Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse: Episode 1 Review
Reviewed on Sony PS VitaAlso available on PC and Sony PS Vita
How time flies. If it seems like it was only around seven or so years ago that you were last enjoying the company of George and Nico it’s probably because that’s the last time Broken Sword had a new release. But, as you know, popular PC franchises never die, they just sit in a folder called ‘Ideas & Concepts’ waiting for someone to have a spare lunch hour to knock together a quick Kickstarter. Actually, that’s not quite fair – the Broken Sword Kickstarter was wonderfully thought out with the promise of some real interaction with franchise fans, and it was clear from the off that Revolution Software wanted to use the opportunity to return the series to its roots.
No matter how many years have passed since you last visited Broken Sword the chemistry between George and Nico is still there – enough for you to have to ask as a player how useless they are to still be not be together long-term. It’s like one of those American TV series where you know it should happen, and will probably happen, but they keep you hanging for another fifty-two episodes before the kiss. Anyway, I digress, because as soon as the ever-so-compatible duo meet up again in Paris they witness a murder and a robbery, and with the incompetence of French police in mind it’s clearly up to our intrepid journalist and insurance investigator to get to the bottom of all this.
As you progress through the game the plot twists and turns, and in true Broken Sword style it quickly evolves to something of far greater substance than a simple murder. Everything from the tiniest detail (an accurate flight code!) to a French waiter spouting various philosophical lines is well researched and excellently presented. On top of this the game is littered with illusions and references to the series’ past, from returning characters to not so subtle hints at famous puzzles from games gone by. You won’t need to ‘get’ these references to enjoy the game – far from it, but they demonstrate that The Serpent’s Curse is part of a wider gaming world, and adventuring institution, and it is more than comfortable to be in those shoes. Oh, and there’s an option to change the text style from ‘Modern’ to ‘Classic’ – I suggest doing that to get the old nostalgia centre going.
The first thing that’ll hit you about this Vita version of The Serpent’s Curse after you’ve got your hands on it is the control scheme. Unless you’ve been playing around with adventure gaming on your mobiles, this could likely be the first time you’ve experienced a ‘slide and tap’ interface. It’s all relatively simple, doing exactly what it says – you slide your finger over the screen, and items of interest are then highlighted. You can then tap these highlights to examine, pick up or use (and so forth) these areas of interest, replicating exactly the whole mouse experience. While dinosaurs like myself will always prefer the good old tactile point and click of a mouse, the slide and tap is actually quite an elegant solution in translating these titles to a touchscreen. Arguably an analogue pointer and button controls could have been added (a la Dragon’s Crown), but really after a few minutes with the interface you’d have found them unnecessary – it’s enough to know that you don’t need to worry about the control system affecting the game if you’re new to adventure gaming on the go.
Another area of potential worry for genre fans had been the use of 2.5D characters on a 2D background. Well, you can rest assured that the game manages to merge these styles exceptionally well, with only the very occasional moment of discomfort. The backgrounds are fantastic in the way that only hand-drawn art presented on an OLED can be, and even small items are easily located with the slide and tap interface. George, Nico and the whole cast of supporting 2.5D characters manage to exist well in this world, although the odd interaction or walk to a back or foreground may look just a little off.
It’s probable that the next thing that’ll hit you is just how excellent Rolf Saxon is as George Stobbart. He may be named the same as you would expect a Nazi criminal in some random B-Movie but Rolf has consistently nailed his performances as George Stobbart over the years and he bats it out of the park again here (as he might say, being American and all). Rolf’s confidence in the role shines through, and his ability to take quintessential English humour and deliver it as an American is one of the cornerstones of this franchise – especially when you throw in some of the English concepts of the French into the mix. The acting never devolves into ’Allo ‘Allo stylings and I honestly hopes Rolf gets a reward or two to recognise his contribution to acting in games and all.
It’s a shame that we can’t be as glowing in our praise for the game’s puzzles. From wordplay to the odd item combination they are all competent enough, but none really jump out as real brain-taxers. All of them are fairly easily solved, usually using items that you’ve probably found or seen only a short while beforehand. It’s difficult in this modern age to produce a puzzle that would intentionally lead to players staring in desperation at a screen for six hours without expecting them to either give up or hit the ‘net for a walkthrough, but the inclusion of a multi-layered hint system should have allowed Revolution to ramp up the difficulty a notch or two. Hopefully the second episode will have some juicier mind-benders for you to get your brain teeth into. Or real teeth, whatever the saying would be in this case.
All this gameplay stuff aside, however, and we have to say that this is not the best Vita port that you’ll see. While we’ve already discussed how the quality of the voice acting is spot on for a Broken Sword game, the quality of the recordings comes through as poor, both through the speakers (does anyone actually use those?) and headphones. Throughout much of the dialogue there is a certain ‘muddy’ feel, and you have to question whether the audio has been overly compressed to limit the overall download size for the Vita.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the voice quality that could have you rolling your eyes. During our playthrough we had one character develop a bit of a static effect glitch, and experienced a scene where every time we tried to open our inventory we had to watch it open in super slow motion fade in. And then out, when we gave up trying to do anything with it. And then in again, when we realised we needed to perform some inventory management to solve the scene’s puzzle. Luckily the issue seemed to clear up after we got past the first combination, but if you were having trouble working out what to do it would have been infuriating. You can add to this some touchscreen shenanigans we had in another scene where none of our slides or taps would register until a full Vita reboot. None of these ruined the overall game experience, but they did of course act as distractions, and bugs like this lead you to wonder whether Revolution could have done with an extra month or so to polish the port up.
The thing is, if you’re a real Broken Sword fan then you’ll already own this from your Kickstarter pledge, and you’re just here to check in to see what the port quality is like. If you’ve enjoyed Broken Sword in the past (and especially the earlier ones) then you’ll not be disappointed here, as from the intrigue through to Rolf Saxon this is a Broken Sword game through and through. Without the need for a publisher, Revolution Software were given the opportunity to deliver their own vision, one shaped by the true franchise and genre fans and then released for everyone else to peek in on. In this first episode they’ve played it safe, creating a living homage to their concept of what a Broken Sword title should look like. Now that we’ve had the starter, hopefully the second serving will see the drama and head scratching heightened. And really, it’s only then that anyone will be able to definitively judge George and Nico in their latest caper.