The Switch isn’t short of superb narrative adventures. From Night in the Woods to Thimbleweed Park, via Oxenfree and Gone Home, the platform’s got fans of loquacious conversation and perplexing puzzles pretty well covered. Now, into this mix, comes another blast from the recent past (something the Switch sees a lot of, of course), in the shape of Revolution Software’s Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse.
A point-and-click adventure through religious history and contemporary art conspiracies, fully voice-acted and never shy of using 20 words to say what 10 could achieve, Broken Sword 5 was first released in 2013 – the very same year as the celebrated Gone Home. But while The Fullbright Company’s tender first-person exploration title feels as fresh in 2018 as it did five years ago, Revolution Software’s fifth main entry in a series that started with 1996’s acclaimed The Shadow of the Templars, and has retained fans ever since, remains firmly rooted in the previous century’s idea of adventure game design.
With some painfully slow dialogue, a handful of nonsensically obtuse puzzles, and a first half that moves the narrative along at a positively glacial pace, Broken Sword 5 plays like a relic. There’s no way to make the two controllable characters – series stalwarts George Stobbart, an American lawyer turned insurance representative, and French investigative journalist Nicole Collard – move any faster than a sluggish amble. Even at life-threatening moments – not that there are any fail states to contend with, here – neither character breaks into so much as a jog.
Factor in additional actions that break up the player’s journey from A to B (sometimes whole screens must be navigated, for no reason save location layouts – how some select fast-travel would have helped), and you’ve a game that adds substantially to its run time of 10 to 12 hours purely with the padding of plodding feet. Interactions with NPCs, essential for discovering new clues, can feel hopelessly stunted, inconsistent acting threatening to detach the player from the unfolding drama – a shame, because there are twists in The Serpent’s Curse that could have struck with revelatory force had they been delivered with greater vocal enthusiasm.
And when the solution to encouraging a painter to drink more whiskey, necessary to slow his gait and gain access to a private portfolio, is to – wait, let's double-check this… yep, amazing – is to press the buttons on a lift’s controls, after turning up the thermostat, thus tripping the building’s power, which in turn… makes him finish his drink? What kind of a mind thinks that makes any reasonable sense? Now, adventure games are well known for their, ahem, 'peculiar' posers – older readers may remember Red Herrings and Rubber Chickens well enough – but Broken Sword 5 contains slightly too many head-scratchers that toss logical thinking out of the nearest window (speaking of windows, be sure to pick up the cola and the mints… you’ll see).
Which isn’t to say there aren’t times when this game’s puzzle design is a whole lot more engaging and leaves the player feeling legitimately smart for solving them. In The Serpent’s Curse’s second half – which moves from Paris and London to rural Catalonia, the mountainous tourist trap of Montserrat, and Iraq for its closing scenes – there are coded telegrams to decipher, hidden rooms to unlock, and several clues must be combined to trace the path of the game’s main treasure from the 13th century to its present-day location. Keep your cockroach close, too, as the game has an ingenious use for one of the world’s most notorious pests.
Combing locations for collectable items and using them to unlock new areas is always rewarding when that all-important logic prevails, and at its best Broken Sword 5 subtly but cleverly ushers the player towards plot-forwarding solutions. If you’ve the right objects in your inventory (which is to say: pick up everything you can), eventually you’ll defeat the dilemma at hand. And should you get stuck, a number of hints are included, ranging from gentle pointers to outright walkthroughs.
Visually, Broken Sword 5’s background art is wonderful. Its supremely detailed, hand-drawn locations bounce off the screen, be the Switch docked or played in handheld mode (where its touchscreen is fully supported, giving the player a welcome control option for a point-and-click game). Paris is a barrage of colour, all stained-glass windows and eruptions of fabulous flora; and even London looks attractive here, albeit with artistic licence employed to position attractive private homes on the South Bank, opposite Westminster (roughly where the London Eye would be). The three-dimensional characters themselves can sometimes appear a little out of place on top of such finely crafted backdrops, but it’s mercifully rare for the different approaches to clash with notable dissonance.
Once past its laboured opening hours, which primarily concern themselves with a dangerously unfunny pair of incompetent French policemen and a Russian oligarch who in no way (sarcasm, there) resembles a certain (famously bare-chested) president, The Serpent’s Curse efficiently moves through the story gears to better encourage the player to keep at it. Just one more puzzle, one more clue, one more twist. It’s not exactly a game you won’t be able to put down – a steady stream of jokes that never land rather compromises its acceleration towards higher stakes – but as the once-disparate pieces of the plot begin to bind together, and an unexpected villain becomes central to the late-game action, this Broken Sword proves itself just about worthy of its series’ lofty reputation.
It can’t shake its past, running as it does through every beat of its game design, for better and worse, but The Serpent’s Curse concludes satisfyingly, wrapping in such a way that has one just about forgiving, if not forgetting, its more frustrating moments. Players experienced with '90s adventure games will no doubt revel in how Broken Sword 5 moves in some maddeningly mysterious ways, and happily muddle through its poorly-paced first half. But those short on patience and with a low tolerance for bad acting (and worse accents) should seek out the aforementioned superior Switch adventures before investigating this curious concoction of mostly redundant old-school sensibilities mixed with flashes of evergreen flair and modern HD artistry.