Developer: Revolution Software
Publisher: Virgin Interactive
Release Date: September 30, 1996 (PC), January 31, 1998 (PlayStation)
Genre: Point-and-click adventure, mystery
Rating: T for Teen
“Paris in the fall: the last months of the year, and the end of the millennium. The city holds many memories for me: of cafes, of music, of love – and of death.” Spoken against a pitch black screen, these words serve as the introduction to one of the greatest adventure games of all time. The game stands as Charles Cecil’s masterpiece, equal parts murder mystery, international conspiracy and love story. Filled with memorable characters, locales and one-liners, the game is an amazing experience.
“I do not shake the hands of imperialist dogs.”
Adventure games are often a one-trick pony: once you’ve finished the game, there is no need to revisit it. Since their inception in the early ‘80s, developers have sought ways around this to encourage multiple playthroughs. Back in ’82, the developers at Sierra wanted to ensure that gamers had a reason to play King’s Quest more than once. Lead designer Roberta Williams, on the other hand, preferred to design games that didn’t need to be replayed. As a compromise, a point system was developed; some puzzles would have multiple solutions that awarded a different distribution of points, thus encouraging replay. As game development became more advanced, some developers began innovating with other methods, such as dialogue options and multiple narrative branches that could be explored within a game, in order to encourage multiple playthroughs.
All of these things are good. They help bring a game to life. Games that have only one possible path to the end can be frustrating because it removes a sense of agency from the gamer. This is often a problem with adventure games, because the solve-the-puzzle-to-advance-the-story approach can make a game feel very linear. However, a game with a strong enough story can compensate for this. As long as an engaging narrative is present, linear games can be very engrossing. For some, they may even be a breath of fresh air from open-world games whose stories get muddled in the mix.
I first played Shadow of the Templars about three years ago, and I was enthralled. Like a good book you can’t put down, I couldn’t walk away from it. The characters, writing and pacing were masterfully handled and, with few exceptions, the puzzles were creative without being overly frustrating. Playing through it a second time for this review, the game went by much more quickly, as I remembered the solutions to virtually all of the puzzles. If anything, this granted me more leisure to take in the surroundings of the game. I could soak in the awesome visuals and the clever writing without worrying about solutions.
Although Shadow of the Templars is a rather linear game, it is linear in a way that is natural and organic. Linearity is essential to telling a good story, and where narrative is concerned, Broken Sword could hardly be any better. Free from the distractions of problem-solving, I was left with the feeling of reading a good book, or watching an old favorite movie. For the game to succeed so well in this regard is no slight accomplishment.
“The Templars were the first true internationalists! 800 years on, and the world is still fragmented by nationalistic flag-waving fools!”
The story begins with young tourist George Stobbart sitting outside a Parisian café. He makes eyes at a cute waitress, who then stumbles into an older man carrying a briefcase. They both enter the café, and are joined moments later by a strange clown with an accordion. The next few seconds are chaos; the clown rushes from the building with the man’s briefcase, and there is a sudden explosion. George gets up a minute later to find the café has been destroyed by a low-yield bomb just powerful enough to take out a single building. George and the waitress are still alive, but the Frenchman was right next to the bomb when it went off; he is dead.
Moments later, two policemen arrive on the scene and George finds a gun pointed at his chest before Inspector Rosso commands him to stand down. After a brief interrogation, George is free to go. He leaves the café to find a pretty French girl taking photographs of the explosion. George talks to her and learns that she was supposed to meet the dead man, Planteau, for an interview just before he was murdered. The woman, Nicole Collard, is a photojournalist seeking the biggest story of her career. George Stobbart is shaken up by the incident and determined to identify the man who nearly killed him. They exchange contact information and so begin their own private investigation.
A hunt through the sewers and a candid photograph of the killer’s face set George and Nicole on the killer’s trail. They trace his whereabouts to the Hotel Ubu, where in a daring and illegal course of action George is able to recover several clues: the killer’s identity – his name is Khan – and the contents of Planteau’s stolen briefcase – an ancient Templar manuscript dating back to the 13th century. Strange clues lead to mysterious coincidences, and George’s search for the truth takes him all over Paris, to a sleepy Irish town, a medieval Spanish villa and even to the Syrian village of Marib. In Ireland and in Syria, George comes face to face with death itself when he meets the villain Khan at gunpoint.
What Nicole and George uncover is even more incredible than an intangible string of bizarre murders. Somehow, all the murders, all the strange events, the entire mystery converges around the symbols on the ancient manuscript. What bearing could the ancient Knights Templar have on current events? Why are long-lost Templar artifacts suddenly resurfacing, and why on earth are they worth killing for? The quest for the answers thrust George and Nicole deep into the heart of a conspiracy that threatens to shake the very foundations of the world.
“I studied law; I speak Latin.”
George Stobbart is an American hero. He’s the ultimate everyman: an ordinary – albeit clever – young Californian touring Europe after graduating college. His journey is rather incredible. In the space of just a few days, he narrowly escapes death over half a dozen times, meets and falls in love with a beautiful French woman and goes head-to-head with a worldwide conspiracy. At the same time, he somehow manages to pull it off while remaining both endearing and believable.
