Secrets of the Ark Review

Fans of the Broken Sword adventure games from Revolution Software have been waiting with great anticipation for the next installment in the series. And they will not be disappointed with Secrets of the Ark . (This review was based on the version originally published in the U.K. as Broken Sword: The Angel of Death.) The fourth game in the series continues to improve on three highly-successful predecessors, all linked through their main characters, and some related story components.

Once again, George Stobbart -- hero of the first three Broken Sword games -- is faced with challenges of world-shaking consequence. After having retired from battling dragons and evil Knights, George is now living a fairly mundane existence when he is confronted by a beautiful client, Anna Maria, who begs him for his assistance in locating, and translating, an ancient manuscript. It doesn't take long for George to realize, however, that what initially seemed a simple request actually has global -- and even apocalyptic -- implications, as he begins to uncover ancient mysteries, earth-shaking conspiracies, and further secrets of the ever-present Knights Templar.

SotA continues in the style of the previous games in the series. It is an adventure/puzzle game that includes travel to exotic cities, plenty of exploration (all the while avoiding the "bad guys"), and enough puzzles to keep adventure gamers busy. Right from the start, George quickly finds himself being led around the world in a story that moves from New York to Istanbul, Rome, and Phoenix. The story itself continues to be a major component of the game. And the exploration that is involved, as well as the dialogues with other characters, and the documents that are encountered during the game, all contribute to the development of that story.

Just as each of the first three Broken Sword games ratcheted up the graphics from game to game, SotA continues that trend. A new gaming engine and improved artwork provide a greater level of detail. Better shading and rendering, as well as more detail in individual objects, create a higher degree of realism. In addition, Revolution's Virtual Actor System was once again used to create a synchronization between a character's speech, and their facial movements. And, as in the previous game, the characters are never still, but are always moving -- shifting their weight from one foot to another, glancing around disinterestedly, stretching, placing a hand casually on a hip, and basically just being human. This random movement provides an additional aura of realism to each scene.

The background artwork is fantastic, and often intricately detailed. Lighting is successfully used to generate a range of moods -- from bright and sunny, to overcast and rainy, to dark and spooky. (See the sidebar for screenshot examples of some of the scenes.) The numerous cut-scenes throughout the game serve to provide a cohesive continuum from start to finish -- as well as showcasing the excellent animation talents of the Revolution developers.

The same high standards that have carried over in the graphic design and artwork apply to the entire production of the game -- the audio, the character voicings, the animated cut-scenes, and so on. (And even though I had no problem listening to any of the characters -- despite the "foreign accents" given to some of them -- captions can be enabled at any time, allowing the player to read all dialogue taking place.)

As with the earlier Broken Sword games, all game play is in the third-person. However, unlike Broken Sword 3, character manipulation is easily done using only the mouse. While the arrow keys can still be substituted for many character movements in SotA, a simple point-and-click interface has replaced the two-handed "arrow-keys-plus-WASD-keyblock" format of the previous game. I found it much easier to move the characters around, although I did encounter one minor frustration. As you move a character (normally George, although at times you play -- and move -- another character, as well), the scene automatically "pans", to allow that character to stay reasonably in the center of the scene. If, during that movement, I was trying to click on a specific location (e.g., a doorway, or some other point to which I was directing my character), I often had difficulty clicking on exactly the right location -- sometimes resulting, for instance, in walking George right into the wall next to the doorway! I discovered that it was far easier if I let the panning finish before trying to click on any particular spot on the screen.

Using a by-now-familiar motif, game play consists primarily of exploration and dialogue with other characters. At most points in the game, there is typically quite a bit of freedom to move around, examine and explore, and pick up countless items that can be collected into an inventory. (These items, of course, are then used to solve the many inventory-style puzzles that are scattered throughout every phase of the game.) The dialogues with the numerous characters encountered throughout SotA provide little opportunity for decision-making, and -- as might be expected -- predominantly take the form of talking to the other character about every conceivable topic that is presented on the screen. However, that is also one of the key elements to the plot development.

In addition to the exploration and dialogues, there are a small number of logic puzzles -- most of which require the user to provide a solution based on information that has been collected elsewhere in the game. The logic puzzles are intuitive, challenging, and eminently solvable -- the type of puzzles that I find very satisfying. And there are even a few timed puzzles -- situations that call for either some fast-finger action or response, or that simply require certain actions to be done in a very finite amount of time. While I am not a big fan of "arcade style" nimble-thumb challenges, they were incorporated into the game in a well-designed manner, and did not require an arcade wizard to complete.

George is often accompanied by a companion, so it only makes sense that some of the puzzles he will encounter require two people to solve them. This frequently takes the form of a) encountering something that George cannot handle alone, b) identifying if someone else might be able to assist him, and c) directing the game to include that person in the solution. This kind of teamwork adds another level to some puzzles that might otherwise remain far simpler.

Another similarity with previous Broken Sword games is that you can do things that are... well... detrimental to George's health. In fact, it will most likely happen many times during the course of the game. (These situations are frequently tied to the aforementioned timed puzzles.) In those cases, fortunately, there is a brief "go to black" screen that indicates your failure -- and thankfully no "R.I.P." gravestone for George! -- and then you are placed right back in the game, just prior to where you made the "bad choice".

SotA has a fairly well-developed plot, even if it is mildly inaccurate, in terms of some of the specifics relating to the Ark of the Covenant and one or two other historic events. ("Poetic license" easily covers these minor issues.) As most adventure gamers are aware, more complex story lines often result in a relative increase in linearity of game play. And SotA is no exception. While most scenes in the game allow a good degree of random exploration, there are times when -- for the sake of the progression of the story -- there may be only one thing to do. No other exploration will do any good; no other puzzles will be encountered; and, in extreme cases, nothing else can be done until that one action can be determined, and accomplished. While this can occasionally result in some frustration, the end result -- i.e., maintaining the continuity of the story line -- is clearly in the game's favor. As the game draws to its conclusion, all of the pieces come together nicely, and everything "fits".

Despite my original fears, when I first heard that George would be "adventuring" with a woman other than Nico, I was actually quite pleased with how the story developed. And without creating any spoilers, I can also say that I was very impressed and satisfied with how the many story threads were brought together in the end, to a single well-defined conclusion.

One of my measurements of how much I've enjoyed a game is how I feel about the length of the game -- whether it felt too long (boring), too short (over-simplified), or "just right". Never during the entire game could I say that I wished it would end sooner. There was constant action, continual puzzles, and an ever-developing story that held my attention throughout the game. A timer within the game told me that I had logged over 25 hours of game play. However, that timer does not reflect replaying from saved games, or re-trying certain actions or replaying certain scenes in an attempt to go back and retrieve other clues, or get more information. All together, my total playing time was considerably more than that -- which, to me, feels "just right" for a game of this nature.

I did, unfortunately, experience some technical difficulties when playing the game -- typically, repeated crashes that generated bug-check logs. I was never able to discover the source of the problem. And even after downloading a patch from the developer's Web site, the problems did not disappear. However, this was a mild annoyance, and one that I'm becoming somewhat accustomed to, as more and more of the "high-tech" games continue to place large demands on the hardware and software of the systems on which they run. (This, by the way, also explains my increasing proclivity for creating frequent saved games -- in any game that I play -- and made me appreciate the unlimited saves allowed in SotA.)

All in all, SotA is another fine offering from Revolution Software. All the elements that make for a satisfying game -- easy user interface, terrific graphics and sound, great character animations, good story line, inventive puzzles, and intuitive game play -- are present. And it can only leave one hoping that we will see another episode in this wonderful series.

-- Frank D. Nicodem, Jr.