Title: Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon
Big Word: AWOKEN
Strap: Beware: Here be Dragon Power.
It's time to start over. For too long, amateur diagnosis of the adventure genre's health has impeded any helpful discussion about what treatments might be appropriate. This static analysis has held back progress for the worst part of a decade, our chronic Munchausen By Proxy ensuring that there would never be a need to cease our whining. But for the last six years, an cure has been bubbling in the head of one of adventure gaming's godfathers - a man with faith in the genre he helped create, but with the foresight and clarity of mind to realise where it needs to go. And now it's finally gone there.
Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is the first of the new wave. It's the way in which adventure games are to be contemporary, and the means by which Story can be the central theme in modern gaming. It's the death of point-and-click, and the rebirth of narrative. It's not perfect, it's not the greatest adventure game you'll ever play, but it's the giant leap for its kind that was so desperately needed. But this sounds like a concluding paragraph, and there's much to be explored.
Broken Sword began in 1996, coming from the keyboard of already-long-term adventure writer Charles Cecil. Broken Sword I and II's interests lay in telling a story. In terms of depth of history, volume of information available, and passion for its subject, it's hard to think of any game in any genre since that has come close.
Both games were traditional mid-90s point-and-clicks, but their difference lay in the complexity of the player characters - George, and Nico. George Stobbart, an American patent lawyer, balshy, somewhat idiotic. His approach direct, sometimes foolish, and always impassioned. Nico Collard, a French newspaper journalist, is George's opposite - strict, polite, and business-headed. Where George would be prepared to believe in mystical beasts, Nico attempts a slightly more level-headed approach. Together, and sometimes far apart, they have uncovered elaborate plots dating back over thousands of years, and saved the world from ancient magics.
Which brings us up to date. And a new child has been born - the 3D adventure.
Yes, of course, LucasArts did this in 1998 with Grim Fandango, and then again in 2000 with Escape From Monkey Island. But now, with the aid of hindsight, and at last something to compare them to, the transparency of their third dimension has become very clear. Here, thank goodness, it's finally been done properly.
It seems that LucasArts' mistake was to try to make an adventure game become 3D. Revolution's success lies in having tried to make a 3D game become an adventure. Using a significantly modified Renderware engine, George and Nico now exist in a world with not only left, right, in and out, but also up, down, over, under and around. No longer do you choose 'use' and click on the wall to scale it. Now you explore the wall, finding a section low enough to jump for, and pull yourself up. And if there's no such section, rearrange the scenery until you've built yourself one. The game's furniture has become a key part of how you complete a puzzle, taking ideas from some of the best third-person action games. When swinging from ledges, memories of that other tomb raider are never far away.
And it is at this point that the purists begin their screaming. It's bad enough that this review talks about 1990's point and clicking as a thing of the past, but to be boasting of the 'action' elements of the game before the story gets a proper mention! Purists, long-term lovers of the series, it's our great pleasure to say that you can calm down now.
So we can soon move onto more important elements, let's get this sorted as quickly as possible. When LucasArts introduced their z-axis, removing the mouse was unnecessary and unhelpful. In BS:TSD, a mouse would only hinder your freedom. Wisely, Revolution have 'borrowed' the head-turning idea from their rival, so when an object or item can be interacted with, it is looked at. But, and so importantly but, it is also flagged by a glinting star when approached. There is no doubt what is to be noticed, and certainly no need for the bane of the genre: sweeping the screen for the correct interactive-pixel. But instead of Grim's anonymous 'use' key, BS:TSD uses a four-button display, letting you choose how you wish to act. Walk near a computer, and the 'look' and 'use' icons will appear. Approach a wooden crate, and you'll have 'push/pull' and 'climb'. Stand beneath the aforementioned ledge on a building, and 'jump' will be all that's available. So while you are Croft-like leaping about the walls, you're always doing it in the most traditional adventure ways. It's genius! It actually works!
Thank goodness that's out the way and everyone's convinced. Moving on. A few years have gone by, and George and Nico have drifted out of contact, if not from each other's minds. (Nico's apartment not only sports a photo of George on the table, but a painting of a goat is hung on the wall, not because she likes it, but because George bought it for her). George is on the trail of a client who wishes to patent a perpetual energy machine, somewhere in the Congo. Nico is following up a story about a computer hacker who claims to have cracked an ancient Mayan code. And naturally, things go immediately wrong for both. George ends up crashed in the jungle, only to witness the man he came to help being killed. And a stranger looking suspiciously like Nico assassinates the hacker just as she approaches his front door. The two stories inevitably are to entwine, as they learn they're investigating the same case.