One of the great things about George Stobbart is his wit, which is best seen through the narration of the game, which he delivers through his inner monologue. His observations are often wry, and sometimes very blunt. They can also be very perceptive. For example, when asking Inspector Rosso about the Knights Templar, George mentions something that the inspector finds disagreeable. Keenly, he observes, “That shook his cool. Underneath his cultured façade, the man was real twitchy.”
The quality of the writing really shines through, both with George’s inner monologue and his conversations with others. However, there are a handful of conversations that border on the absurd, where jokes fall flat or are just plain silly. In a strange way, though, this helps to make George feel more human. He’s not some comedian out to entertain a stage. He’s a young twenty-something caught up in something way over his head. I know from personal experience that sometimes my jokes and clever remarks fall short; perhaps George’s occasional awkward comments were intentional by the game writers. Whether they were or not, he has a distinct sense of character about him, and manages to be thoroughly likable.
At one point, George is investigating the old Templar chapel at Montfaucon, only to find a negligent policeman and some tourists watching a juggler putting on a show. Observing the juggler, George remarks, “The juggler was good. Why he couldn’t put that kind of application into getting a real job, I had no idea. Maybe he just liked dressing up like a horse’s ass.” Comments like that are peppered throughout the game, leaving the gamer curious to find out what George might have to say about everything and everyone.
One of the highlights of the game is the relationship between George and Nicole. As is common in narrative fiction, the game develops a romantic subplot between the two protagonists. What is impressive, especially for a video game, is that the relationship progresses in a natural fashion through conversation and intrigue and shared adventures. Romance certainly isn’t unheard of in a video game, but Shadow of the Templars was one of the first video games to really implement it into the plot. As this is a linear story, you have no control over how the romance unfolds, but that does make it a lot more believable than how romance is handled in games like Skyrim or Fable II.
“She represented everything I loved about the English: the lady was deranged.”
George and Nicole are the central protagonists in the game, but there are many other people you meet over the course of the game, nearly all of whom are interesting characters with distinct personalities. A strange police inspector interested in psychic detection, an eccentric British aristocrat, a depressed Spanish matriarch and a young Syrian boy who loves to play with balls are just some of the many interesting characters you meet.
Some of the more important ones include Khan, the Syrian assassin who seems to predict your every move and Andre Lobineau, a creepy historian whose passion for history tends to accelerate into melodrama, causing him to run a little loose with the facts at times. There are a few characters here and there that are so exaggerated they’re scarcely believable, but considering adventure games were seldom at the time known for entirely believable characters, this games still stands out. What’s really impressive is that George’s perceptions of these characters are frequently strong enough to influence your own perception of their characters. That is potent writing.
In addition to occasionally over-the-top NPCs, the game does tend to follow a couple of common adventure tropes. In particular, George has a habit of taking things that don’t belong to him. This is standard adventure fare, but George ups the ante, because he also has a habit of pretending to be someone he isn’t. In the beginning of the game, he pretends to be a policeman. Later, in Ireland, he masquerades as an electrician, and upon his return to Paris he impersonates a doctor. In Spain, he sneaks into another person’s house uninvited after he has been told to leave the premises. When you start adding up all the petty crimes and dishonest actions George commits, it is really quite astounding. At the same time, it somehow manages to establish his modus operandi. George is desperate for answers, and he will go to great lengths to find them.
What is perhaps most impressive about the legacy of Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is that at the time of its release in, adventure games were at their peak. Yet just a year or so later, they began to go into decline. In fact, it’s arguable that the decline had already begun. Huge, expensive, innovative adventure games were already struggling to reach new audiences, from Toonstruck to The Neverhood to Grim Fandango. Many established franchises earned sequels after Broken Sword’s release, including George Stobbart’s second adventure, The Smoking Mirror. Unlike the second Broken Sword game, however, most of them didn’t fare well. King’s Quest VIII was panned by critics and fans alike for its poor graphics, poor interface and poor story. Gabriel Knight III likewise failed to live up to its predecessor. Tex Murphy’s last adventure prior to his recent Kickstarter comeback was a 1998 title that was actually a ret-conned retelling of the first Tex Murphy game.
In short, virtually no adventure game franchises survived the 3D era. LucasArts, Sierra On-line, Legend Entertainment and other adventure game heavyweights either changed directions as a company or folded entirely. LucasArts made one last entry in their most successful adventure game series, Monkey Island, in 2000, and Simon the Sorcerer made the leap to 3D in 2002, but the result, Simon the Sorcerer 3D was almost universally derided. Broken Sword is the only adventure game series that truly survived the new millennium. The third and fourth games were released in 2003 and 2006 respectively; a successful Kickstarter campaign brought the game back to its 2D roots with a fifth game in 2014. While both Monkey Island and Sam and Max received an early form of the Telltale treatment some years ago, those games were brought about by a resurgence in popularity of the point-and-click adventure. George Stobbart and Nicole Collard, on the other hand, actually survived the death of the adventure game. Considering their frequent near-death experiences in the past, I guess that was too be expected.