Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse Review – Good Old-Fashioned Adventuring (PS4)
Back in 1996, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars was a critical and commercial smash. A boon for the point-and-click adventure, Revolution Software’s masterpiece went on to influence countless entries in the genre, including the works of the oft-lauded Telltale Games. The story, primarily penned by company co-founder Charles Cecil, tells the story of American tourist George Stobbart and French journalist Nicole “Nico” Collard as they attempt to find the truth behind a terrorist attack in Paris.
In 2012, 16 years after the release of that seminal classic, Cecil took to Kickstarter to obtain funding for the launch of a new game. Titled Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse, it was released in two episodes and eschewed the three-dimensional gameplay found in the previous titles in favor of a return to the 2D roots of the franchise. Now, the fifth installment in this storied series has made its way to PlayStation 4, and with it a pedigree of top-class adventuring. Both episodes are packed in, which means George and Nico will see their quest through to the end.
That claim to return to “2D roots” may seem a little disingenuous to anyone who’s seen the beautifully hand-drawn graphics of the original two games. Make no mistake, the backgrounds that depict the European locales are more gorgeous than ever before. There’s a level of detail that obviously wasn’t achievable when The Shadow of the Templars arrived in the ’90s, and seeing the vast landscapes stretch across the screen in high definition is something to behold.
On the other hand, the characters — everyone from George and Nico to various NPCs — were originally modeled in 3D and saved as 2D sprites. That doesn’t mean they’re inherently unappealing, of course, but there is something tangible that’s lost in that decision. Every movement is too stiff and rigid; the characters behave more like animatronics than living, breathing humans. In fact, the flat backgrounds actually pop more than the people that occupy them. This takes the air out of a lot of the more dramatic scenes, including the gallery heist and subsequent murder that kicks off the adventure.
Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
While the animation may not make a spectacular first impression, though, it’s rather easily overlooked once the first cutscene ends and the control is put in your hands. Broken Sword 5 is like comfort food for point-and-click adventure fans: it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, and it’s all the better for it. Investigating interesting locations, talking to weird and wonderful NPCs, and solving light puzzles are all here and accounted for, and they’re all masterful. Sure, the DualShock 4 doesn’t have the ideal control setup for precision pointing, but it does its job well enough to avoid frustration.
It’s also worth noting just how intuitive the inventory management and puzzle-solving are. You may scratch your head once or twice, but there’s nothing quite as long and obtuse as you might find elsewhere — The Longest Journey’s absurd rubber duck puzzle comes to mind. Like any point-and-click game worth its salt, highlighting an object will tell you what it is, and the cursor changes contextually based on what you can do (a magnifying glass means you can take a closer look, a set of gears means you can perform an action, et cetera).
The context-sensitive system also means you can string together actions by clicking different objects in succession, letting George and Nico do most of the heavy lifting. In one scenario, for example, you need to reach an electrical box located high above a closed door shutter. To get there, you simply need to click on a box to have George push it, click the girder above to send him leaping from atop the box to grasp the bar, then click the electrical box itself to have him shimmy over and open it. The smoothness of this system surely benefits from four games of prior experience, and it makes Broken Sword 5 a pleasure to play.
Of Snark and Storytelling
One of Charles Cecil’s main goals when he wrote and designed The Shadow of the Templars was to avoid the humorous style of titles like the Monkey Island series, instead opting for the pacing and characterization found in classic adventure films. That tradition is alive and well here, with the tone striking a nice balance between clever humor, fascinating references to literature and history, and thrilling intrigue. This one does take its time to get going, with an opening section that’s paced almost like a tutorial, but it picks up speed nicely after its initial lull.
The characters are obviously one of the most important aspects of any story, and these do not disappoint. George and Nico are appealing protagonists, both equipped with a witty repartee and a whimsical sense of adventure. The villains are suitably sinister, as well, and uncovering their secrets is one of the most exciting things about the narrative as a whole. Perhaps best of all are some of the inconsequential-seeming NPCs you’ll come across: the glum, nihilistic French waiter in the first part of the game is more memorable than he has any right to be.
The lines may be good, but their delivery is a bit inconsistent; while all the voice actors are clearly giving it their all, their accents do fade in and out from time to time, and their emphasis can seem a bit strange sometimes. Still, these are outliers in an otherwise superior audio presentation, and the infectious enthusiasm makes up for the occasional awkwardness on most occasions.
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse isn’t perfect, but it’s a pleasure for the majority of its running time. The writing is consistently witty and clever, and there are a plethora of well-defined, wacky characters for you to meet. It does chug a bit at the beginning, but like a lot of stories, it doesn’t stop once it gets rolling. Perhaps you’ll be too occupied with the intuitive controls to notice, though — the context-sensitive mechanics are easy enough that you won’t miss your mouse… too much, anyway.
It’s definitely a shame the animation is so awkward and stiff; it pales in comparison to the visual splendor of the hand-drawn backgrounds, and it’s nowhere near as impressive as the graphics of The Shadow of the Templars were in 1996. Still, it’d be an even bigger shame if that put anyone off from experiencing this classically-inspired adventure. This is worth looking into for any fan of the point-and-click genre, and you’re not likely to get many more like it on PS4.
Review code for Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.