Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse comes to the Xbox One with a pedigree built up over its many years as a premium point-and-click adventure series. It had a slightly different development trajectory along the way when compared to other titles in the series and as a result, it seems a little confused at times as to what it wants to be. Originally announced in August 2012 as a Kickstarter project, the game was funded for a total of $823,000 and released on PC episodically across late 2013/early 2014.
The game's creator Charles Cecil and his team decided to opt for a return to the franchise's 2D roots, having experimented with a 3D engine in the last two games. Long time fans will be pleased with this shift back as the move over to that 3D engine was not widely well received, despite there being plenty to like about those titles. There's something of a compromise here since the characters walk across a 2D plane but then they are themselves actually drawn and modelled in 3D. What this does help to do is both bring the title up to scratch with a more modern look but also appease fans of the classic titles.
The style in general gives The Serpent's Curse a beautiful hand drawn look. Each screen has so much to look at and visually the game is brimming with little details such as knocked over flower pots and churches in the distance, along with some fantastic use of lighting and depth. There is least one extra animated piece in each screen which draws the eye, such as a window mounted air conditioning fan rotating. Sometimes, items do get lost in the details and this can cause problems but as a compromise between providing a new look and still providing as many details as older pixellated point-and-click games of the past, it works.
Fans of the series will be pleased as the plot takes franchise stalwarts George Stobbard and Nico Collard on their usual intercontinental jaunt to solve a mystery. Whilst the series has traditionally focused on Templar mythology, this time around the game revolves around Gnosticism. Things open in Catalonia in 1937 with a siege on a Spanish hacienda resulting in the theft of an extremely important painting. It then picks up in the present day with George attending an art exhibition that his company is insuring against the theft of the same painting. A bungled murder later and George and Nico are tangled up in a plot involving three parties, all vying for control of the painting and the secrets it holds. As is often the case, there is a good blend of realism with spiritual mysticism and leaves the player guessing right up to the end.
The first episode clearly focuses on using items to interact with the environment and as a means of questioning suspects in the plot's mystery, whereas the second half of the game seems to up the ante with more difficult puzzles that focus on turning correctly placed ornaments on mantlepieces, deciphering codes and using information you've gathered to pinpoint important locations on maps. There's an extremely rewarding puzzle that comes into play towards the end that involves manipulation of crystals, lights and statues and this is where the game truly shines. Puzzles aren't generally overly obtuse here, but this isn't to say that next-to-impossible head-scratchers don't turn up at all. There are a fair few examples where items that shouldn't go together are somehow the solution. A puzzle featuring a mannequin, a bottle of whiskey and a trolley being one such example.
There are missed opportunities to integrate more natural aids to the puzzles for new players. Simple mechanics such as hotspot recognition (which was possible in many point-and-click games of old by hitting a function key or having crucial items shimmer) would have been extremely helpful. The delightfully drawn backgrounds can sometimes mean that picking out what you can and can't interact with is slightly more tedious than it needs to be. When progression is blocked until you find a specific item, it can get extremely frustrating to have to just wave the analogue stick controlled cursor around until you find what you're looking for. There are a CD player and pair of clippers in particular that simply don't stand out enough and both are in areas you cannot leave until you find them and use them to aid your investigation. The game has a phone-based system which is used in a handful of occasions where George and Nico are split up, which could also have been used as a hint system. The alternative - a three-tiered hint system that requires going into the game menus - doesn't feel intuitive or organic in any way, shape or form. There is also oddly just one occasion where the game actually helps you by automatically carrying out part of the puzzle, once you've effectively set the wheels in motion.
The game is fully voice acted. Again, in what seems to be a running theme, the voice acting is hit and miss with a stark contrast between the overly-exaggerated Spanish accents that open the game and - for example - the wonderfully nuanced character of Shears the existentially profound gardener. One noticeable point however, is in the portrayal of George Stobbart. You'd almost be forgiven for thinking that this is the voice work of an actor putting on an American accent, rather than series veteran Rolf Saxon. The performance comes across as oddly wooden when compared to previous games.
The Serpent's Curse does feature some excellent writing. Incompetent police Inspector Navet provides some excellent comic relief when dead bodies appear and Bassam - a market stall owner - is another highlight as he runs his market stall seemingly taking tips and buzzwords from the latest series of The Apprentice. There's even a bit of highbrow humour in there from a French waiter quoting Franz Kafka. It's this humour that really excels as it dovetails extremely well with the dualist nature of the Gnostic religion. However once again there is some oddly cheesy, groanworthy and plain not funny dialogue, which is a real shame when it's clear so much has been done to try to keep the game's writing on point, as well as to ensure that it's deep and meaningful.
Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse is very much a title at odds with itself, as it's stuck half way between offering a classic point-and-click adventure and being a more modern experience. As a result, it can be somewhat hard to recommend. On one hand, it's succeeded with a great story, some fantastic individual set pieces, great writing (albeit with some suspect voice acting) and some extremely clever puzzles. Older fans may dislike the way things look but find an overall experience that's more tailored to their likes, whereas newcomers to the genre may love the looks and find themselves lost by the more obtuse puzzles.