I’ll admit, I cheated a tad with this one.
Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars is my childhood. This is the game that got me into gaming. It’s the first game that I remember my brother showing me and it’s the first game that I remember playing on my own. I have replayed this game every year or so for as long as I can remember. The characters, the atmosphere, the music, all of it is distinctly present in my mind. I could probably recite half of the dialogues in the game, and paraphrase the rest.
I don’t have a single “favorite game of all time”, instead I have a pantheon of a few top games and this is the one that has been in there from the beginning. Now, I did replay it (again) before writing this, so let it not be said that I’m taking these articles lightly.
Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars, also known as Circle of Blood in some regions, is a legendary point’n’click adventure game by renowned developer Revolution Software, preceded by Lure of the Temptress and cult classic Beneath a Steel Sky. Built on the same engine as the other two games, Broken Sword’s gameplay and visuals are very similar, though not identical.
The game, running on the VirtualTheatre engine, looks in gameplay like most standard point’n’click adventures do. Like the name of the engine implies, we view each scene like an audience looking upon a stage, though, officially, it is listed as third-person. The backgrounds of each location are beautifully hand-painted, and even with the resolution of the time, the details came through well, and overall the visuals of the game are astounding. Naturally, the animated objects and characters are significantly lower-res than the background, and seeing an intricate statue or building next to a character with a total of three pixels for a face is a little immersion-breaking at first, but getting used to the difference is easy and quick. Now, before the previous sentence skewers your idea of how pretty the overall game is, let me re-iterate : Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars is absolutely gorgeous. Like Ori and the Blind Forest levels of gorgeous. Like the best of antique art levels of gorgeous.
You may or may not have heard that Broken Sword is the bar that has been set for atmosphere in video games. This game has so much atmosphere, it’s pretty much composed entirely out of it. This game is pure atmosphere. Kinda like a gas giant. Except with more substance. But that substance is also atmosphere.
Where was I?
Oh, right. Now, atmosphere in games is made up of more than just the visuals. The story, soundtrack, and sometimes even the gameplay have a large role in this. Since we’re talking about a point’n’click, there isn’t all too much gameplay to go around, so story and soundtrack are what stand with the visuals. Let’s talk a bit about the soundtrack (I’ll go into the story later). An experiment : if you’d be so kind, dear reader, open up youtube, and search for something along the lines of “best video game soundtracks”. What you will witness will seem like a list of the most-viewed videos which fit the query, but in reality, that is just a ruse to hide one of the greatest travesties of the internet age. You’d be hard pressed to find a soundtrack compilation with a track from Broken Sword in it, which is absolutely bonkers, as this game has some of the most emotionally stirring, most catchy, most memorable pieces of music in interactive entertainment history. For those people who’ve played the game, the soundtrack is so iconic, so fitting to the game, that the tunes will be forever bound with the feel and atmosphere of the game.
Don’t let the “thunk” of your jaw dropping at the sight of the backgrounds drown out the absolutely magnificent soundtrack.
Before going into the story, let’s take a detour and talk a bit about the gameplay. What we have here is a prime specimen of classic Revolution point’n’click gameplay : right-click to examine stuff, left-click to interact with stuff. Collect items and hoard them in trans-dimensional pocket. If stuck, rub items on stuff, rub items on each other, rub stuff on stuff. Profit.
George Stobbart, the protagonist of the game, is a genius scientist from the future* who is using the persona of an american lawyer and tourist. While his true origin as a time-traveller is never revealed in-game, we will discover it early on as his deceptively ordinary looking jacket has a pocket that, through the harnessing of trans-dimensional warp-tech, is larger on the inside.
Seriously, George keeps several large documents, ancient manuscripts, bronze tripods, gems the size of your fist, plaster molds, and a sewer-key half as tall as our witty tourist himself in his jacket pocket all at the same time. Naturally, we have the opportunity to show all of these items to absolutely everyone we meet, and ask their opinions on the items. Gameplay is built up of larger puzzles interconnected with conversations, exposition and smaller obstacles. One you may have heard of before, is the notorious Goat Puzzle, which became the stuff of legends in the point’n’click community, and was considered so difficult that it was changed in the remastered version. Most of the puzzles are fairly logical, and offer quite a bit of challenge, but occasionally a typical “point’n’click logic” puzzle slips in which is mind-numbingly abstract and silly. However, these never descend into becoming frustrating, and the overall design is really solid, leaving no disparity between the story, passive-gameplay sections and the puzzles themselves – like in some other games in the genre.
The wondrous atmosphere is complemented by the phenomenal puzzles and well-designed gameplay.
Now, we are talking about a point’n’click game, so the story is the center-piece, the meat of the endeavor, the core and gist of the experience. The puzzles and gameplay are a frame for the masterpiece, the atmosphere provides the ambiance and ideal viewing conditions of the artwork. While these do their jobs magnificently, and are greatly deserving of the praise they get, the thing we’re all here for, the Mona Lisa of Broken Sword’s Louvre, the substance of all this – is the story. In certain sections, the game can take rather dark turns, and with the atmosphere being what it is, things can get a bit uncomfortable. It never becomes downright scary (except for the conversation icon for a particular doctor, who, instead of saving lives, does the opposite. That pixellated icon gave my younger-self years worth of nightmares.), but it can get very creepy and disquieting. But then, this too can be taken as proof of how absolutely amazing the atmosphere is in this game.
