The Broken Sword-series is really the only reason for why I wanted to review Beneath a Steel Sky and Lure of the Temptress. This is not to disrespect either titles, as they are interesting entries in the point-and-click genre. However, it would simply feel incomplete if I only looked at parts of Revolution Software’s history, without going through the studio’s early beginnings and discovering their first uses of the Virtual Theatre engine. For today’s topic, Charles Cecil did research on the Templar Knights for his next project right after Noirin Carmody and Sean Brennan agreed to create Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars. It was a huge project. Cecil co-wrote and directed the game, and even attended a film-writing course with David Cummins. Both Cummins and Jonathan Howard helped write the game’s story and design, with Alan Drury reading the script. After sketching for the project, Steve Ince was promoted to producer halfway through, so that they could work closer on the tone of the game.
What was still on Cecil’s mind was to make something that would be different compared to Sierra and LucasArts, but this time in tone. Instead of being humorous or in some ways too inspired by fantasy, Cecil wanted to give their project a slower pace and a complex storyline, which might also be a reason for why he thought the Templar Knights was an ideal subject. Though with a story-driven game, the idea of having two protagonists to exchange ideas, could further the story better. One representing America and the other being from France, giving some cultural meeting and appeal to different markets. A lot of effort was put into this game, and if you have seen any reviews out there, it has been praised to high heavens. If you are still not convinced by that, let me see if I cannot shed some light on why this is a wonderful piece of art.
There are plenty of versions to go by, but I will look first and foremost at the Director’s Cut edition as it has added contents in the form of more story-segments and puzzles, as well as a better interface, improved visuals, and some other neat features. There are some slight setbacks, but we will get to those. While this version has some great releases, such as the one for the DS utilising the dual screens and the touch-screen for clever puzzles and cutscenes, I am going with the version on GoG and for the phone-devices. On GOG.com, you will also receive the original game, original manual, high-definition wallpapers, the soundtrack, eleven avatars, and a comic book that provides a further insight into Nico’s backstory. Is that not nice?
When the stories of the Templars and Hashashins were actually fantastic
Originally, the game started out with the American George Stobbart enjoying his vacation by sitting at a cafe in France. That is, besides being rudely disturbed by a clown who proceeds to enter the cafe and steal and old man’s briefcase. Before more can be said, a bomb explodes inside this peaceful establishment, leaving George more than just a tad annoyed that a clown blew up his vacation and the cafe. However, the Director’s Cut starts a day earlier with Nicole Collard visiting Palais Royale, where she hopes to get an interview with Pierre Carchon, a media tycoon, and a potential candidate for the presidency of France. After humouring a mime outside, Nicole enters the enormous building and meets Pierre and his wife Imelda. However, as Pierre praises Nicole’s father and shows they were close acquaintances, a sound is coming from the drawing room. Pierre goes inside to investigate, but just as he enters, the sound of gunfire comes from the same room. Nico runs to action, but is knocked out by a mime who is standing over the dead body of Pierre.
The story is simply fantastically developed, with a mystery that leaves small hints in every progressive corner, which leads to more questions and only a few answers. This makes the story become interesting, while always making sure to showcase that your discoveries matter and feels triumphant. It is quite intriguing to see how every discovery you take into consideration, ties in with the story of the Templars, as well as the terrorism and murders going on in present day. Through these discoveries, you will witness plenty of compelling lore about the Templars and their battles, leading to many interesting theories of what might be going on today, as well as making this subject incredibly engaging to learn more about.
Though this mystery is always exciting, you will constantly feel like you have gotten yourself into a dangerous situation that you cannot really grasp until later in the game. This is surely because of the mystery itself being unclear, but also due to the names and faces you learn and the uncertainty surrounding your safety in their presence. This sense of danger also comes from how much you will come to care about the characters you meet, especially the main-duo. Nicole is a sarcastic, but strong woman who showcases a clear pride in her actions, while also acknowledging her personal difficulties with the case. I will not spoil more, but the added story-segments included with the DC-version, makes her a more interesting character with a clear personality and not just stereotypical. George on the other hand, is more humorous and while intelligent, is more lenient towards the events, despite never ignoring the danger.
Because of the wide range of personality our main-characters have, the small tropes they have are never overplayed, and since they have subtle differences and similarities, it is easy to see why they work so beautifully as a duo. This is also transferred perfectly to other aspects of the game outside the main story. Humorous or in-depth comments describing sceneries, characters or items, are important to create a clear attachment to your characters and get more out of their personalities, which this game highlights greatly. These comments can range between descriptive, such as trying to decipher some old manuscript, or amusing like hoping fingers will stay in tact despite poking inside stoned holes. I also love how there are plenty of dialogues depending on what you show a character in the game, such as offering them a manhole-key, with them responding confusedly as to why you keep it around. It really balances out the serious tone the game wants to provide, while not being afraid of being funny and charming.
There is also a ton of spoken dialogue between plenty of characters, and all are very well made and genuinely interesting or funny. All characters come with a personality, be they oblivious, down to earth, or just as sarcastic as our main-duo. I love this, as it gives the world a clear atmosphere and personality, with accents only highlighting the area you are in, instead of being anything stereotypical. It is quite impressive how other characters besides the main-duo, can be just as memorable.
The only negative thing is towards the very end where (of course) a romance has to blossom. It is not unexpected as our duo has great chemistry and it is nice to witness their dialogues evolve from strangers to a clear friendship. Unfortunately, it felt slightly forced because of the sudden move George made and I could not see them as more as than close friends at that point. Though the absolute weirdest, is the bizarre ending. It starts of intriguing and intimidating, but becomes quickly confusing. I will not spoil what happens, but I can say despite the over the top ending, I felt completely satisfied with this wonderful journey full of brain-teasing mysteries and delightful characters, and was happy that Nicole and George got the ending they deserved.
