Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse - Episode 1 Review (PC)

Standard disclaimer: you should be aware that I backed Broken Sword 5 when the Kickstarter campaign ran a year ago. I personally don’t believe this matters a jot, certainly no more than any other game I’ve looked forward to or paid money for, but I believe in total honesty in reviews so if it matters to you, there you go. What I find more interesting is that Revolution ran their adventure game Kickstarter several months after Double Fine completed theirs, and yet Broken Sword is out before Broken Age and both are being split in two. Time will tell which is the better game, but right now we’re going to focus on the first episode of The Serpent’s Curse.

While in the real world it’s been seven years since the last Broken Sword game, the underwhelming Angel of Death, in Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse it seems to be not long afterwards. The story once again follows American George Stobbart and French journalist Nico Collard in a globe-trotting (okay, Europe-trotting) adventure that begins with a mysterious murder in Paris. As the pair attend the opening of a new art gallery a masked man bursts in, steals a valuable work of art and kills the gallery’s owner Henri. As George was in charge of insuring the gallery and Nico is looking for her big break in journalism, the duo set out to find who shot Henri and why that particular artwork is so important.

“MacGuffin”, Oil On Canvas, 1937

As you can guess if you’ve played previous Broken Swords, they soon uncover a web of lies, conspiracy and criminality that starts to mingle with the occult as things get ever more strange. It’s an intriguing story that starts twisting early and it’s never less than entertaining, plus you never know which of the game’s many characters are telling the truth. However, I’m going to talk about Broken Sword 5’s biggest flaw right away as it’s one that anyone who’s been following the game can guess at, and it’s the fact that this is only Episode 1. The Serpent’s Curse has been split up into two episodes, and despite Revolution’s best efforts to disguise this fact it blatantly wasn’t meant to happen. Play a Telltale adventure and you’ll feel like each episode is its own separate story. Get to the end of The Serpent’s Curse Episode 1 and you’ll feel like you’ve seen the first half of a story with an arbitrary ending point. It’s all build-up, no pay off.

That build-up is excellent mind, I thoroughly enjoyed the story that’s here and can’t wait to play the next part, but I still don’t understand Revolution’s desperate desire to split it in two. Saying “this story isn’t over yet” does not make a cliffhanger. At least they’ve been cool about pricing, as there seems to be no way to buy each episode separately (the more expensive option) so if you buy one you’ll get the other when it comes out. That removes the financial excuse so things are simplified in that regard, but it still begs the question: why bother splitting it up in the first place?

Still, story’s excellent, and so’s the dialogue. It’s very well written and features plenty of detail, like responses for just asking characters about random items, along with George or Nico nudging the player in the right direction when they get close to a puzzle solution. Also, it’s been a while since I’ve played a Broken Sword game, but I can’t remember them being so funny. I’m used to silly adventures (Monkey Island, Deponia) or serious adventures (Cognition, Memoria) but not ones that straddle the line right in the centre. Broken Sword 5’s story is serious, the events can be shocking, but a lot of it is played for laughs. Even the shocking opening murder of Henri is undercut by the ability to mess with his glasses and adjust his toupee, whereas the stuff that actually is supposed to be funny is often laugh-out-loud so.

That’s nice, now get me my damn coffee

For every one serious moment there are two big laughs, usually coming from amusing characters like the incompetent Inspector Navet or the revolutionary waiter trying to change France with coffee. Perhaps not surprisingly as it was funded by adventure game enthusiasts there are even several nudges towards famous adventuring moments, like the infamous “cat hair moustache” puzzle of Gabriel Knight 3, using a crowbar as a grappling hook in Monkey Island 2, and even Broken Sword 3’s overuse of crate-pushing and climbing moments. It’s all really funny and often feels like an adventure game celebration.

The games that Broken Sword 5 most resembles however are Broken Sword 1 and 2, which for many will be a relief. The lovely 2D cartoon-style artwork, the point and click, the icons, the UI, the strange murder in Paris sparking off a big conspiracy, it’s all here. There are even several recurring characters from previous games, including the long-suffering Sergeant Moue and art critic and lothario Hector Laine. The Serpent’s Curse is deliberately old-school in feel but fortunately Revolution (unlike Daedalic) are aware the internet exists and so aren’t so old-school that they forget to implement a hint system. It’s an excellent system too, perfectly updating based on what you’ve done and offering several stages of hint to either just get you on the right track or near-enough tell you the answer (similar to the Professor Layton games without Hint Coins).

The puzzles can get very clever, with a couple of my favourites involving a Cyrillic typewriter (“If only I had an English keyboard to compare it to”, wink wink) and creating a catchy name for a knick-knack stall. Most importantly I was never in the dark about what I needed to do, I just had to figure out a way to do it. A true old-school adventure game fan might find it all a little easy, but that’s just because it’s all been put together with care so everything flows cleanly. Well, okay, and the fact that it’s all a little linear. While you will return to locations there is never a moment where you get halfway through a puzzle and can’t do it because you haven’t gone somewhere else first. The game even actually won’t let you visit locations if they’re not relevant at that time. Everything you need to solve a puzzle is close by or in your inventory already. While that means a strong adventure gamer will whistle through Episode 1 quite quickly (it took me about 5 hours) there’s no padding. A lot of the puzzles can also be solved with plain common sense (giving several inventory items multiple uses), which I appreciate.

A subtle suggestion that we’re not going to be seeing Beneath A Steel Sky 2 for a while, I bet

You may have noticed that I’ve downplayed a few criticisms of The Serpent’s Curse a little, most notably the linearity, the short playing time and the ease of most of the puzzles. These are most definitely things but I don’t feel short-changed by them, as they’re mostly down to the game being designed so well that everything moves smoothly if you know what you’re doing. However despite the general air of non-seriousness there are a few moments that take you out of the game that qualify as a complaint. Nico sticking a large mop down her skirt rather than just putting it aside is one, but the main offender is a moment when George is seemingly caught red-handed committing murder and doesn’t take it seriously at all, first answering his phone (while his accuser shouts “MURDERER!” at him) and then running off without an explanation. And he wonders why the police suspect him.

These points aside, the first episode of Broken Sword 5 is a lot of fun and a welcome return to form for the series. That mid-way split is annoying and despite Revolution’s best efforts isn’t really justified, leaving Episode 1 as just half a game, and some adventurers may be disappointed at how straightforward the puzzle design is, but overall I was very satisfied. The story is intriguing, characters are fun, puzzles are well designed, hints perfectly implemented, and the 2D art is lovely. Oh, and the voice acting and music are both great, with Rolf Saxon returning finely as George Stobbart and new girl Emma Tate doing a fine Nico Collard. A short but sweet adventure stymied only by the fact it's half a game. Roll on the second half, and if it’s as good as the first Broken Sword 5 will end up a most excellent adventure.

Top Game Moment: When George Stobbart sees the large elderly Lady Piermont naked. “That was the day the nightmares began...”