Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars: The Director’s Cut

This game is incredibly bizarre in that it is both wonderful and awful in quite literally alternating intervals.

Boyfriend bought Broken Sword as part of a Humble Bundle, and he and I started playing it together. It’s a nice combination of point-and-click and visual novel, though it certainly leans a good deal more toward the former.

I think the first comment I have to make it how incredible it is to play such a large and involved game completely on a phone. We have been playing it on a Galaxy S3, and it hums along like a GameBoy. The touch controls are spot-on and never frustrating or unresponsive. The way this game has been adapted for the platform made me think for probably the first time that smartphones really could be an interesting and viable place for developers to launch full video games.

You start the game as Nicole “Nico” Collard, a French journalist who is personally requested by media darling and politician Carchon for an interview. You don’t know why he specifically requests you, but you figure its a huge story and it’d be smart to go. You arrive at his mansion and are greeted by his icy wife Imelda. As the two of you are exchanging pleasantries, you hear a loud bang. Nico runs into Carchon’s study to see a man dressed as a mime holding a gun and Carchon dead on the floor. Before Nico can do anything, the mime hits her over the head with the gun and knocks her out.

When Nico comes to, she informs us that the mime is a serial killer. A man dressed in costumes has twice now murdered high-profile men, and it was an article by Nico that connected the cases. This seems to be a third Costume Killer murder, and it seems to be no accident that Nico was asked to be in the house of the third victim when he was killed. Seeing a huge break for herself and the possibility of her own personal involvement in the case, she convinces Imelda to let her investigate the scene before the police arrive. It soon becomes clear that Carchon intimately knew Nico’s father and that the two of them were involved in some large conspiracy that has made its way down to Nico.

The story is extremely engaging, the art is pretty, and the puzzles are awesome. The narration is just cheesy enough to be amusing, and it does a really good job of leading you in the right direction and making you feel smart for figuring things out.

As I said, I loved the puzzles. They’re exactly the kind of thinking I like to do. There was one where you had to pick a lock that was set up like that traffic jam game, and my absolute favorite one was a coded note you have to decipher. If was a simply single-substitution code, but you had to do it from scratch, and I cannot explain how much I loved it.

All of the puzzles required just enough thought to be challenging without ever becoming frustrating or feeling impossible. However, a nice feature is that big question mark up in the corner: if you really get stuck, you can request a hint. The hints are nice and vague, but if you keep pressing (I did once out of curiosity) they get more and more specific. It’s a nice built-in difficulty-level mechanism.

Nico is a likable character as well. Her background knowledge is believable for her job and personal experiences, though once or twice the logical leaps she makes are a tad forced. It’s never so much that the story becomes unbelievable, though. The VN aspect comes in during some of her personal interactions, where you can choose to approach situations honestly or dishonestly, and decide for yourself what questions to ask people and what objects to inquire about. Whether the lies you tell have any true effect on the plot I don’t know, but it feels like you have control of her, and in a game that is more P-a-C than VN just the feeling is perfectly sufficient.

It’s hard to say exactly how far into the game everything happens because we’ve been playing it sporadically during our downtime, but I’d guess that about the first hour in, after the opening is wrapping itself up and the scene has been set, Nico is invited to a cafe with a mysterious stranger.

The camera takes us to the cafe where Nico is supposed to meet the Mysterious Stranger, but she’s not there yet. The cutscene itself is very nicely done. He walks into the cafe, nods at a guy sitting outside, etc. But then we see a clown in the background, and we know shit is about to go down. The clown follows him into the cafe and puts his bag on a chair. The bag is a bomb. The cafe blows up, and we see the clown running away.

And then the game falls apart.

See, we stop following Nico. Suddenly, our perspective switches to that random guy who was sitting outside the cafe. His name is George Stobbartt, and he is AMERICAN. Did you get that? AMERICAN. He is an AMERICAN TOURIST and his name is GEORGE. Don’t worry if you forget, because he says it every fucking five seconds.

Boyfriend and I just looked at the screen and groaned. “You have got to be kidding.”

Suddenly, this jackass is the protagonist. He decides to investigate the scene of the bombing because ‘MURICA (that is literally his motivation) and to condescend to the police because REASONS. He is somehow also completely unharmed by the bomb that went off ten yards away from him.

