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Playback: Broken Sword

You point at things, you click on them and stuff happens. I think you can quite safely use that to describe quite a few genres when played on PC. Shooters get gunfire and explosions when you click, strategy games get troop movement, gunfire and explosions, and the eponymous Point & Click Adventure game gets “I don’t think she’d enjoy that” as a flat rejection of your proposed action by the adventure’s protagonist. Generally no gunfire or explosions.

Point & Click Adventure games have been and gone, you might think, but you’d be wrong. LucasArts and Sierra, the two heavy weights during the 1990s, packed it in a decade ago but the genre has lived on in many guises. Control systems have been adapted so that you’re in direct control of a character, obviously more suitable for console controllers, and gameplay changes have also evolved.

In fact, they’re more pervasive than you might think. Telltale Games, formed from the ashes of LucasArts’ closed studio, is particularly prolific, and there’s smaller scale indie efforts like the charming Machinarium and Lume that sit alongside them on the PC. Then there’s the hugely popular Professor Layton series on DS, a console that really brought pointing at things to the forefront before the Smartphone revolution. Even a game like Heavy Rain is more of a cousin once removed than a whole new genre.

They might not be strict Point & Click anymore, as the control systems have adapted to suit the input methods you have, but I think the genre name suffices. Today I want to talk about on of the classics, Revolution Software’s Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. This one lives up to the genre.

The game opens in Paris, with George Stobbart being caught in a clown instigated explosion at a Café that succeeds in murdering a man, and nearly catches our protagonist too (though that would make for a very short game). From here he meets Nico Collard, a seductively voiced French photo-journalist, and they begin their own investigation of a series of similar murders that quickly takes George away from Paris and around Europe on the trail of a conspiracy that may sound familiar to fans of Assassin’s Creed. Those Knights Templar are being all sorts of dastardly again, and it’s up to you to figure out what on earth is going on and how to stop them.

The first time I got to play this game was in 2002 on the Gameboy Advance, so when Good Old Games hit their six millionth download (congratulations are most certainly in order) and teamed up with Revolution to give away the Broken Sword Director’s Cut for free I jumped at the chance. The Director’s Cut has a few extra scenes at the beginning of the game, and some different artwork in places, but really I just wanted the original game. Well not quite, I wanted to play it on my HP Touchpad. This set me off on a little adventure of my own, to get this game onto my tablet.

Those pesky Templars!

Enter ScummVM. Starting off as a project to keep LucasArts games based on the SCUMM engine, particularly Monkey Island 2, playable on turn of the millennium PCs, it quickly evolved to include pretty much every 2D adventure game from the 1990s. Not only that, but it’s also found its way onto a whole host of platforms and devices. Naturally that means PC, Mac and Linux support, but you’ve then got iOS (Jailbreak only) and Android ports, and even more obscure avenues like the PSP, PS2, Xbox and Dreamcast!

Thankfully this also included WebOS, so I grabbed the latest version of ScummVM for Touchpad, took the files from the install, simply copied them over and started playing Broken Sword all over again. I’m so glad to say that although it has aged noticeably, it has lost absolutely none of its charm for me. In fact, since the GBA version I originally played had no voices or motion in the cinematics, it’s even better!

Having said that, it’s a 15 year old game now, and this shows in many areas. The game’s original resolution is a paltry 640×480 and quite heavily compressed even then. Given that it’s all hand drawn art, it’s completely stuck at that resolution but ScummVM happily upscales two or three times, and has some nice options to smooth the image and make it much easier on the eye. The animation is now in sore need of some extra frames and can often be a bit jerky.

The audio is heavily compressed, and the actual recordings vary wildly in quality; with some of the voices sounding like they were recorded in someone’s garage onto a wax reel. Then there’s the music which gets a bit repetitive once you’ve re-visited an area for the fifth time, and doesn’t blend so wonderfully when going from one area to another quickly. It can get a bit annoying when you’re stuck.

This Syrian backdrop rather reminiscent of an Indiana Jones film.

The gameplay is still your classic Point & Click game. You have to use objects and conversations to progress through areas of the game, to discover the next link in the story, unlock new areas and so on. Sometimes you might not be entirely certain of what you aim to get out of a puzzle, especially if you’ve not paid quite enough attention to the dialogue, but I really enjoyed the plot and how it gradually unfolds in a tangled web that jumps from location to location and back again.

There’s plenty of obscure puzzles, though, and the numerous occasions where you need to combine some objects in a strange and very particular fashion, or show a particular item you’re holding to a certain person in order to progress. It can often lead to moments where you’re completely stuck and so try literally every combination of items and people you possibly can; though all of that is simply part and parcel of the genre of old. It’s still quite nice to be able to finally find a use for that item which you picked up right at the beginning game in the final chapters, making all previous attempts and reactions to it all the better for it.

These are all 21st Century complaints of a 20th Century video game. It’s a bit like saying that classic films like The Third Man could really do with being in colour, or that the original Star Wars trilogy could use some tweaking. As soon as you see past the technical limitations of the time, you’ll see that the animation is wonderfully extravagant in a way that carefully shows every action quite clearly at the original resolution; that the music and sounds sit in the background or comes out of nowhere, swelling majestically when you’ve finally figured out how to get past that guard; that the script and performance is so carefully filled with knowing humour, snappy wit and stereotyped clichés of characters and nationalities. It all more than makes up for it, and is why this game is still rated highly by many.

The Director’s Cut and remaster of the second in the series do try and alleviate some of these modern day complaints. Puzzles have been tweaked, and they’ve taken the opportunity to insert new ones at certain points that make sense. So rather than George simply saying he’s done something, you have to complete a little standalone puzzle instead. They also added some little blue dots over objects you can interact with, which helps reduce the long moments of scanning a room with your cursor, along with the four stage hints system.

Lastly, the graphical changes. Most noticeably they added some facial expression graphics for when you’re having a conversation with someone. These I found to be a bit out of place, as the mouths in the portraits don’t move in the DC, but those shown in the original game’s view still do. The odd moment of new or redone graphics also seemed to clash a bit with the largely unchanged art of much of the rest of the game. So the quality varies quite noticeably at points, along with the new and occasional spot of re-recorded audio. I can see it working well for smaller screens where the shifts wouldn’t be so noticeable, and I’ve heard that the remaster of Broken Sword 2 is done a bit more consistently. I would have loved to simply get the original game’s art reproduced at a higher resolution, though.

Don’t get me wrong, the Director’s Cut is still a good game, but the changes felt a bit odd to me coming from the original. It is still most certainly one of the best and most popular from the Golden Age of the genre, whichever version you play.

Whilst deciding to write this piece about this game, I also made up my mind to take the time to put together a little trailer for it. That “Power” song seems to be quite popular these days…

Oh, and you know the best thing about all of this? I spotted over the weekend that Revolution are working on a Broken Sword 5, and that a fan creation I vaguely remember called Broken Sword 2.5 was completed last year. Time for me to stop writing and play through the entire series so far, I think.


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