Broken Sword: Sleeping Dragon Review

The third in a delightful series of adventure games, Broken Sword: Sleeping Dragon continues the tradition of fast-paced action and adventure across Europe and Africa. American patent lawyer George Stobbart and Parisian reporter Nico Collard once again join forces to track clues from the murder of an underground hacker in Paris, to uncover an ancient conspiracy involving not only their old nemeses, the Knights Templar, but an even more insidious evil than has ever been unleashed upon our world.

The game installed easily -- although be prepared for major resource usage. The hard disk requirement for BSSD is almost 2GB. Once installed, however, the game plays entirely from the hard drive, and the game CDs are not needed. I did encounter one sound-related problem upon initial installation, and voices played only after I made appropriate adjustments to my DirectSound hardware acceleration settings.

BSSD is first and foremost an adventure game. And from a puzzle standpoint, most of the "puzzling" that goes on in the game is the more intuitive kind -- either based on the progression of the story line or on inventory items. There are almost no "brain-teaser" logic puzzles, and the ones that are there are readily solvable. The game, in fact, contains more action sequences -- even what might be considered "arcade-style" action -- than mind-twisting puzzles. Personally, my own preference is for a good, overt, in-your-face, tax-the-brain kind of puzzle; I am not a fan of "fast-finger" games, where timing and reflexes are the acme of the gameplay. With that said, however, I can clearly state that, despite the "mismatch" of game styles (mine and BSSD's), I thoroughly enjoyed the game.

As in the case with the first two games in the series, Paris is certainly key once again. And new sites in England, the Congo, Prague, and Egypt have been added, as well. Throughout the entire game, there are frequent cut scenes, many of which assist in developing the story. And quite a story it is! The story in BSSD is complex, well-thought-out, and -- for those who have played the previous games -- well-integrated into what has come before. Much of the story is based on actual ancient legends and mysterious documents. There are characters and locations from previous games, but all in a way that develops the story, and not simply gratuitous references. And the character development within the game itself is fascinating to watch.

In addition to a wonderful story, BSSD continues the tradition of dry humor in its dialogue. There were times during some of the cut scenes, when George was waxing eloquent in his usual stoic manner, that his comments had me holding me sides from sheer laughter. The humor in the game is so incredibly light-hearted and hilarious, that it is easy to forget that we're supposed to be averting world destruction!

The graphics are fantastic. The Broken Sword series has moved from standard 2D cartoon-style scenes in the first game, to a combination of 2D and 3D scenes in the second game, to a very impressive design, involving incredibly detailed 3D character animation in BSSD. The characters walk, run, jump, climb, crouch, and perform other movements in very realistic manners. Their shadows fall across odd-shaped objects exactly as they should. Even standing still, characters shuffle uneasily, scratch their head, or brush lint from a sleeve, making them even more true-to-life. And many of the close-up cut scenes have been carefully designed by lip-synchronizers -- the facial animations were done by Revolution's proprietary Virtual Actor Engine -- so that, at times, it is almost possible to read the words from their lips, with the sound turned off. There were some minor lighting issues (e.g., large objects not casting shadows, objects away from the light going totally black rather than just dim), and occasional clipping problems (e.g., walking George straight through a rock). But those were easily overlooked, based on the quality of the remainder of the game.

The voicing is done extremely well (with the voices of George and Nico appearing to be the same as in the previous games). Other than the standard anomaly of having all foreign characters speaking in English (even amongst themselves), I thought that the different nationalities were voiced quite accurately. The bad guys are really bad guys. Another "plus" for BSSD is the ability to turn on captions, so that even if the voices are difficult to understand, the player can read the dialog taking place, and (perhaps) even get some clues that would not be immediately apparent by merely listening to the conversation.

In addition to the voices, the remainder of the supportive audio was quite good, as well. In fact, at one point I had switched from playing the game to another window I had running in the background, not realizing at first that the orchestral accompaniment to the game was still playing. Only after a while did it occur to me that the great "background music" I was listening to while I did my other task was, indeed, the background music from BSSD!

All of this -- the graphics, the cut scenes, the voices, the audio -- are put together in a Hollywood-style movie setting, complete with multiple camera angles and occasional camera fly-bys as a scene is being introduced, or as some major activity is taking place. The camera pans and zooms in a very realistic manner, lending even more credibility to the game and the story.

During the course of the game, you switch between playing George and Nico. All gameplay is in the third-person. Playing BSSD is a two-handed affair. All character movement is done using the arrow keys, while all "actions" (Look At, Pick Up, etc.) are performed with the left hand, using the "WASD" block of keys.

