Reviewed: January 11, 2004
Released: December 4, 2003
Adventure games are a dying breed on the PC and they are even more rare on the console systems. In fact, finding a true adventure game without any type of RPG influence or heavy action element is practically impossible. Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is one adventure that does defy the odds. This is the final installment in the Broken Sword PC trilogy and proof that the adventure genre is not only alive and kicking but making a big comeback. And best of all, the game is totally self-contained so you don't need to have played the first two games to enjoy this one.
I had the opportunity to meet with Charles Cecil, Managing Director for Revolution Software, who gave me a great deal of insight into the technology and fundamental concepts that were going to make this adventure game stand out in a world where exploration and puzzle-solving had fallen victim to the graphical interface.
Broken Sword breaks new ground on several fronts, the most obvious being the stunning new graphics engine, quickly followed by the ultimate in user-friendly command interfaces, and perhaps the most significant yet subtlest features, the Virtual Actor Engine. Of course none of these technological wonders means a thing without a good story and solid gameplay, and The Sleeping Dragon doesn’t disappoint.
The Sleeping Dragon story follows the exploits of George Stobbart, patent lawyer and part time adventurer, and Nico Collard, struggling freelance journalist. Our two heroes start the adventure from two very unique perspectives. We keep bouncing back and forth between the stories and some very exciting locations until our heroes are ultimately brought together to…you guessed it…save the world.
Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon features perhaps one of the most ingenious and intuitive interfaces seen to date in an adventure game. Of course the best interface is the one you don’t notice, and the command system in this game does a great job of remaining hidden until you need it, appearing when you do, then quickly dropping into the background when you’re done.
The Sleeping Dragon begs to be played with a gamepad making this the perfect adventure game for your Xbox. You move with the left stick and manipulate the inventory rings with the right. At any given time there are four transparent circles in the lower-right corner arranged in a diamond pattern. The face buttons match the diamond pattern on the screen and as an added touch, the transparent circles on the screen are color-coded to match the Xbox buttons colors. As you explore the game world there are hot spots indicated by pulses of light. When you select one of these pulses any available actions are assigned to one of those circles and you push the button to perform the desire action. It’s a simple system that takes about 3-4 commands to master.
In a bold move the designers have included climbing and jumping puzzles but even these are assigned to the primary command buttons making these more about following directions rather than a test of your dexterity. If you move to the end of a ledge you might get a jump icon or perhaps the symbol to climb up or lower down, or perhaps all three and you decide what to do. The same system works for climbing ladders, shimmying along ledges, or hugging a wall.
As you might expect with an adventure game there are plenty of people to meet and talk with. Conversations are handled with a similar interface where topics are presented as graphical icons and you can cycle them in a circular pattern. New icons appear as new topics are discovered and exhausted topics are removed from the rotation. This is a huge help in knowing what you have and haven’t talked about with each of the many characters in this game.
And of course we can’t forget the puzzles. These consist of collecting items then using those items with other items or people to further the story. Items that need discussing appear in the conversation topic ring while normal inventory is kept in a third ring at the top-left of the screen. You can even combine various items in your inventory like using the bottle opener on the bottle of beer.
The final element of the gameplay is the Action Event. These are timed sequences within the gameplay or narrative where you have just a few seconds to perform a specific act. A few examples include dodging an oncoming car, sprinting for a jeep, or blocking a bullet with a frying pan. You never really know when one of these events is about to occur even though you will probably sense impending doom. Sometimes you might even be distracted by the movie or conversation so keep an eye on that command diamond for your cue to act.
While the interface is extremely simple and a joy to use, it does allow the game to become a bit easy at times. For instance, if you think you need to combine an item in your inventory but aren’t sure which, just take one item and move it to the combine area then cycle the rest until the “combine” icon appears. The same goes for environmental puzzles. If you need to do something but aren’t sure which item to use you can just highlight the flashing pulse and cycle the inventory until an item appears that activates the “use” icon.
Even though the game boils down to a fixed amount of possible actions, the number of those actions and the sheer scope and scale of this game will still have you playing it just as long as any of those older adventure games. Just don’t expect to get stuck on any one puzzle for too long unless you weren’t thorough in your exploration and conversations prior to that point.
Often a single clue or object can trigger a flood of additional material or even the next chapter. Early in the game when you are looking for a dark haired woman you have trouble getting information from bystanders on the street. Only when you learn that she was a blonde wearing a wig does your investigation take a promising turn.