Broken Sword takes a premise not entirely original – a modern Templar conspiracy (though, at the time the game was conceived, the topic wasn’t as cliché and run-into-the-ground as it is today) – and molds it into something wonderful. The globe trotting adventure of intrigue, mystery and ancient history does fit snugly into a particular archetype, and yet it still manages to be fresh. Doing legally, and occasionally morally questionable things in order to save the world, be it literally of figuratively, is a staple not only of the genre, but of a large chunk of fiction in general. However, when you have a game which has writing on the level of some of the greatest literature humans minds have dreamed up, even a often-seen premise becomes a tale to be remembered.
The game starts off with the protagonist, George Stobbart, enjoying a drink in a small Parisian Café, when a guy dressed as a clown steals another customer’s briefcase, and leaves his accordion behind… which promptly explodes, launching George into the air, and into an epic globe-trotting adventure. First, he investigates the bombing, only to uncover a much deeper plot regarding the reborn Templar order’s attempt to reforge a mythic sword of power. The story has occasional twists, and has many high-points, such as the first-time examination of a particular manuscript. We are also introduced to Nicole Collard immediately after the explosion. Nico is a Parisian photo-journalist, who ends up helping us out with the investigation. Though even as the secondary protagonist, she is sidelined a bit, despite having a well rounded character and personality traits, as well as very well written dialogue. Her and George’s interactions and character dynamics work extremely well. The second game in the series, The Smoking Mirror gives her much more spotlight, as there are sections where we control her instead of George.
We now bump into the annoying situation wherein the reviewee’s strongest suit is the story, meaning it should warrant further discussion, but since the story is so great, I’d rather leave as much of it un-spoiled as humanly possible, so I’ll elaborate in the spoiler section, but please, for the love of god, if you haven’t played this game yet, steer clear of that part of this article and just go play the damned thing.
The story is really damn good. Seriously. Just go play this already.
I think my opinion on this game is pretty clear, so I’ll keep this summary short and simple.
Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars = (Absolute Unabashed Awesome * Best Adventure Game of All Time + One of the Best Games Ever)*10^23
If you’ve read some of the previous Back in Your Day articles, you’ll know that I dislike scoring systems for reviews, but that being said, Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars is the clearest 10/10 the industry has ever seen.
>>SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT<<
So, you’ve finished it? Okay, good. Now that we’re on the same page, let me go into a little more detail as to why I love this game so much. Above, I gushed about pretty much every aspect of the game, but decided not to go into detail in order to keep it fresh for anyone who hasn’t played it yet. While I’m adamant that the game is absolutely magnificent all the way through, it isn’t homogeneous, and some sections stand out. The Hotel Ubu, Montfaucon and the Spanish villa are high-points in the game, and each for a different reason. I’d say that all three locales have some of the most iconic dialogue in the game, but then what location in this game doesn’t?
The Hotel Ubu’s manuscript puzzle is frustrating when stuck on and extremely rewarding when solved, and is one of the primary examples of atypical puzzles in the game. I count the subsequent scene in Nico’s apartment where we examine the manuscript for the first as part of the Hotel Ubu section as well. That first examination of the manuscript filled me with such wonder the first time that I was aged and matured enough to comprehend it, that I have been infatuated with Templar history, lore and fiction ever since. While nothing more than vague exposition, the scene’s execution make it one of the most powerful in the game.
Montfaucon was the gibbet where a large number of Templar knights were executed during the purge of the order. While in reality, it has been destroyed centuries ago, with its original location lost to the ages, in-game, it is situated in an orderly, small Parisian square, complete with a (un-exploded) café, a jongleur, and a group of tourists. After distracting the leisurely gendarme “stationed” at one of the tables, sipping a drink, we get into the sewers. Once we promptly vandalized an ancient ruin (you monster), we discover, for the first time, the true extent of the Templar conspiracy. This key story moment is executed masterfully, and suddenly expands the scope of the game. There, the Templars discuss their global operations, giving us an idea of just how large and powerful the organisation we’re facing truly is.
The last one is the Spanish Villa. The entire section is beautifully designed, with some of the greatest dialogue, and awe-inspiring locales. The puzzles are also great, especially in the latter part when we begin to unravel the mystery of the missing chess piece. The section has an internal side-story regarding a piece that is missing from the ancestral chess set of the family which has lived in the villa for generations. The last surviving member of the family, the mistress of the villa, has been searching for the piece for decades. The scene where we find the piece (yes, that scene), set right after a series of some of the best puzzles in game, is the peak, the snowy tip, the blinking light atop the spire of this game. Finding the little huddled pair of skeletons, clutching the chess piece is completely sudden, and comes as gut-punch for the player, which is what lends the scene its weight.
These three sections manage to stand out from an already stellar experience.
I really, really cannot re-iterate enough times that this game is absolutely mindbogglingly amazing.
That is all.
Broken Sword : Shadow of the Templars is available on GOG and Steam.
Previously on Back in Your Day : Crusader : No Remorse
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