Broken Sword: The Smoking Mirror is Revolution Software's follow-up to their extraordinary graphic adventure Circle of Blood (called Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars in Europe). Like its predecessor, The Smoking Mirror is a visually beautiful game that puts its two central characters, George Stobbart and his girlfriend Nico Collard, in pursuit of the truth behind an age-old myth. This time, the two reluctant adventurers must travel the world in a race to stop the return of Tezcatlipoca, the legendary Mayan God of Death. Unfortunately, the similarities to the original all but end there.
Although the game begins on an exciting note -- Collard is kidnapped and Stobbart finds he's tied to a chair in a burning house -- it quickly deteriorates into a series of easy puzzles and humorless gags. While Circle of Blood featured a sprawling story of mystery and wonder offset by Stobbart's timely wit, The Smoking Mirror relies almost entirely on poor jokes to hide its hopelessly inadequate plot. In the original, George provided the comic relief against a serious and intriguing backdrop; here, the backdrop itself tries for humor but instead falls flat. (The tribe of Central American Indians enamored with their recent discovery of underwear is just one of many unnecessary and distracting gags.)
Missing is the real sense of depth and intrigue that made the original so exciting and gone, too, are the difficult puzzles. While Circle of Blood was hardly an Einstein-level challenge, it was certainly intricate and thought provoking and most puzzles required a degree of consideration before the answer became obvious. Not so with The Smoking Mirror. The majority of puzzles are painfully easy with the few that aren't generally spoiled by the rest of the game's inadequacies.
It's not totally bad, of course. Like its predecessor, the graphics are impressive, as are the animated cut scenes that pop up as the story progresses. The ability to play as Collard in offsetting chapters is also a nice feature and would have been a great way to drum up suspense with the cliffhanger endings if the game had been more intriguing as a whole.
Really, that's the heart of the problem. The most intriguing thing about The Smoking Mirror is how it could possibly have been created by the same folks who came up with its predecessor. If you're looking for a really great graphic adventure game, give Circle of Blood a try but resist the temptation to pick up its sequel. Like the game's title implies, it's all smoke and mirrors and very little substance.
Graphics: Better than any cartoon you'll see this year.
Sound: Good voice acting and decent background music.
Enjoyment: Occasional moments of fun but mostly a waste of time.
Replay Value: Don't bother.
In the Mayan pantheon, Quetzacoatl, which literally translates into "feathered serpent", was a peaceful and powerful god. His rival Tezcatlipoca, a warrior god synonym of evil, was plotting to overrule his adversary and bring a new order consisting of violence and chaos. With a subtle stratagem based on the practice of black magic, Tezcatlipoca tempted the virtuous Quetzacoatl into sin by drunkenness and sensuality. For a while at least, Tezcatlipoca had won the battle for power. His victory didn't last for long though, as Quetzacoatl finally overcame him, and imprisoned the malevolent god into an obsidian mirror, later named the "smoking mirror". The priests of Quetzacoatl then built a pyramid and entombed the mirror in a secret chamber within the heart of the edifice, hoping it would definitely seal the fate of the fallen god. Then, Quetzacoatl left to the East, but promised to return one day. It is his return that the Aztec king Moctezua was waiting for in 1519, after a series of climatic catastrophes had devastated his land by bringing starvation upon his people. Were these a sign of Quetzacoatl's triumphal return, or on the contrary of Tezcatlipoca's liberation from his prison as the ancient prophecies were predicting? To prevent a potential return of the blood-thirsty deity, the priests came up with a solution to destroy him for good. Three perfectly polished mirrors in obsidian would reflect the negative power of the god upon himself which should be enough to eliminate him. Unfortunately, as the priests were escorting the mirrors to the pyramid, they were attacked by the Conquistadors who just had started their brutal invasion. With the three mirrors now in the hands of the Conquistadors, the ingenious plan to prevent the return of the lord of darkness was no longer feasible. From now on, days were counted. No matter how many years, decades or centuries would pass until that fateful instant, Tezcatlipoca's return was unavoidable unless...