The arrow keys are used to move a character relative to the screen. No matter what the layout, no matter which way the character is facing, the up arrow always moves them toward the top of the screen, the right arrow moves them toward the right of the screen, and so on. This became a problem for me in two places. First, the vast majority of scenes were in a perspective that required movement along a 45-degree angle from horizontal or vertical -- something that requires using multiple arrow keys simultaneously. In addition, as your character moves through a scene, the viewpoint often changes (to look from the other side of the room, for example). The angle of view of the character has changed; but the up arrow still moves them toward the top of the screen -- which may be exactly the opposite of what that key had been doing only seconds ago! (BSSD does provide "sticky key" definitions, that keep a character moving in the direction they were going during camera shifts. But I found these more confusing than helpful.) I spent the entire game trying to attune myself to this design -- unsuccessfully. In several places, it is imperative to move your character quickly -- and through several scenes. But in almost all cases, this required changing keystrokes to keep them moving in the same direction, when the scene perspective changed.

Speaking of moving quickly, there was one aspect of BSSD of which I am not a fan. And that is the timed sequence, or "panic situation". There are many times -- way too many, for someone who is not an arcade or action buff -- when the action in the game demanded "fast and furious" response. In some cases, it was to avoid an impending cataclysm; in other cases, it was required simply to solve a particular puzzle. In many places, the correct resolution to the situation often involved split-second timing. And here, I am not exaggerating. There were situations where the amount of time given to escape a particular situation was only a fraction of a second more than the absolute perfect solution. There was no room for even the slightest hesitation, or wrong move. The result was situations that required replaying 10, 20 times, or more.

Now, in a rare case, this wouldn't be bad. But it ties in with one other nemesis that I have with some adventure games -- dying. You can die in BSSD. Oh, you will die -- many, many, many times. And most often, as a result of these kinds of fast-and-furious, no-shred-of-margin situations. On the "up" side, BSSD implements an automatic restart, where the game will "rewind" a bit, typically to just before whatever happened to kill the character. The intent is to give you another chance at the situation without requiring constant saving. However, as I found in at least one case, the "rewind" takes you right back into the action -- usually a cut scene -- and not to just before it. This is critical, because you cannot save a game while in the middle of these timed sequences. (Plus, it means having to re-watch an entire cut scene every time the "rewind" is done.) So in the worst case, I was "stuck" in a timed sequence, repeating it over and over and over again, trying desperately to make it within that last fraction of a second, and constantly failing. I had to resort to aborting the game (and losing everything I'd done since my last game save).

The save game engine in BSSD is quite simple. Saves take an insignificant amount of space, and each save is "named" by the location where you are, and a date/time stamp. No additional naming can be given, nor are thumbnail images saved, showing the location (or situation) of the saved game. So while saving games was simple, finding the right saved game to reload, at a later time, was not always easy. A maximum of 32 saved game files can be created.

I suppose that as long as I'm griping about my own personal hang-ups, I should mention one other -- which was greatly overdone by BSSD. Without giving too much away, I was intrigued the first time that George had to play "Sokoban hero", and slide a room full of boxes around, so that he could make his way through to the other side. And when this happened a second time, I was mildly amused. But the third and fourth times started to get old. And by the end of the game, the paradigm had lost its fascination.

Admittedly, there will be players who look at the above and say "Wow, fast-finger style puzzles! I love it." Or "Hey, Sokoban! I could play that all day." Or even "Oh, I crave timed puzzles!" And that is why I do not really "ding" BSSD for implementing these gameplay designs. For what they do, they do it well -- for the most part, outstandingly, in fact. (A couple of times, it almost made an arcade gamer out of me, it was so intriguing!)

As the game progresses (and particularly toward the end), the cut scenes become more frequent and of greater length, and fill in the gaps of the story. One other personal observation about the story -- and so as to not create any "spoilers", I will be as vague as possible. The entire Broken Sword story -- particularly focusing on the Knights Templar, and many of the mysteries that still surround that clandestine organization -- has fascinated me throughout this series. And it continued to do so, through most of this game. However, near the end of the game, the player is suddenly thrust into a totally foreign (no pun intended) situation, set thousands of years apart from the Knights Templar. That transition -- swift as it came, with very little "glue" to hold it to the rest of the story -- disappointed me, as it felt terribly out of place.

As may be expected from a game with a story line that continues to develop, there is a certain element of linearity involved. Although George and Nico are usually quite free to explore around the area where they currently are, the game doesn't allow you much opportunity to stray from the continuity of the story. It was a fairly simple matter to finish the game in well under 20 hours. The game itself was quite satisfying -- in fact, I wouldn't have believed that I'd finished it that quickly, had there not been a timer built into the game itself. Still, I was left wishing that it could have been a bit longer.

All adventure gamers should find something in BSSD that appeals to them. Whether it's the exploring, the story, the inventory puzzles, the fast-fingered action, or simply enjoying the marvelous implementation of the graphics, audio, and rendered characters, there's something for everyone. (A note of caution: the ESRB rating of T' -- Teen -- is well-earned. There is quite a bit of gore and violence in the game.) My "criticisms" of the game reflect personal preferences, and none of them were significant enough to adversely affect the enjoyment I got from playing BSSD. I can truly recommend this as a highly entertaining adventure game.

-- Frank Nicodem