Written by: Rik

Date posted: August 17, 2014

Fans of moving big square objects will only find intermittent joy this time around.

Fans of moving big square objects will only find intermittent joy this time around.

The Broken Sword series continues to rumble on: at the time of writing, a Kickstarted fifth instalment, delivered in two parts, has just been released, featuring, notably, a graphical style that harks back to the 2D cartoon approach of the first game. When we were last with George & Co. though, a transition to 3D had been deemed necessary, along with a number of other changes – including a chiselled, hunky Stobbart, joypad controls, high production values, and a hell of a lot of crate moving – in an attempt to find a new audience.

Whatever your thoughts on the changes – and my own were that they weren’t all that bad, really – the search for new fans didn’t really pay off, and in recognition of this, and the potential alienation of fans and traditionalists, the fourth instalment is largely a return to the pure adventure template, released on PC only, to assuage any fears that grubby lowbrow console interests would continue to corrupt the purity of the genre [it was probably to keep development costs down, you dummy – FFG reader].

The set up, in time-honoured tradition, involves George Stobbart’s life of cheerful, bumbling irrelevance (this time, working in a New York bail bonds office) being interrupted by a dramatic event that demands his urgent attention. On this occasion, the interruption is caused not by a suspicious clown and a briefcase bomb, but by a young woman called Anna-Maria bursting into his place of work seeking refuge from a group of gun-toting Mafia stereotypes. Without pausing to question her motivations or consider the implications of involving himself in the situation (to be fair, he doesn’t have much time to do so, plus I think he likes all the drama and ensuing adventures more than his day job) George is blocking doors, jamming lifts and edging out of windows in order to guide the mysterious stranger to safety.

George's extendable golf club takes the place of the soiled tissue in the 'thing you can ask absolutely everyone about' stakes.

George’s extendable golf club takes the place of the soiled tissue in the ‘thing you can ask absolutely everyone about’ stakes.

With some breathing space secured, it transpires that the fuss surrounds a stolen manuscript, which must be retrieved and deciphered before inevitably sparking a round the world quest featuring exotic locations, patchy accents and contrived situations, with the odd familiar face encountered along the way. In other words, if you’ve played Broken Sword before, you’ll know what to expect (and if you haven’t, I suggest you start at the beginning).

Except that isn’t entirely true. At the start it all feels a little strange, at least it did to me. The chief culprit is the control system, which is traditional mouse-based point and click, with the added option of controlling movement with the arrow keys. Whatever problems there were with The Sleeping Dragon, the interface worked pretty well, and I actually rather liked it, despite considering myself to be rather a grumpy stick-in-the-mud about such things. This, on the other hand, seems like a backwards step. You can just use the mouse controls, but George often doesn’t seem to obey your pointing and clicking, either taking a circuitous route, one that’s just plain wrong, or ignoring your instructions altogether. Under such circumstances, you find yourself reaching for the keys, but there’s something unwieldy about that, too, possibly because of the frequently awkward camera position, and you still have to use the mouse to find and select items to interact with anyway (the sparkly hints of the last game are nowhere to be seen).

Despite the return to more traditional adventuring, the odd bit of climbing and ledge hopping (and, yes, even crate moving) is still required here, but the new interface makes it much harder, with clumsy, aimless clicking often the order of the day. The general awkwardness is obvious in the opening scenes, where an otherwise a very effective and dramatic sequence is undermined at various points by the clumsiness of the controls.

There's nothing the ladies love more than an ex-lawyer.

There’s nothing the ladies love more than an ex-lawyer.

And, that early escape aside, opening impressions are generally unfavourable. The early locations – New York, Turkey – are characterised by sparseness and a lack of atmosphere. Although it’s in the nature of adventures to have only one or two characters in each location, there’s something about the way they’re presented here that makes them seem less real. The Paris hotel in the first game, for example, felt like an actual hotel in the middle of a busy city, but when you’re frequenting similar establishments in New York and Turkey in this game, they feel like empty rooms with some props and one or two characters plonked in the middle. Even Anna-Maria, your companion during the initial stages, is a fairly dull character, making you wonder where on earth Nico has got to.

At this point I was not having a lot of fun, and started to question the longevity and lasting appeal of the series. Why exactly has a character as oddly uneven as George Stobbart managed to appear in quite so many games? Are we really so interested in his latest adventures? Despite having the same voice actor across the series, George’s personality, and physique, are revised each time we see him. In this game, he looks younger and more physically toned than ever, and, with his offensive outbursts occurring less frequently than usual, he also seems to be more romantically appealing to female characters than ever before. It’s all a far cry from the slightly middle-aged tactlessness of the first game; in some ways, I guess it’s a good thing, but it also means that as a character he’s never really been fully developed. Also, I’m not sure that I really like fad-diet, Converse trainer-wearing, mysteriously-youthful George – he kind of gives me the creeps.