I can’t articulate what a shitty, one-dimensional, infuriating character this dick is. Unlike Nico– an investigative journalist who quickly realized she is personally involved in the circumstances surrounding the murders– George has no reason to take it upon himself to start tampering with a crime scene and bullying people for info. Again, because I can’t stress enough how stupid this is, the only motivation we get for him is that he’s an AMERICAN TOURIST, and AMERICANS LIKE JUSTICE. CLEARLY THE PATH TO JUSTICE IS BY IMPERSONATING A POLICE OFFICER AND IMPEDING AN INVESTIGATION. FUCK YOU GEORGE. He’s a liar, too. He consistently lies about who he is, threatens people for information, and steals for no reason. Why is he doing this? Why is he chasing down a serial killer? Why is he breaking into people’s hotel rooms and stealing valuables from safes? Why does he feel entitled to do all this?

‘MURICA. That’s why.

And it’s not just the new protagonist who suddenly is completely awful– the entire game takes a complete nosedive. The voice acting becomes terrrible. Sometimes, it’s so mumbled and echoey that you can’t even understand what people are saying. The secondary characters become almost uniformly annoying and unlikable. And suddenly, the puzzles almost completely disappear… and the ones that are there are terribly constructed.

One of the things I don’t like about point-and-clicks– and one of the reasons I don’t really play them– is the feeling of inanity. Click here, click there, click over here… if doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything. With Nico, this wasn’t an issue– in addition to regular p-a-c-type clicking around, there were puzzles that required other kinds of interaction and broke up the monotony. Those are done, and what’s left is terribly constructed.

Here’s the best example [spoiler/puzzle solution warning]: There’s one point where you’re in a hotel and find a key item. You can’t leave the hotel with it, because two thugs outside will frisk you and find it. The solution is to drop it out a window.

However, if you go to drop something other than the key item out the window, George admonishes you, saying, “I resisted the childish urge to drop things out the window.” For each item you attempt to drop, it gives you the same line. So I tried dropped a few things, thinking maybe if I dropped something cushion-y I could jump, but gave up because the game told me it was a dumb idea. Eventually, I had to ask for a hint because I had no fucking idea what to do.

Game: WHY WOULD YOU DISCOURAGE ME WHEN I WAS ON THE RIGHT TRACK. Why the fuck did they phrase it like that? Why not say, oh, “I couldn’t see what good dropping this out the window would be,” or, “I might still need that.” Just ANYTHING that wouldn’t lead the player to think their idea was stupid when actually it was completely right!

Nico’s sections were brilliant at this. Words were carefully chosen in ways that led you to the proper conclusions– “This was of no use to me now,” implying it could be of use later.

We honestly were ready to quit playing at this point. What the hell had happened? It felt like we were playing two completely different games written by entirely different people that had no relation to each other. We only kept going out of the hope that we would shift back to Nico and get to continue her story.

Eventually, you do, and we were glad we stuck with it because her parts are awesome, but it keeps swapping, and George’s parts are so bad.

I think the worst was that George was completely extraneous. There is literally nothing he does that Nico couldn’t do herself, or that wouldn’t have made a thousand times more sense if Nico did it. I started to suspect that the developers thought that having a female protagonist would cause male players to implode (or whatever the non-logic the industry uses is) and so they shoehorned in George.

It turns out I had it backwards.

I was so puzzled by the clear division in writing and style between their parts that I looked some things up. Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars was originally a point-and-click released in 1995 that seems to have been a Big Deal. The version out right now, the “Director’s Cut,” is a revamp. Although Nico was a major character in the original game, she was solely an NPC. All of the parts where you control her were added in, meaning they were literally written and designed separately… and by a much more talented team, apparently. Or who knows, maybe it was the same team and they rolled out of bed in 2009 exponentially better writers. But I don’t get that feeling.

Weirdly, it’s Nico’s face on the game’s icon, which I hope means that she is the more prominent character and the new parts take up more time and space than the old. We’re still suffering through George’s scenes just because Nico’s are so interesting and engaging and she’s so likable, but it’s really annoying.

Do I recommend this game? It’s hard to say. Right now you can get it for cheap as part of a Humble Bundle (although Boyfriend said he’s wasn’t thrilled by any of the other games edit: “Organ Trail was the only other good one in this bundle”). What I suppose I do recommend is this: Find out who designed, developed, and wrote Nico’s parts, and download their other stuff. It’s almost sure to be good.

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