Words cannot express the glorious thrill of seeing one of adventure gaming’s biggest series return to form, familiar, yet refreshed, evolved, yet stalwart. Much like Doctor Who the series has changed faces time and time again – making the brave move into 3D when 2D’s sinking star constrained it, and now with The Serpent’s Curse, returning to its roots with confidence and swagger. The Broken Sword guys know what they’re doing at this point. They have it down to a fine art.
The story, once again, centers around intrepid American insurance salesman George Stobbart and feisty, caustic Parisian journalist Nico Collard as they fall in and out of each other’s lives, face down centuries old conspiracies, and dart from country to country like they’re filming a BBC documentary. For the uninitiated, you should not be daunted. Prior knowledge of the games so far isn’t at all necessary, it just helps season the experience somewhat. Returning players will see plenty of old friends and lovingly tongue in cheek references to the previous games but new players won’t ever feel like they’re being left out. It’s something of a feat, but it does help that the interpersonal dramas are merely a sideshow to the big thematic core mystery, this time, an ominous heretical painting that holds the secret to the end of the world.
George is the insurance shmuck who has to chase down the stolen painting to sate his own curiosity and save his skin and Nico is driven by her journalistic duty to get to the bottom of it. The characters are simple, yes, with simple motivations, but oh so loveable, cracking wise and bumbling through life and death situations with lashings of obtuse observations and sarcasm. It’s fun in the way National Treasure, and to a smaller extent, Indiana Jones, is – globe trotting, swashbuckling, with moments that are either subtle genius, genuine madness (more likely a bit of both). One moment you’re dressing like a dead gallery owner to trick his drunk and lonely wife into dancing with you and giving you access to a safe, the next you’re tying dynamite sausage to a goat, all between the more serious puzzle solving and various grisly murders.
George might seem oafish and boring at first but given time he proves himself to be a singularly brave and capable guy – a character development point that’s been recycled in the series a few times thus far. He’s clever, too, and his dry sense of humour and internal narrative offers more laughter than it does cringe. Nico is slightly more tricky as a character – she’s independent but regularly seems like a sideline love interest rather than the confident, haughty woman she is. She has some stellar moments of her own and the game is never directly sexist but in this day and age a female character’s role shouldn’t just be “Distract the dumb guards with your feminine wiles” which is pretty damn close to an actual line of dialogue. They’re both great characters nonetheless, and have some brilliant exchanges as they travel.
The puzzles are a mixed bag. Some of them are brain teasers with realistic solutions, and some require downright MacGyver-like object creativity to get by. One particularly clever puzzle has you deciphering a code written in the Cyrillic alphabet – every time you try and use one of the objects alluding to it George makes a passing comment that it would be easier to figure out if he could just take a look at a US layout keyboard. It took me 20 minutes to realise that there wasn’t one in the game – I was actually just being told to look at my keyboard in real life. This would probably have been more obvious had I been playing the game on PC… Or lived in a country that used US layout keyboards. Clumsy translation aside more puzzles like that would be a welcome change. The ingenuity gets a little muddled with the tried and tested puzzle-by-numbers fillers and the frankly bizarre sections that kind of force you to guess your way through but it’s constantly moving, constantly tense, only ever getting tedious when you haven’t made any progress on the problem at hand and George and Nico have been on the verge of death for ten minutes. That’s the only time it becomes a nerve-blunting grind, but this is all down to you. If you’re not a patient, methodical sort, you might get carried away with the hectic story and lose the head of steam when you’ve spent 20 minutes trapped in one tiny 2D room looking through a dead hippy’s belongings for a clue. That’s the only criticism I can think to level at this sublime adventure game, and it’s not even a true criticism.
The art style is an even mix of 2D nostalgia with a stylised, cartoony art style slightly reminiscent of The Road to El Dorado/Tin Tin (probably just the heavy French influence on the game), with painted static backgrounds and as little character animation as possible outside of cutscenes. It’s quality work – each different location is characteristic of the place it’s based on. The run-down, decaying vibe of urban London is perfectly representative of of the slums of England and the sumptuous, rich looking streets of central Paris, with the tiniest hints of poverty clawing around the edges are a brilliant contrast and you’re never stuck in one place long enough to get bored if it (unless you get caught on one of the stickier puzzles in which case you may end up just burning your consoles and starting again).
I honestly can’t recommend it enough. If you like your mental exercise with a side of wholesome adventure (and slight touches of dementia) this game – and pretty much the series at large – should be your go-to. It was originally released in episodes but the Xbox One version is just the entire game in a single package. It pulls you in and the game’s cartoonish approach to real life and real people is instantly endearing. Backed up by madcap puzzles and riddles, clean, concise storytelling, Broken Sword 5 establishes itself quickly as one of the last remaining champions of a genre now populated by remasters and hybrids. A perfect return to form, great for curious new fans and diehards alike. Not to mention – the cheapest way to lose a weekend since Dragon Soop. Play it. Play all the others. Thank me later.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.