I suppose the historical angle and Da Vinci Code-style theme could be the main draw, but I have to say that I’ve always found the stories difficult to follow – always remembering memorable sequences from each game, but not the overarching plot. The tone of vague farce has also been difficult to reconcile with any serious intentions, too, and it’s the same here, whether it’s a few knob jokes thrown in when talking about salami, or daft puzzles that involve, say, attaching a paperclip to a rosary, or, to take another example, liberating a valuable and fragile item from a locked container by pushing it into a bone chipper.

Don't ask me what's happening here.

Don’t ask me what’s happening here.

Still, things pick up after a while, when you get to Italy and meet up with Nico (apologies if you consider that a spoiler – I don’t). Despite having been through the same health-farm regeneration as George, and yet another change of voice actor (I actually bothered to check this time and my suspicions were confirmed: four games, four different people), it’s good for the game to have her back, and there’s some nice back and forth between the two of them when they work together. The puzzles are also signposted better, the locations are more convincing, and the pace picks up sufficiently to add the feeling that you are actually building to a suitable climax. In general, you’re reminded of the series’ merits, and even the dreaded ‘sneaking around’ sections don’t seem so bad, when they appear, this time around. Plus you get to hear George perform ein komedee German accent in true pantomime/’Allo ‘Allo style.

The puzzles and problems themselves range, as usual, from the blindingly-obvious to the teeth-grindingly frustrating. With empty locations and few interactive objects, it can often be rather easy to work things out, but sometimes, as we mentioned, things aren’t quite explained well enough when you really need a nudge in the right direction, and you’re left wondering what to do. A hacking mini-game features quite prominently this time, requiring George to hack into security systems using his PDA (whatever that is). The mini-game itself is an old fashioned puzzle that involves manipulation of a connection through proxy servers on a grid, using various pieces with properties of deflection or redirection, while avoiding certain areas deemed ‘out of bounds’ due to low signal and insecure servers. In general, the level of challenge on these is just about right, although just after I wrote that sentence in my notes I did get horribly stuck.

It's Duane! And George, wearing an extremely small towel.

It’s Duane! And George, wearing an extremely small towel.

The major difficulties are presented when you come to the various rock-and-symbols based puzzles you encounter during your Indiana-Jones-exploring-underground moments. Success is reliant on careful reading of manuscripts and various notes collected in your PDA along the way, but on more than one occasion I have to admit to missing something and not having a clue what to do. I like the idea of what they are trying to do here (actually make you use your brain to uncover the solution by picking through the information at your disposal) but unless I’m just being thick (which is possible) it’s a bit too hard in places.

Presentation is generally fine, although some glitches and annoyances do have to be noted. In the world of 3D-whizzo graphics, when you use an item, you’d reasonably expect to be able to see it being used, which isn’t always the case here. The old ‘hand vaguely moving’ trick was fine in the old VGA days before the first game was released, but you certainly can’t get away with it now. Similarly, standard stuff like opening doors and picking up objects can be a bit hit and miss in terms of animation, and there are occasionally some really amateurish moments – fading to black during a death sequence with a soldier firing a machine gun into a completely unaffected George, for example, or a bit in the desert with Nico speeding away in a Jeep that moves extremely unconvincingly – that should really have been dealt with better.

Conversation is also stilted in places. I’d prefer that if you didn’t have anything to say to someone, this would be explained rather than going through the whole, ‘Got a minute?/Never mind’ nonsense. Also, if a character won’t talk to you unless you give them an object, why, when you’ve given them that object, does the conversation not then start instead of you having to go ‘Hi!’ again immediately? Plus we have the same symbol-based dialogue system as before, with some topics disappearing after you’ve used them, some needing multiple clicks to extract all relevant information and follow-up, and some just staying there forever and forcing you to listen to a repeat of something you’ve heard before. OK, it’s a game, and an adventure game at that: contrivances are part of the deal. But I think with a bit more care dialogue could have been smoother than it is here.

Some of the PDA puzzles will bake your brain a little.

Some of the PDA puzzles will bake your brain a little.

The Broken Sword games are rather curious. Much like some of the puzzles they feature, for every problem solved, a new one appears. Individually, there are things to like about each game, but overall there never seems to be much in the way of progression. However, while there are fans for whom The Angel of Death – and The Sleeping Dragon – will always be considered inferior, I’m not sure I’d go along with them. Despite a slow start, and some iffy presentation, there’s still plenty to like about The Angel of Death. Nothing in it is going to help you make up your mind about the series either way, but as Broken Sword games go, it’s faithful enough and good enough.