In a sense, Broken Sword lives up to its name. The game was originally released for the PC in late 1996 during the death-throes of the home computing’s then-popular genre, two-dimensional point’n’click adventures. This was before strange mutations into entertaining polygonal wild goose-chases such as Grim Fandango and the later Monkey Islands, and the eventual rise in popularity of story-led third- and first-person RPGs.
A fervent PC adventurer from way back, I played Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars the first time around, and thoroughly appreciated its charm and attractive Frenchwoman. Adventure game standards were lifted to a new pinnacle just as they met with their commercial downfall.
The series stood out from other point-and-clicks through its interface, characters and plot, tone, and setting, to the degree that it felt like playing through a mystery novel. So, temporarily dragging myself away from an ongoing quest through the kingdom of Xbox to become a 100% authentic gee-tar hero, I grabbed my green DS Lite with its 50 pence’s worth of pink, sparkly plastic case deliberately smothered in superhero stickers, and plunged into the mists of time back to an age of text-based chatting with strangers, hand-drawn animation, and inappropriately murderous street performers.
The game is indelibly French. Within the first few scenes you’re already in a café. Set in urban Paris, it’s an adventurous adventure game for not being set in either space, space in the future, or the mystical realms of Whatevzonia. Although Broken Sword antecedes Dan Brown and the Albino of Self-Flagellation, plot similarities are as inescapable as your own eventual mortality.
Indiana Jones is another strong influence, but with fewer Nazis and implications of light bondage. Indy is name checked, one of the game’s locations is an archaeological dig, and at one point a character quotes “that belongs in a museum”. Right from the start there’s a warm, fuzzy genre comfort blanket draped around the story.
The original version of Broken Sword gave the world the opportunity to play only as George Stobbart, American tourist and amateur mysteriologist with an MPhil in Nosey Parker Studies. The DS remix tacks on introductory sections with the sufficiently Francosteinish Nico Collard, journalist for La Liberté, former convent schoolgirl, and potato-loving art student crusading for justice and the truth about her papa.
Ignoring the Machiavellian machinations of the Knights Templar for a moment, Nico’s unusual past possibly goes some way to solving the riddle of her hair, which challenges the Human League’s Phil Oakey for tonsorial inexplicability. Broken Sword’s sleuthsome twosome start the game hunting the Costume Killer, an international assassin disguised as a mime who was somehow platonically involved with Nico’s father. A sinister clown (surely malevolence is down on the person specification for those in the children’s party industry?) serves up an alfresco explosion at the restaurant where George Stobbart happens to be dining, bringing Stobbart into the mystery and continuing to serve his addiction.
Two other murders have been committed around the world by a snowman and a giant Emperor penguin, and this, of course, is related to the shadowy templar-y organization with a long history of skulking in the shadows and doing what Templars seem to do George Best.
Stobbart and the knights errant are a marriage made in the Bible Code thanks to their mutual obsession with unnecessary intrigue. It’s a surprisingly attention-holding detective story for something that’s been covered so often, but remember, Broken Sword was conceived when Tom Hanks’ most ridiculous movie was still Big. Or maybe Joe Versus The Volcano. Or Turner And Hooch. Or The ‘Burbs… Clearly, Hanks is the greatest actor of his generation.
Nico and George provide narration through the game, and their asides make the story a lot more personal and involving to follow. The characters can be disarming as well as witty at times, and demonstrate a dry sense of humour that fails some of the more annoying of us. It can be OTT though, particularly lines such as ‘the carved elephant was not just any carved elephant – it had been made by my father’.
Broken Sword hammers the tropes home with a force greater than the annulled gravity of Bespin Cloud City on Take Your Son to Work Day, but somehow manages to get away with it without feeling tired.
Another feature of Broken Sword’s approach to comedy is populating the entire French police force with an attack of the Clouseau clones, a human resources decision that effectively necessitates Stobbart’s and Nico’s involvement lest the entire military-industrial complex be brought down by ancient assassins dressed as family-friendly archetypes. In short, the game manages not to take itself too seriously.
Shaolin costumery aside, it’s très difficile to understand the 12+ rating when you witness Stobbart enquire of an old lady what she makes of his tool, a costume shop manager who looks like John Inman his opinion of a dirty tissue, and another pensioner who confuses him for a private detective that “the term you’re looking for is dick”, which neatly segues to her making a “coq au vin” joke.