Moving the Broken Sword saga into the third dimension provided plenty of challenges for the design team, and they met each one with unparalleled success. Even simple things that we take for granted like being able to push a crate, climb a ladder, or shimmy a drainpipe, have all been made as easy as a button-press away with this new interface. Revolution has taken all the “work” out of playing the game leaving you to immerse yourself in the experience and enjoy the story and adventure.
The designers definitely wanted to keep the 2D cartoon visual style of the earlier games while creating a fresh 3D experience and they totally pulled it off. The 3D environments are much more dynamic than you could ever achieve with static scenery. Unlike other adventure games like Myst III: Exile where you move around 2D painted scenes, all of Broken Sword’s environments are totally 3D allowing for multiple camera angles and seamless transitions into cutscenes.
While you never have control over the camera, the computer does an amazing job of capturing the perfect angle and switching when necessary. It also makes subtle cinematic movements like pulling back, craning up, or panning around a character as they are walking. Some of these shots are quite dramatic such as the tilt and pan up the cliff after the plane falls into the abyss revealing our heroes safely on a ledge.
Character design is stunning as is the animation that makes them walk, run, climb, jump, and move like a real person. There are plenty of animation routines to seamlessly transition unique movements, so when you see George walk to the crate, crouch, grab, then pull or push it along the floor the entire process is one fluid sequence. Adolescent boys will no doubt notice and enjoy the exaggerated “bounce” that Nico has when she walks and runs into the camera.
Of course the highlight of the graphics is the Virtual Actor Engine, a sophisticated facial animation system that not only controls lip-synching but also full facial features to control muscles and create appropriate “attitudes” for each character. The lip-synching system actually animates the lips based on the spoken syllables, so the characters can be synched to foreign language dubs in real-time.
When you are done marveling at the characters you might want to check out those gorgeous level designs that use a fantastic mix of hand-drawn textures with real-world lighting. The lighting is very advanced and features a dual-pass process where a radiosity map is used to create glows and soft-edge shadows cast in real-time from real light sources. This is one game that has a look all its own, one that will likely be emulated by other games in the future.
Broken Sword has been visually enhanced to take advantage of the chipset features inside the Xbox, and while the game does look excellent, I was mildly disappointed that there was no HDTV support. The Xbox version just lacked the crisp cutting edge that a powerful PC could deliver when you play it at 1600x1200. It's still a phenomenal piece of work by console standards.
The visuals are complemented with a score that is worthy of a motion picture, both in its quality and its cinematic timing. The Indiana Jones style opening number that accompanies our doomed flight over the Congo is quite stirring as the plane zips over the treetops and birds flutter from the foliage. The entire score for both cutscenes and gameplay are perfectly suited to the action and timed for ultimate effect.
Sound effects are equally as flawless from roaring waterfalls, crumbling stone, shattering glass, and creaking floorboards, to all sorts of original sounds like the professor’s energy machine. The game offers incredible surround sound support using in-game Dolby Digital, and if you have a decent home theater rig this game is the closest thing you will get to interactive cinema.
What really steals the show here is the topnotch dialogue and voice acting. Normally adventure games feature long drawn out conversations that will have you tapping your fingers impatiently while you wait to get back to the action, but in The Sleeping Dragon you will actually look forward to each new conversation. Some particular favorites are Nico and the skateboarder, and George and the guy outside the “closed” pub. There is even some visual humor integrated into the conversations, but I won’t spoil any of those moments.
Depending on your level of expertise with the adventure genre you can probably expect 15-20 hours of solid gameplay, which is actually quite good considering the gameplay limitations brought upon by the interface. As with any adventure game the gameplay is driven entirely by the story and with no branching plotlines or alternate endings there is no reason to revisit the adventure after the initial pass. That’s not to say you won’t want to play it again.
You can save your game anywhere and anytime you want...almost. If you are in the middle of an Action Event or hanging from a ledge the save option is inactive. Actually, the only time you really need to save is when you are done playing and you are prompted to save your game at that time. The game does a great job of auto-saving just before potentially hazardous Action Events, so you can restart if your reflexes fail you.
There is a nice collection of Concept Artwork that can be unlocked by completing the game and there are also some additional resources including plot summaries and background information about the previous games in the series. While not necessary to enjoy this game, it's nice information that fleshes out the characters and how all these adventures come together.
Adventure gaming is alive and well thanks to designers like Revolution and publishers like The Adventure Company. Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is a stunning achievement in interactive entertainment. With a solid story, engaging characters, stunning visuals, and delightful dialogue, this is one adventure you simply won’t be able to tear yourself away from. This is a must-own title for anyone looking to relive the golden era of adventure gaming. Buy it now!