Broken Sword: Why it's THE thinking man's epic
25th Aug 2011 | 18:30
They could never make a game like Broken Sword today. It's slow, the puzzles are obscure and complicated, you spend most of your time talking to people and the hero is a weedy American tourist.
In later games George Stobbart became a stubbly action hero, but it's in the 2D originals that he was at his engaging, sarcastic best. After narrowly escaping death when a terrorist dressed as a clown blows up a French café, George decides to play detective and hunt the bomber down himself.
The trail leads him halfway around the world - from the Middle East to rural Ireland - and he becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy that threatens the future of mankind. But it all begins with a newspaper.
The first clue you pick up is a French tabloid lying on the ground outside the bombed-out café. There's a note scribbled inside - Salah Eh Dinn 1345 - which turns out to be a betting tip. You give the paper to a road worker who ditches his work to bet on the horse, leaving his sewer key unguarded.
You steal it to access a drain, which turns out to be the clown's escape route, leading you to more clues. It's this kind of insane point and-click logic that put a lot of people off Broken Sword, and the lack of a hint system guarantees you'll turn to a walkthrough at least once.
But for us the fiendish difficulty is actually a benefit. It's challenging, cerebral and creates a natural pace that complements the dreamy Parisian setting. It's a perfect Sunday afternoon game, like watching an episode of Inspector Morse. Incidentally, both the Parisian and Oxford investigators share the same soundtrack composer.
But it's George himself that makes the game special. He's the kind of person you'd probably try your best to avoid in real life - a sarcastic, nosey Californian with a mawkish sense of humour - but get to know him and he becomes genuinely likeable. The game's writing is exemplary and very, very funny. The bright, winsome characters are a joy to interact with and the voice acting's great bar a few dodgy accents.
One of the most entertaining features is being able to show any item in your inventory to whoever you're talking to. This brings out some of the game's funniest dialogue, especially when George starts waving a used tissue in peoples' faces for no good reason.
The anarchic humour and sarcastic one-liners are balanced with a rich storyline steeped in real-world history. That conspiracy we mentioned earlier revolves around the Templars, an ancient order of knights who became incredibly wealthy during the Crusades, then were persecuted and stripped of their riches by France's King Philip IV.
Apparently their fortune was hidden when they were dissolved and it remains undiscovered to this day. It's a great mythology to base a game on and the secrets of the Templars make for a captivating narrative. And remember; this came out years before the Da Vinci Code made that sort of thing popular.
Broken Sword also differed from other point and clickers of the era in that you could die. A lot. In fact, this was one of its biggest criticisms and Revolution have actually made it impossible to die in the recent Wii and DS remakes of the game.
Several scenes gave you a limited amount of time to use an item before you were killed, which would be fine if it wasn't for the game's logic. In Syria George is trapped on a cliff with the game's villain. After about ten seconds George gets shot and dies. To avoid this you have to quickly access your inventory and select a joke hand buzzer, then ask the killer if you can shake his hand before you die. You can guess what happens next. The threat of death does add excitement, but is often just frustrating.
But cheap deaths and occasionally obtuse puzzles aside, there's not a lot wrong with Broken Sword. It's a cinematic masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation and a reminder of a time when publishers would take risks on off-beat adventure games. And thanks to the hand-painted backgrounds it hasn't aged a bit; it's still a treat for the eyes, even now.