Note: This article is based on the complete first episode. A final graded review will be published when the second half of the game is released.
The preface to Revolution’s tale of the serpent is as beautiful as it is bloody. A sweeping cinematic follows an eagle as it swoops off a rugged mountain tor and flies over the verdant plains of Catalonia towards a sprawling estate. It's 1937 and Spain is in the grips of the Civil War, and like the nation, the villa too is under siege. As fascists rain bullets on the mansion, inside the Marques family scrambles to save some books and a painting. This painting, “La Maledicció” – which literally means “the curse” – eventually resurfaces in a present day Parisian exhibition, and continues to wreak havoc in its wake when it's stolen in a violent daylight robbery that leaves the gallery owner dead. The event fortuitously reunites George Stobbart, the insurer's representative, with ex-girlfriend and partner in crimefighting, journalist Nicole Collard. He must recover the painting to avoid the fat payout; she is still chasing the story that will get her a front page byline in the local paper. Racing against both the bad guys and the bureaucratic French police, the two are soon embroiled in a life-threatening international thriller dating back to the religious persecution of heretics by the Roman Catholic Church in the 1300s.
The fifth installment of one of the adventure genre’s most accomplished series, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse returns the franchise to its roots, trading in technological experimentation for visual excellence and smooth gameplay. Split into two distinct but related episodes, it boasts stylish hand-drawn scenes populated by nicely animated comic book-style characters; simple point-and-click mechanics and a smart hint system; easy but engaging tasks; an interesting supporting cast, and above all, a multilayered mystery that meshes real history with myths and legends and embellishes it with intrigue and emotion. The enchanting artwork and carefully crafted simplicity of the game makes it easy to get immersed in its narrative, but while it has no potent negatives, some aspects could have been better. The six-hour length of the opening episode – especially in the procedural first half – is a bit bloated with idle talk. I was also distracted by the momentary lag between responses, which robbed the dialogues (particularly the snappy ones) of spontaneity. And while George has evolved into a powerhouse of ingenuity, Nico is repeatedly used as a sexy diversion for lecherous males, which is not only irreverent but disappointing as she has little else to do. Episode 1 ratchets up the stakes towards the end, satisfactorily closing a mini-case of art fraud while leaving the dauntless duo literally on the edge of the big picture.
Largely financed by more than 14,000 backers through Kickstarter, this game has wisely followed the formula of its predecessors' success: it weaves elements from Europe's strife-riddled politico-religious past into a modern day crisis replete with conspiracies, secret societies, explosions and dead bodies, and sets it against super-attractive backdrops that make even the grungiest locations feel inviting. George and Nico trade witty banter with cops and criminals as they shuttle between Paris and London, and a trip to Spain seems imminent in Episode 2. Series regulars like the upright gendarme Moue, lascivious socialite Lady Piermont, and Fleur the psychic florist bring on the warm fuzzies, as does revisiting Nico's apartment, which now has a swanky computer instead of her '90s hi-fi system.
While the blasts from the past are sure to delight longtime fans, the case itself is new and unrelated to previous games. The absence of baggage – even George and Nico have been out of touch for a while and are almost starting afresh – is welcome as it allows you to get right into the story and enjoy it on its own merit. The theft of “La Maledicció” seems straightforward at the outset: an expensive painting stolen for its price, with an unfortunate, unintended victim. But when George's inquiries lead to a shady Russian oligarch and Tiago – now aged and ornery – appears at Nico's door to explain the significance of the serpent Ouroboros to his religious sect, it's clear that a more sinister game is afoot. The painting’s secret, if decoded, could jeopardize the very existence of humanity, and so it becomes imperative to recover it ASAP.
The majority of the tasks in the first episode involve gleaning information from dodgy individuals and their possessions. Most quests are inventory-based, interspersed with a few basic tasks like reassembling torn letters and decoding simple ciphers. Only one sign-fixing puzzle warrants a pause-and-think. Inventory solutions are of the practical sort and generally use items found in the vicinity. This, combined with the smart art design, makes useful things easy to identify without pixel hunting. Some objects become usable only after a trigger sequence, so it's important to pay attention to their descriptions, which may indicate their future utility. The inventory holds about two dozen items, which may be deconstructed, combined with each other or onscreen hotspots, or presented to people, often to humorous effect. Intra-inventory matches are somewhat restricted by fading out unviable options, leaving only five or six possibilities to experiment with. Items range from genre staples like crowbars, coins and cellphones to more exotic elements like a peeing Cupid statue and a cookie that never crumbles. Some items are removed from inventory after use, but others persist, sometimes un-utilised, possibly for Episode 2.
Progress is linear, and all activities in a particular segment must be completed to proceed. An optional tutorial introduces the gameplay mechanics – left-click to move and interact; right-click for observations. Some scenes can be zoomed in to inspect in greater detail. Characters don't run, though double-clicking exits transitions instantly to the next screen. Conversations have preset dialogues, but on occasion you get the option to broach a topic gently or play hardball. While there are no major consequences of either route, some dialogues and reactions are altered according to your choices. The first episode is simple and intuitive, but if you're stuck, the comprehensive hint system provides several levels of help, starting with a reminder of the objective, moving up to a couple of nudges, and finally blurting out the solution. You also earn fancily-named achievements for finishing certain tasks. My game crashed a couple of times even after patching, though the auto-save feature let me resume from the point just before the crash.
Continuing the trend of the series, so far George has been given most of the work. Nico handles only a few brief tasks, though they do visit many locations together and frequently discuss the case. Despite not being in a romantic relationship anymore, they share palpable chemistry, and more importantly, an easy rapport and deep trust that make their partnership believable and enjoyable. We also meet some remarkable new characters like Inspector Navet, Moue's new boss. Belligerently bureaucratic, butcher of English idioms, quick to take credit and quicker to assign blame, he is a one-man entertainment centre. Then there's Bijou, the grief-stricken, guilt-ridden hippie widow of Henri, the slain gallery owner. She can't stop weeping and drinking champagne while lounging in a lush boudoir with her husband's corpse and large au naturel paintings of herself, but her broken heart conceals a rather sordid tale. Cranky old Tiago Marques settles into Nico's neighbour's home and cribs about his material discomforts while arguing the persecution of the ascetic Gnostics. Also notable are Hector Laine, an obese, lecherous art critic; jargon-spewing marketing maverick Bassam; Russian billionaire Medovsky who lists notorious Libyan dictator Gaddafi among his buddies, and Hobbs, a prolific art restorer who counts Lady Piermont among his nude models.