Story Score: 9.5/10
Worthy of the studio’s name Revolution
Following the style of the previous titles Revolution made, Broken Sword sticks to the genre they know best: a point-and-click. However, this title brings a lot of enhancements, especially thanks to the Director’s Cut-version. First off, pixel-hunting is a thing of the past as if you move the cursor near an interactable object, a blue outline will appear to highlight it. If you have the cursor over the object, it will quickly tell you if you can interact with it, walk in that direction if it is a door, or pick it up, while left-click will always provide a description. Second, there is a handy diary for keeping track of what you have discovered, as well as a hint-mode if you are completely stuck, though I never needed this. Lastly, the inventory is easy to navigate and you can easily drag items to where you want to use them, or activate them while talking to someone. It cuts down easily on the tedious elements a point-and-click can bring, while still providing a challenging game thanks to it forcing you to pay attention and think logically.
This is of course due to the puzzles, which are brilliant. They might require you to decipher hidden messages, combining items to make them useful or figure out how to gain the information you need for progression. All are creative and challenging, and thanks to how each dialogue is interesting or humorous, it never comes down to a point of exposition or tedious waiting for something to be clear. All puzzles are logical and never expects anything on the level of moon-logic, just perhaps abstract thinking. What I also love that the Director’s Cut did, was to remove instant-death parts where you had a split second to figure out what to do. I hated these parts as they never gave enough time to notice what you needed to do, which could either mean re-load a save one second ago and do some trial and error, or groan in agony when hours of progression has been lost. You can in both versions save at any time, but this was still a tedious part in the original release.
Each area is made up by a screen by screen scenario, plus an overworld map showcasing where you can go, and while there is a lot to explore, they all feel meaningful since you have been there before, and items you need for puzzles are at least located nearby. Combine this with a cursor always showcasing what the left and right mouse-button do and skipping seeing your characters walk to an exit, it helps to cut down the tedium drastically. It makes you always focused on the important aspect of story or puzzles, which makes this old gem has been fantastically upgraded in every regard. I cannot find anything wrong here.
Gameplay Score: 10/10
With a touch of Don Bluth
This is a gorgeous game in so many visual aspects, I am not sure where to start. Maybe the most appropriate place would be with the artstyle which was done by Dave Gibbons, who also worked on the art for Beneath a Steel Sky. It captures a cartoony artstyle that pays a lot of attention to details, such as wrinkles, body-parts and more, to make them represent realistic humans. Yet, it is not afraid to highlight clear physical characteristics, similar to a minimalistic caricature. Everyone is expressive in cutscenes, and I love their animations in-game being so smooth and clean.
Although the actual animation-work was done by Mike Burgess, who worked for Red Rover Animation-studio (known for All Dogs go to Heaven 2), while the multiple backgrounds were done with only pencils and Photoshop of all things by Eoghan Cahill and Neil Breen, who were fresh out from Dublin’s Don Bluth Studios. These are wonderful with heavy amounts of details, from small crumbled stones in a destroyed Irish castle, minor flowers in a huge garden in Spain, or beautiful Paris in the middle of the night containing tons of buildings. It is amazing how these artists could come together and create such a vast world with expressive and memorable characters and areas thanks to the visuals alone.
The mix a lighthearted cartoon style with a mature cast, is simply gorgeous in execution, and thankfully neglects resorting to just using a darker colour-pallet, like the early 2000s did. How this is still using the Virtual Theatre engine is beyond me, but I am happy to say that it only enhances the experience as people will walk around, without being hard to find for a puzzle or similar, and all blends in wonderfully to create a consistent and diverse world to explore.
The Director’s Cut-version of course has the original upgraded with even better visuals in-game and smoothed out cutscenes, which is a nice touch-up to already a beautiful game. There are, however, some unfortunate parts. While I do like the added portraits to signify their body-language, they are still-images that could have been better implemented with more animations, and despite the few new flash-animations being visually pleasing, they do not reach the wonderful style the original cutscenes had. This version is still an improvement overall due to these flash-scenes being few and not overshadowing the rest of the visual upgrades, and the strengths of the original game is still present and definitely worth mentioning.
With such a story-heavy game, we thankfully get a sturdy cast of voice-actors that provides charm, humour and personality through their voice-work. Hazel Ellerby and Rolf Saxon do great work as Nicole and George, providing accents without making them sound stereotypical, with the rest of the cast doing tremendous work to make each voiced character memorable either by being over the top, or serious in tone. It is also impressive that both Ellerby and Saxon returned to voice the new sequences in the DC-version, and they sound surprisingly similar to their original work.
Though the crowning achievement is the music by Barrington Pheloung, who provided over 3 hours of music to this game. It is all fantastic, having a huge focus on symphonic instruments, with light themes, highlighted instruments, and progressing through different transitions, depending on what the setting calls for, and it never skips a beat. There are also some cultural tunes, like an Irish tune being played by a violinist through diegetic sounds, using ney and drums when visiting a Syrian club, or even having Nicole’s radio play some cheesy pop-music. It all blends in to create a gorgeous and atmospheric world that feels alive and appealing from start to finish.
Presentation Score: 9.5/10
Broken Sword provides a fantastic mystery with perfect puzzles to accompany them. The amazing cast of characters adds to the atmosphere and personality of the game, and the beautiful visuals and audio simply enhances the outstanding experience. This is really one of the most important PC-titles ever and the minor shortcomings still make Director’s Cut the best version to play. Should you want the more authentic experience, it is included in the GOG-version, but either way: this is a tale worth every minute and euro it commands.