Ask any good smithy, and he'll tell you how difficult it is to re-forge a shattered blade. And heck, forging is the easy part. Then there's the grinding, annealing, quenching, and tempering for refinement. It's a long, meticulous process that still doesn't guarantee an end result that matches the quality of the original.
In many ways, this is the challenge faced by the Broken Sword developers in crafting new games. Debuting a decade ago now, the original Shadow of the Templars (inexplicably known as Circle of Blood in North America) is still considered by many to be one of the finest adventures ever made. Since then, fans have followed the exploits of unwitting American hero George Stobbart and sassy French journalist Nico Collard through two more daring adventures. But with the 2003 release of The Sleeping Dragon, the "trilogy" had drawn to a bittersweet close… or so we thought at the time.
Back by popular demand a mere three years and a developer downsizing later, a new Broken Sword installment has now arrived in the form of The Angel of Death (titularly speaking, of course). So does the new game manage to carve a swath worthy of its acclaimed predecessors, or has the series finally started to show signs of stress and fatigue from one too many battles against genre indifference and ancient conspiracies? To cut to the chase: it's a little of both. Or maybe a lot of both. Broken Sword 4 is indeed a solid iteration that longtime fans will find comforting and enjoyable, but it's noticeably raw this time around; the edges not as sharp, the handle a bit unwieldy, and suffering from a general lack of polish.
After a dramatic opening that will remind people -- and not for the last time -- of Raiders of the Lost Ark (albeit with nary a whip or Nazi in sight), the game picks up with George in New York City. Set a year after the unbelievable events of the previous game, reality has bitten poor George hard since we last saw him. Now an unemployable lawyer scraping by as bail bondsman and needing twenty dollars just to call himself broke, George arrives at his office to discover a blonde knockout named Anna Maria waiting for him. Desperately needing his treasure-hunting skills and protection, Anna Maria's plea for help is cut short by several Mafia thugs storming in, clearly intent on depriving her of an ancient manuscript in her possession and quite possibly her life. And so, with barely a token protest, George immediately finds himself caught up in another danger-defying, globetrotting high adventure with Anna Maria by his side.
Wait… who? If you're doing a double take wondering what's wrong with this picture, your eyes aren't deceiving you. Continuing the trend from the coy early marketing of this game, there's absolutely no trace of Nico until well into the story. In fact, before long the game starts to feel more like a Broken Sword spinoff adventure than a proper sequel. While George has dominated screen time in previous games, there has always been a sense of a shared adventure between the two which is noticeably lacking for a significant portion of Angel of Death. Imagine a Gabriel Knight game with Grace out of the picture, or a new Tex Murphy with no Chelsee, and you get the idea. Even in support roles, they are integral to player familiarity. And while not an inherently bad thing for a series to branch out, in this game it trades in the previously-established rapport, witty repartee, and sexual tension with Nico for a fairly generic female cohort who's content to follow George with quiet admiration.
When Nico finally appears, the game suddenly finds an inspired momentum that really emphasizes its earlier absence, though not one it's able to maintain. Fortunately, Nico stays more or less for the duration, and even becomes a playable character for one lengthy section. Still, the treatment of her role is representative of some uneven storytelling thoughout the game. Another questionable aspect is the handling of the background story itself. True to Broken Sword form, Angel of Death involves a legendary artifact that threatens the world as we know it, and the unlikely conspiratorial groups seeking to either discover or conceal it. The premise is sound, if not altogether original, and it lays the groundwork for what proves to be an interesting yarn full of inevitable twists and turns throughout travels to Istanbul, Rome, and several parts of the U.S. The drawback is that the story is doled out only incidentally, making it more difficult to feel very invested in it. Without giving away any key surprises, the main motivation here becomes the pursuit of Anna Maria, and details of the larger adventure are only revealed when the two trails intersect. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it adds up over time. There are also some pretty significant plot holes along the way, and a rather skimpy ending that will leave many dissatisfied, though the Broken Sword games have frequently required a generous suspension of disbelief (and expectation) in these areas, so that's nothing new to fans of the series.
The writing itself is another mixed bag. At times the dialogue and characterization are excellent, while at other times entirely forgettable. George himself is the highlight by far, as his characteristic humour is back in full sarcastic force, along with his plain ol' likeability. It's obvious that the writer(s) truly know George by this point, making his portrayal seem as natural as it is effective. I laughed out loud more times at George's comments than I often do with more blatantly "comic" adventures. Thankfully (and rightly), these amusing moments are introduced sparingly enough that they never detract from the overall serious nature of the plot. There are a few other interesting characters as well, from the pink glove-wearing, action movie-loving priest to the Nico-infatuated street bum, along with a welcomed cameo from a previous Broken Sword character. However, not everybody fares as well, getting the job done as plot devices but offering little else. Of the major characters, Anna Maria's personality is surprisingly bland and never serves as a suitable foil to George during their time together. Perhaps more disappointingly, even Nico seems to have lost some of her spunk, or at least isn't given enough opportunity to show it.
Any character is only as good as the voice acting behind it, of course, and this is an area where Broken Sword has always excelled. Angel of Death is no different, as the voice acting is consistently strong from top to bottom. Again headlining the cast is George, as Rolf Saxon returns for a fourth go-round, adding a crucial consistency to the series. While enjoying a quality performance in its own right, longtime fans will also bask in a feeling of fond nostalgia from the first moment you hear him speak (heaven help Revolution if Saxon's agent ever realizes how vital he is). The only questionable role in the game might belong to Nico, now played by the fourth voice actress in four games. Then again, Nico always seems to generate some debate, possibly owing to an unfamiliarity that we never experience with George. Personally I've found her quite acceptable every time out, including this one, but I'm hardly a stickler for accents.
The rest of the production values follow the now-familiar refrain of some good, some bad. The orchestral soundtrack is varied and pleasant, playing unobtrusively and sporadically in the background where it belongs. Visually, the game once again is rendered in full 3D, and while the graphics are closer to eye candy than eyesore, they certainly never dazzle. The environments are sparse and not very detailed, which gives the presentation a fairly dated feel. Character models have been spruced up somewhat from the previous game, and they're nicely designed, but they are still a bit blocky, and little touches like hair are done very poorly. In a genre that is still reluctant to use 3D on a consistent basis, these issues might be easily overlooked, but they certainly don't measure up to the higher industry-wide standards, so your appreciation or criticism may depend greatly on personal experience.Continued on the next page...