As introduced in our preview, at no time did the protagonists of the game know they would embark into such a bizarre adventure at the beginning of Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror (BS2). A little more than six months had passed since their success against the Neo-Templars, and while George was in the USA to be near his dying father, Nico's investigations had led her on the trails of an international drug smuggling operation. Even though she was expecting to find cocaine or similar narcotics in the package she had intercepted, she discovered a black polished stone ornamented with symbols she thought could be from Central America. She then decided to contact Professor Oubier, a well-known French archeologist particularly fond of the Mayan culture. On her first call, Oubier appeared very interested by Nico's discovery, and invited her to bring the artifact so that he could examine it and give her further information. Almost at the same time, George came back to Paris after his father had died. Not wanting to attend the rendezvous alone, Nico asked George to accompany her to the Professor's house located only a slight distance from the center of the capital. In this house was where their new adventure would start, and yet in the most brutal way! Once inside, stricken by a poisonous dart, Nico collapsed in front of half-conscious George who had been knocked out by a massive Central American Indian. Upon awakening, not only did he discover that a part of the room was burning with a threatening spider placed right in front of him, but also that he was tied up on a chair! A situation that even the likes of "Indiana Jones" would harshly cope with, but that George will fortunately survive, should he manage to get rid of that horrible spider and find a way to stop the fire within a short period of time.
Throughout the adventure, players assume the role of George, but also, and it's one of the novelties of the game, the role of Nico. The transition between the two characters has been particularly well crafted with a constant attention to respect the overall story line. Never does the player feel confused about what is needed to do or where the action takes place, and this, despite the several transitions between the two actors of the story. For example, when George and Nico must split to look after artifacts, you really feel like they do search simultaneously for the precious objects in two separate places. The succession of the different phases, alternatively interpreted by George and Nico, is so well coordinated that you are always aware of the actions of the other character. And while it doesn't help you solve any puzzles within the game, it does brings a movie like atmosphere to the game that no other has ever be able to recreate.
Speaking of a movie, BS2 has an impressive cast of over 60 characters, each with a distinctive voice often tinted with foreign accents. Nico still has her so typical French accent and so does Lobineau and Oubier, while the inhabitants of the Central American country Quaramonte feature a strong Spanish accent. As in the original episode, voice-overs are excellent for most characters. It is easy to perceive the emotions during dialogues, and if there was only one proof for good acting, this would be it in my humble opinion. Also very good throughout the game are the 260 different sound effects that you will hear in the background. Whether they are birds singing in the jungle, waves breaking on the docks, or the hum of the crowd at a local market, they will accompany you wherever you go, changing from one to another without noticing it. The soundtrack once more written by Barrington Pheloung behaves the same way, one time outlining crucial moments with a louder musical score, the moment after becoming barely noticeable as if there was a total interactivity between the music and the story line. Like in the first episode, the regions visited by our two heroes will influence the style of the music with exotic rhythms from such places as the Caribbean and Central America. Broken Sword 2 features over two hours of fully-orchestrated original music, providing players with a rich musical environment that subtly accompanies the unfolding of events.
In terms of graphics, BS2 also innovates when compared to its predecessor. Through the use of new techniques such as alpha-blending, geometric sprite transformation, shadows and transparency effects, characters appear even more realistic and are seamlessly integrated into the backgrounds. As these graphical enhancements may slow down your computer, options will let you select the level of graphics complexity so that they match your computer's performances. The impression of depth in the backgrounds were rendered with parallax layers in the first game and also in BS2, but this time with a greater number and multi-panning layers. The screen shots really speak for themselves, BS2's graphics are among the finest of the industry, and easily stand as landmarks for other adventure titles, the icing on the cake being the beautiful classically animated sequences that unfold important parts of the plot.
The interface in BS2 almost didn't change, except for the disappearance of the moving gears icon symbolizing a possible interaction. After all why would Revolution Software re-design an interface that is close to perfection? The grabbing hand will indicate that you can take an object, the mouth will obviously allow you to dialog with other characters, and the pointing hand will show you the possible exits. Notice that if you double click on an exit, it will move you directly to the exit. With the inventory, still placed at the bottom of the screen, you can combine items together, examine them more closely with the right mouse button, or move them by a single click to use them on something or someone. Dialogues are still handled with icons representing the subject of discussion, which definitely seems the best way.
What seemed clear with Broken Sword, is now a fact with this second episode: Revolution Software has mastered the adventure genre, elegantly mixing historical facts and fiction to create captivating stories that literally illuminate the player's imagination. It's difficult to think of a better game, except maybe for LucasArts' upcoming Monkey Island-based title, but in the meantime Broken Sword 2's hundreds of puzzles will keep the gamer's attention for countless hours of challenging game play. Broken Sword 2 has reached the top, and it will be difficult, maybe impossible, to dethrone it unless Revolution Software comes up with a new title in the series, but that is another story.
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