Broken Sword must surely be the result of an obscure alternate universe where a French Agatha Christie was hired to write a Monty Python-themed version of Cluedo. You will, scout’s honour, have to track down a foreboding man with a horseshoe-shaped scar. There might not be trololo-ing but grins will be emitted from your lovely face.
On the subject of lovely faces, the characters expressions are drawn with flair by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons. The conversations between Nico and George are particularly effective, as it’s plain from their expressions there’s love in the air. When further interaction is required the screen will zoom in on certain areas, and these are well drawn. The characters are partly 3D and it raises a smirk when you do something wrong only for them to revolve around on the spot like Jeffrey Daniel from Shalamar and shrug their shoulders at you.
While the backgrounds are rendered in two-dimensions, they’re lush and detailed. A permanent backdrop of Paris in the top screen gives a pleasant sense of anchoring the location. Added to a dramatic score by Barrington Pheloung and realistic sound effects, Broken Sword rivals an animated movie in presentation. The only downside is the lack of the original voice acting, although if you’re a fan you’ll probably be sad enough to imagine the dialogue spoken in George and Nico’s voices. I plumped for Tom Hanks as George.
Transferring definitive adventure games to the DS was a cunning move, as they’re perfectly suited to the scrape’n’tap stylus interface. It’s odd that more classics haven’t been reinvented for the platform. Lucasarts! Forget Monkey Island on Xbox Live, shrink Guybrush down please! Resorting to a SCUMM emulator on an SD card is a shame.Broken Sword demonstrates how suitable a platform the DS is, with the upper screen showing conversation and cut scenes and the lower the surroundings and characters in a very workable tandem. George and Nico are moved by dragging or tapping the stylus across the screen to where you want them to hotfoot it. Considering this game was released in March 2009, it’s surprising others haven’t realised such potential and earnt themselves some green.
Areas of the surroundings can be interacted with by highlighting them using the stylus and then selecting actions to perform such as the standard look and pick up humans have been practicing for millennia. The inventory system is easy to use, with George and Nico both shuttling around a little suitcase that’s displayed in the bottom left of the screen for items to be dragged and dropped to and fro.
Handy objects are combined in the top screen. The simplicity of the interface makes the game feel more linear than most adventures, which usually have the characters scrabbling around attaching abandoned detritus together in the manner of a bastardised vacuum cleaner used by a now unemployed MacGyver to clear up spilt milk from the A-Team van’s upholstery after someone told B.A. his initials also stood for British Airways. Finding yourself stuck is hard to achieve unless you can’t open a jam jar in real life.
The encouragement of tinkly sounds and short blasts of stirring music cement your puzzly righteousness when you stumble ape-like upon the correct solution after several attempts at duct-taping Stobbart’s backside to Nico’s elbow.
Some nifty features add freshness to the remake and improve on those of the original. A diary records what you’ve done and is crucial sometimes to solve puzzles. It reads well and like a short journal in sequence, adding to the depth of story and investment in the characters.
Tapping blue question marks at the top right of the screen gives a puzzle hint, but these are counted throughout the game as an unofficial idiocy indicator. The puzzles themselves include the traditional inventory-wrangling of the original as well as new enigmas that take advantage of the DS’s interface, such as sliding blocks, ciphers, and reconstructing photos.
After a success your journal is updated, and can be tapped to open at the top of the screen, summarising the story. This diary narration means the DS version plays slightly more like an interactive novel than the original, which isn’t too out of place given the almost pad and paper form of the console. Character questioning, or just generally annoying them until they shout important information at you that progresses the story, can be done by clicking on inventory items and pictures of topics.
Good or evil responses can be picked. You can telephone people if you find a landline, but neither Nico nor George seem to have bought a mobile in the intervening decade since the PC version. Saving’s a doddle, and there are four slots to bookmark your place any time you’re terrified of losing the fruits of your astounding detective insights and jury-rigged random item collection.
Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars soldiers on out of its time as gamely as the cult it centres around. There’s a mixture of classic point-and-click intrigue and new features that improve on the original and further the story. Man meets woman, man and woman meet cult, light entertainer blows things up. It’s a tale that’s been told since the dawn of time and this mystery is well worth revisiting in the face of current hand-waving console gimmickry.
Broken Sword: The Shadow Of The Templars The Director’s Cut is out now for Nintendo DS and available from the Den Of Geek Store.