Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars
Broken sword comes from Revolution, the very people who brought you Beneath A Steel Sky. and is the latest in the recent batch of games to involve a Knights Templar theme.
You control George Stobbart (which, for some reason, is pronounced, "Stobe-art"). You're a lanky American with a Man Who Fell To Earth haircut, currently holidaying in Paris in the Autumn as part of a jaunt around 'Yoorp'. in which you plan to point at people's public buildings and ask if they're, like, really old. No sooner have you settled down with some disgusting French drink or other at a pavement cafe, than an elderly William Burroughs lookalike starts chatting to the slutty, peroxided-up waitress you quite fancied your chances with, and disappears inside. (Inside the cafe. not the waitress.)
As you try to hide your bitter disappointment behind a manly gulp of whatever noxious, sight-damaging liquid fills your glass, a horrible clown arrives, shoves his grease-spattered face into yours and then starts playing the accordion at you. (A traditional French insult.) Before you can say, "Charlie Cairoli was a fat, unfunny arsehole with ridiculously oversized shoes", he too disappears inside the cafe, reappearing seconds later with William Burroughs' briefcase. Being American, you think nothing of this daredevil mugging, and are about to start a loud discourse criticising the diminutive stature of the building over the road, when an explosion knocks you sideways as the window of the cafe is blown out by a bomb. Picking yourself up and sorting out your wedgie haircut, you walk into the now wrecked cafe to pick the dead man's pockets and try to cop a quick feel of the still-dazed waitress... or was it the other way around? Whatever -your adventure has begun.
You would probably expect, given Revolution's track history, that this would be a good old-fashioned point-and-click adventure, the likes of which seem to have been going out of fashion of late to make way for the dreaded "interactive movie", in which you sit passively in front of your screen for hours watching people pretend they can act. Worryingly for some of us, however, this is billed as an "interactive cartoon". Which would be fine if they were talking Wile E Coyote, but the most cursory of examinations reveals that there are no pairs of Acme rocket-powered skates in sight, and spectacular plummets from 50,000 feet into dusty canyons are few and far between.
In fact, this is an interactive cartoon that might more accurately be called an interactive animated movie. In other words, although on the surface it resembles a point-and-click adventure, there's very little of what you'd regard as classic point-and-click gameplay. There are icons to help you make your way around the locations and interact with objects by looking at them, picking them up, using them and talking to people. But there are no situations where you suddenly find yourself confronted with a mind-numbing puzzle, solved by combining a Ladyshave with a broom handle to make a lawnmower, or whatever. And there are no red herrings littering the screen in the form of entirely useless objects, which you pick up and spend hours trying to blow down because you're convinced they're the key to a particular conundrum. The only objects you can interact with on any screen will be whatever is essential to the development of the plot, so it's pretty low on hot-spots. Traditional forms of puzzling go out the window, the game going instead for a gentler, more 'plot unfolding' sort of feel. And we all know what that means: lots of talking.
Blah blah blah...
Whether this is to your taste or not is another matter - I must admit that at first it drove me right up the wall. I much prefer the snappy dialogue of a LucasArts adventure, with its emphasis on giving you the information as quickly and/or humourously as possible and letting you get on with the adventuring. But gradually I got used to this approach. The whole game revolves around conversations, which you steer along by clicking on a number of icons at the bottom of the screen, usually representing other characters in the game or subjects which arise during your chat. At the top of the screen, icons depicting whatever objects you have in your inventory will appear, so that you can talk to people about these, too.
It's fairly unusual, in that you can't really pick an approach to the conversation, or choose what you'll say from a selection of responses. You can't even ask a specific question - you just have to keep clicking on a subject until you exhaust it (the icon disappears when you have) and hope he doesn't say anything that makes you look too much of a cretin to anyone walking past. But as you can probably imagine, this means an average conversation takes only slightly less time than the complete Mahabarat, especially when you take the other characters' indefatigable desire to veer off at an amusing conversational tangent into account. Sometimes it's like trying to get a straight answer out of an MP.
To give you an example of the sort of length I'm talking about, I timed one conversation, in which I had a number of characters and objects to work through - or should I say discuss -at nearly 11 minutes.
...blah blah blah
The trouble with any game - or 'movie' - that depends so heavily on talking is that the script has to be excellent to keep you playing. Broken Sword's is a bit patchy. There are regular dashes of humour that can be quite well done, and when you get into it, the dialogue sometimes seems to flow smoothly and entertainingly. Unfortunately, there are also moments when the dialogue is about as interesting as a daytime tv feature on Buddy Holly toilet-roll holders. And there are bits when things you come out with simply don't make sense given what's gone before.
Accentuate the positive
Graphically, at least, the game is very good. It invokes a mood very well -particularly in the Autumn-afternoon-in-Paris bits, with sunlight dappled on a wall, and long shadows across a pavement - and it's full of nice little visual details. Unlike in some games, the characters sit well within the lush backgrounds. They don't look like they've just been stuck down on top in a different style, and are well-animated and scale well when moving in and out of the screen. A lot of money has been spent on the visuals, and it shows.
Although the dialogue has been performed by professional voice artists, one or two of the accents sound like they're being performed by the less-than-talented Les Dennis. Some of the French accents were distinctly of the 'Alio Alio school, and were sometimes so over the top that I had to start the scene again with the text turned on to work out what they were supposed to be saying. Sound quality is also somewhat erratic, with the voices varying considerably in volume during the course of a conversation, from a loud, echoey delivery that sounds as if it's been recorded in somebody's toilet, through weird bits that sound like they're being spoken down the other end of a garden hose, to some that sound like they're being spoken while the actor's being smothered beneath a pillow. I should say, though, that the version of Broken Sword we've been given isn't quite finished, and that these interesting features may well be less marked in the final product.
When all's said and done, I suppose it really comes down to whether you like this style of gameplay. I know that's an obvious thing to say, but I'm sure, for example, if it were an fmv 'movie', people would probably praise it a lot more highly. As it's a cartoon, there's a tendency to automatically assume that it's going to play in the LucasArts style, whereas it has a lot more in common with an interactive movie -not surprising really, given that they claim it's intended as an interactive cartoon. And on these grounds, it works quite well. It's certainly atmospheric, it's well animated and the story's well-structured. But there are those enormously lengthy chats to come to terms with.
Personally, although I'd usually run a mile at the mention of an interactive movie, I found Broken Sword drawing me in after a while. Just sitting back and going with the plot can have its own attractions. But the conversations can be tedious and disjointed at times, and if you really don't like that kind of approach, I'd steer well clear.
** The Knights of the Round Italian**
Umberto Eco has a lot to answer for. More than six years ago he wrote Foucault's Pendulum, a sprawling, engrossing novel about conspiracy theorists, practical jokers, the Knights Templar (previously thought to be some kind of soap) and their modern day acolytes. And before you can say "there's a game in there somewhere", we're inundated with games that bear more than a passing resemblance to certain elements of the plot. (Well, alright, at six years, it took a bit longer than that - but it's a thick book.)
First there was Time Gate (otherwise known as Alone In The Dark 4), which was followed soon afterwards by Azrael's Tear, the very good System Shock/Ultima Underworld hybrid. Now we have Broken Sword. All are slightly different types of adventure game, but tend to share one or two aspects with the book, whether it be some passing connection with Paris, an involvement with underground bits and/or the search for the Templars' treasure. Broken Sword scores well with its Umberto Factor, including as it does some Paris bits, some underground bits (in the form of the Parisian sewer system) and a quest for the Templars' goodies.