game has one of the most well written stories I've ever experienced in a video game. It literally starts out with a bang and maintains its momentum throughout its course. It is not an action packed story, but rather a patient murder mystery that slowly unfolds into a huge conspiracy; however, there are moments where the story will put you on the edge of your seat. It's one of those stories that grips you and never lets go. It goes a little something like this:
George Stobbart, a twenty-something law student from California, is enjoying a European vacation. While sipping a drink outside a café in Paris, he notices an old man with a briefcase enter the café. Soon after, a man dressed as a clown enters, and later exits. A violent explosion then destroys the café, and thanks to the umbrella on his table falling over him, George survives the explosion. The police then interrogate George and a waitress and the cafe, who also survived. Upon exiting the café, George meets a young photo-journalist named Nicole Collard (Nico for short) who quickly becomes his greatest ally in uncovering this murder mystery. Yes, despite being told to stay out of it, George feels obligated to get to the bottom of this terror attack. Little does he realize that in following the mystery, he will be privy to a world domination conspiracy based on the history and secrets of the Knights Templar, who were holy knights during the Crusades.
The story is linear, but it's good that way since the tale is quite involved and features many twists, particularly towards the end. This is one story where you don't want to miss a thing and thanks to the linearity, you will not. I do admit that the ending is rather short, but since all loose ends got wrapped up in the story's duration, there really wasn't much that needed to be said at the end. I felt fully satisfied upon completing this game.
What impressed me the most about Broken Sword's tale is the historical accuracy with which the Templar content is presented. I always applaud when a game uses its mythological, historical, religious, etc source material accurately. I cross-referenced the majority of Templar facts presented in the game with some Templar resources from my university's library and the Internet and all of it matched up. The writers really did their research thoroughly. So not only was I given a wonderfully entertaining story to play through, but I also learned a lot about the Knights Templar and their history. For a game to transcend being a game and offer an enriching experience as Broken Sword did is quite a feat and I applaud that.
I know some of you may be saying that this plot doesn't sound all that original. And you'd be partially correct, as the plot of Broken Sword is a fairly archetypical film plot. But it's the writing that really makes Broken Sword stand out. There is a LOT of text in this game and all of it is wonderfully written with intelligence and wit. All the characters have excellent dialogue and none of it insults the player's intelligence. I particularly like that the dialogue of the Europeans is filled with phrases from their respective language, and spelt correctly to boot. The French characters will respond "oui monsieur?" to George as opposed to "yes sir?" when he addresses them. Of course there are some slip ups such as when George says the more British "rubbish" rather than "trash" or "garbage" but I prefer that to the way some game companies overly Americanize the English dialogue. Of course, Revolution is a European developer so that was never an issue.
I must say that George Stobbart is one of the best protagonists I've ever encountered in a video game. I always liked games where the protagonist is an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Also, I love how George is portrayed. He's not a one-dimensional character. There are times when he's making smart-aleck comments about something or someone, and there are times when he gets serious and uses his academic knowledge to solve problems (for example, his knowledge of Latin from law school enables him to translate some ancient texts). Because he's an everyman protagonist and not some warrior swordsman, I was more able to relate to him than to other protagonists. George is often introspective as well, and we are often privy to his thoughts regarding various situations. His thoughts are always entertaining to read be they sardonic or profound.
Another cool feature is that you can choose what language to play the game in. The choices are English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German. Obviously, I played it in English and I would assume the incredible writing carries on when the game is played in the other languages, but I'd rather let a more fluent reader of French, Spanish, Italian, or German be the judge of that. And as I said before, even though I set the language to English, the ethnic characters still used a lot of ethnic words and phrases.
But as wonderful as this game is, there are downsides. The biggest stumbling block is the bugs. Broken Sword for GBA has a couple of gamestopping bugs in it. One bug in Ireland allows you to solve a puzzle without picking up some plaster, which should be a necessary ingredient. This wouldn't be a big deal if you didn't need the plaster much later on in the game. There is also another bug where once you're given access to Syria, Spain also appears on the world map. If you go to Spain before Syria, then a particular conversation in Paris will never happen and you'll have to restart your game due to a roadblock. And, no, once you've visited a country outside of France and done everything there is to do there, you cannot go back, unless a trigger event occurs enabling you to go back.
There is also a bug I found where speaking to the flower lady outside Nico's apartment once the Ireland segment ends made my game freeze up. Thankfully, she doesn't say anything of any relevance to the plot, so avoid speaking to her that one time and you will be fine. You will need to speak to her the first time you go to Nico's apartment, but that is okay.
Another flaw was in saving. Once you start a game, you're only allowed to use the same save slot. I wished I could save my games to multiple slots, just in case. Either way, it is prudent to save often, as there are times in the game where George can die resulting in a Game Over. And, yes, you can save anywhere you want in the game, so long as you're not in the midst of a conversation. Pressing start brings up the save game menu and you can even opt to change the language game 'on the fly.'
So while bugs are always an unpleasant thing to have in games, the ones here aren't of any consequence so long as you don't walk into the traps I mentioned above. But once all is said and done, if you are a fan of the genre, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you missed it on PC or PlayStation, now is your chance to snatch it up. Broken Sword is one of the finest examples of how a well-crafted graphic adventure should be done and is a worthy addition to any GBA library. With its beautiful visuals, great sounds, fun gameplay, and most importantly the excellent writing and gripping plot, Broken Sword for GBA flat out rocks!