Gaming Flashback: Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars (PS1) Review
NOTE: My personal experience with Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars was with the “Director’s Cut” version for the Wii, which includes some additions such as a revamped hint system, some extra puzzles, and new scenes where players control secondary main character, Nico Collard. My review still concerns the game in its original incarnation with any changes from these later ports has been identified and ignored.
If you’ve been following my contributions to the Kulturecade over the past few months, you might have figured out already that I am, at least in many ways, a gaming Luddite. To recap on a few of my chosen topics, I’ve dedicated my time to writing about near-dead genres such as the shoot 'em up and the car combat simulator, the decline of the instruction manual and of physical media altogether, my adventures through the library of my beloved Nintendo 64, and of course, an overarching theme of dedication “the old guard,” Nintendo, with anything available on their systems being automatically of far greater interest to me. If you really think about it, it was kind of inevitable that I’d eventually just start spitballing on games from here, there, and anywhere that still catch my interest for one reason or another, although I still stand by my own ability to remain unbiased by nostalgia, even in regards to games that I do have some kind of connection to via rose-colored glasses.
I so greatly enjoy the history of video games and see the need for those who treat them as historical and artistic artifacts, regardless of how young the form is, that it only made sense for me to acquire a copy of the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die, compiled by Edge magazine’s editor-in-chief Tony Mott (an entry in a series that also compiles books, films, and comic books, to name a few). Not simply intended to tell you “the best games ever,” the book chooses games very deliberately so as to capture the full spectrum of experiences that games can deliver. But I can talk about the book another time. What I’ve decided to discuss today is the first of many games selected for the meaty tome that I was already entrenched in when I received it — Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars.
With a fifth installment having been released only three years ago, and in a return to the series 2D roots, it should be given that the original installment from 1996 did things very differently or very well in order to separate itself from over 15 years of influence from King’s Quest to Zork. First and foremost one of those things is presentation, where even the opening scene of detailed landscape shots of Paris accompanied by shimmering, full-bodied orchestral score gives way to voiceover narration by main character George Stobbart and the animated cinematic sets the game’s events in motion with the bombing of a quaint Paris cafe where our American protagonist, George, is sitting quietly enjoying his vacation (the bombing is a bit jarring to watch in 2017, but we carry on). The quality of the animation hasn’t aged particularly well in terms of detail or lifelike movements, but it still carries a certain charm to it like plenty of other animated classics, like a Don Bluth film.
Our boy Georgie, for some reason, puts his vacation on hold and takes it upon himself to investigate the devastating attack, which he undertakes in typical point-and-click adventure fashion of asking repeated questions to strangers who are often in no capacity to answer them, taking things that don’t belong to him, and sticking his head into trash bins, sewers, and caves to find his next lead. George’s actions don’t prove anything in particular about his character that hasn’t become odd and out of place for the sheer fact that the point-and-click genre is populated by protagonists who emulate this behavior, but what struck me about George Stobbart was the “typical naive American” stereotype he fulfilled while doing so. George often comes off as insensitive and ignorant, quick to judge or stereotype the people he meets in his many travels. This is in spite of apparently not having any personal traits of his own to bring to the table other than the fact that he travels on a whim (I have no idea what he does for work back home, but apparently he can extend his Paris vacation and add in round trips to Syria, Spain, and Ireland as he pleases). And like a Disney prince, he’s far too interested in Nico, the French woman he just met and uses the “case” as an excuse to spend time with while becoming overly interested in her personal life and relationships with other male characters.
But where George comes off as a foot-in-mouth afflicted protagonist come the year 2017, Revolution Software more than makes up for him with a delightful cast of supporting characters, even if they’re probably only good characters because we don’t have to deal with them for more than a few minutes out of the eight-hour game. Just about every scene, though, contains at least one if not two or three absolutely delightful NPCs who are fun to chat and interact with if only for how they respond to George’s amateur private eye attitude towards them. Between the young bazaar merchant from Syria, Nejo, who learned his English from Jeeves and Wooster video tapes, Lady Piermont, the elderly yet promiscuous English aristocrat, and Lopez, the surly gardener from the decadent Spanish villa, Revolution Software shows that they have a talent for characters and dialogue to populate their game world. Instead of tools to carry the plot forward, the characters are some of the most entertaining aspects of the game, even if certain ones like George haven’t aged as well since Broken Sword was released.
And so where there are good characters, one would hope that there is a good plot for them to inhabit. This is another area where Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars may not have aged so well, but must certainly still be commended for its efforts. The Knights’ Templar may have become a bit more commonplace for use as a plot device or subject since films like National Treasure tried to join ranks as the successors to Indiana Jones, not to mention the countless memes and theories that are put out daily about secret ancient societies trying to control the world, but in 1996 the Templar was far from common knowledge as a historical concept and Broken Sword does a hell of a job enticing the player into the murder mystery and its “down the rabbit hole” plot outline. Although it does become a bit sloppy and confusing by the end, as many “down the rabbit hole” plots tend to do, the sense of satisfaction that comes out of solving the puzzles that lead up to the next artifact and the next excursion, all while the Templar and/or their enemy corps, the “Hashashin” may be lurking in the shadows behind makes for an intriguing trail of breadcrumbs, even in lieu of a few WWE-level left-field swerves and ambiguous characters.
While Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars has the appropriate length, player involvement, and pacing to be reviewed as if it were a movie or Netflix series, there’s only one thing that truly sticks out about its design as a video game, and that’s its honestly rather admirable ability to subvert one of its own genre’s biggest tropes — the ever-persistent status of the point-and-click adventure as one of gaming’s cruelest and most insane mistresses in how it approaches puzzles and progression. It seems everybody can recall at least one example of a game either that they played or that they heard about that created such an unbelievably insane solution to one of its puzzles that being forced to solve it alone would qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. Broken Sword, even in its most outlandish moments, always makes sense in that regard. Even if a puzzle is difficult enough as to require the player to request the assistance of the internet or the remastered versions’ hint system, the solution never seems as though it were out of reach or sensible reasoning. In that same vein, while there are a handful of dead ends that can be triggered by wrong choices, which will send the player back to their last save (hopefully not too far back), the sticky wicket is pretty straightforward and easy to correct on your next try.
I feel as though I say this with every game I choose to review, but Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is not for everybody. Another game reviewed from another near-dead genre means that if you don’t like point-and-click games, you could have stopped reading at the first paragraph and I wouldn’t have been offended. Broken Sword is a pretty-looking and pretty-sounding game with endearing characters and attention to detail, but evaluating what has aged well and what hasn’t is the biggest factor in whether or not you should branch out to the series today or simply stick to LucasArts’ offerings from the same era -- and that’s if you’re interested in the genre at all. If your interest in the game includes its artistic integrity, its accessibility, and its historic value, then you absolutely should make sure to play Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars in some capacity before you die. If a conspiracy-laced murder mystery across Europe and the Middle East doesn’t sound exciting enough to keep up with the efforts of modern gaming, or even your favorite film, then nobody will leave a copy of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars on your burial mound should you choose to pass it up.