The case in question is the culmination of the series, the climax of the mysteries of the Templars told in the first, and the Mayan predictions explored in the second. It's about a mysterious earth energy known as the Dragon Power, which a nefarious crew are attempting to harness for their ill means. And this is where the first real criticism can be leveled. Designed so the game is completely accessible to a new player, the idea is that there's no need to know the story of parts one and two. But this isn't strictly true. There are innumerous references to the history of the series, from reoccurring characters (to say who would be to spoil far too many surprises), to comments made throughout in conversation and descriptions. To the uninitiated, this could occasionally be a little mystifying. But the attempts to make it universally understandable also mean that our teeth never really felt like they had completely sunk into the story. A noticeable reduction in dialogue, and no scenes to match the museums of the previous titles (pages and pages of information to read), mean that from time to time things can seem a little shallow. Much more could have been said about the conspiracies and mysteries involved.
Obviously a lot rides on the quality of the puzzles, and it's here that the other major gripe appears. It feels as though too much pandering has been made to the desire for a new audience, with the objects needed for solving challenges often found about thirty seconds before they're used. A seasoned adventurer is going to be able to spot the object's purpose as soon as they pick it up, creating an occasionally frustrating sense of inevitability. But the main issue is the crates. Damned crates. Although these puzzles are generally well crafted and neatly implemented, the number of times George finds himself needing to rearrange boxes in order to progress provokes louder and louder groans of "oh no, not AGAIN!".
Simply put, there's no goat puzzle here. So while they aren't all painfully easy, they are never brain-hurtingly challenging. It wasn't obvious to us until now, but getting stuck is something you actually miss... Until you meet one of the two arcade sequences.
Oh, they shouldn't be there. Fortunately, Revolution have recognised how these will upset those who aren't interested in flexing their reflexes, and after a few failed attempts they render themselves impossible to lose, letting you progress. This is an excellent idea, and makes the game available to all-comers, but just not having them at all would have made a lot more sense, and the flow does suffer for them.
But the strengths - oh there are many. Though stunted, the story is still proper Broken Sword stuff - ancient manuscripts, mysterious cloaked strangers, secret underground temples, rival love-interests, ridiculous stereotypes, globe-trotting exploration (including Paris, the Congo, the South West of England, and Prague, amongst others), all present and delightful.
The development of the relationship between the central characters is perhaps the strongest point, Nico having softened to George's silliness, and George sometimes having to take things more seriously. Their banter is so finely written and so brilliantly acted that at points I found myself clapping at the jokes, especially when Nico joins in with George's silly comments. And this goes further than the funnies - at points, slightly embarrassingly, eyes became wet. So touching are two key moments that this reviewer's hands left the keyboard and went to cover his mouth in surprise. And this is achieved not only through the quality of script and acting, but also the extraordinary facial expressions the in-game engine can generate.
Graphically, it's beautiful. The state-of-the-art lighting means that shadows lay perfectly across awkward surfaces, and scenes often have a noir feel. Although having abandoned the cartoony look, it still feels essentially Broken Sword-ish, with its backgrounds lovingly crafted. And all is viewed via a mostly extremely effective camera.
Lip-syncing is mostly bang-on, adaptable to the mentioned facial expressions, doing justice to the quality of the voices. And the music - as has been the standard with the series - is wonderful and reactive.
Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon has managed what some have thought impossible, and others have failed at when trying: It's reinvented the genre. Without forcing you to buy and play it, there's no real way to convey how different it feels to play, and yet how true to the core spirit of adventure gaming it is.
A lot of love has gone into making this game, and it shines out through the script, the design, and the game's essential need to be. It's flawed, like every other adventure game, but in terms of being told a Story, there's no need to look anywhere else.
Verdict: The rebirth of a genre, though not perfect, is well worth witnessing. A beautiful story, told in a brand new way.
Margin Note 1:
At times brilliant, and at others, infuriating, the camera is at once one of the strongest and weakest parts of the game. Capable of creating dazzling direction during certain scenes, it also manages to make running down a corridor one of the most complicated challenges, thanks to switching to face in opposite directions at each corner. Fortunately, it is good more often than it's bad. But it's very naughty when it's bad.
Margin Note 2:
Thanks to the cross-platform nature of this release, controls are either keyboard or joypad. Both work brilliantly, the keyboard's 'a', 's', 'd' and 'w' keys stepping in for the joypad's four buttons, with movement on the cursors ore D-pad, with no hindrances. But there's something nice about being able to lean back, away from the desk with a joypad, and play from back there.
Margin Note 3:
George is once again voiced by Rolf Saxon, who is on his usual fine form. His timing is often beautiful, making good jokes brilliant. But in a change from before, Nico is now voiced by Sarah Crook, who's gentle French accent (adopted) better portrays the softer, more humorous evolution of the charcter. The two work very well together, and the middle act contains some really impressive comedic banter.
Minimum System: PIII 750, 128Mb RAM, 1 Gb HD space, 64Mb 3D card
Recommended: PIII 1.2 GHZ, 256MB RAM
Web Address: www.revolution.co.uk
Release Date: November 21st 2003