American lawyer George Stobbart, who has an amazing knack for meeting beautiful women and getting embroiled in international mysteries, returns for a fourth adventure in Broken Sword: Angel of Death. Stobbart finds himself on the trail of a powerful artifact after a frantic woman looking for his help mysteriously disappears. The 3D engine used in the series' third entry returns for this installment, only with greater world detail and more lifelike character expressions. The action still involves solving an assortment of puzzles, from timed missions to elude pursuers to using one's wits to escape deadly traps. To solve the mystery, Stobbart will need to separate fact from fiction and deal with an ancient society intent on guarding its secrets.
Broken Sword: The Angel of Death is the fourth game in the Broken Sword series that has supposedly ended as a trilogy according to its developer. While diehard fans are undoubtedly pleased with the news of another sequel, many fans are initially dismayed with the announcement by Revolution Software that it has partnered with Sumo Digital to develop the sequel, citing the prohibitive cost that may otherwise be incurred by a single studio. In fact, it is now known that the development of the game has been primarily outsourced to Sumo Digital, which has since taken on a number of staff from Revolution Software. Despite this change, series creator Charles Cecil has vowed that the new sequel will remain faithful to the spirit of the original. It is therefore under such uncertain pretense I am truly impressed to find that Broken Sword: The Angel of Death has delivered on its promise. Indeed, not only the game succeeds in addressing many of the flaws in Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon that have plagued the previous title, this sequel is able to surpass the high standard and expectation set forth by past games in the series to create yet another chapter in the legend of the Knights Templar.
A year has passed since the adventure of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. Back in New York, George Stobbart can no longer find work as a lawyer, after having been blacklisted by his tattered reputation. The only job he is now offered is cheap work as a legal aide at a bail bond agency. Just as George settles down to his new mundane life, a beautiful but mysterious woman named Anna Maria Prisa appears in his office, seeking his help in order to escape from a mafia gang who is after an ancient manuscript in her possession. Reluctantly, George agrees to help Anna Maria, with whom he develops a romantic relationship. Soon they discover that the manuscript has hidden within it the location of a secret treasure that ties not only to the legend of the Knights Templar but also to the biblical history of Christianity. When Anna Maria suddenly disappears, George seeks help from his long-time companion Nico Collard, who has already come to his aid after learning that he is in trouble elsewhere. Together, George and Nico discover that Anna Maria is not whom she claims to be. Moreover, they uncover the existence of an ancient weapon known as "The Angel of Death" - a weapon of unspeakable power which Moses has once unleashed upon the Egyptians in order to create safe passage for the Israelites out of Egypt in ancient times. In the end, only George and Nico can expose the truth behind a conspiracy that is of biblical proportion!
Broken Sword: The Angel of Death is built upon the newly developed Emmersion engine. It supports both 800x600x32 and 1024x768x32 screen resolution. Even though all the environments and characters in the game are generated entirely in 3D (as with Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon), this sequel plays more like a 2D than a 3D adventure. Similar to previous titles of the series, the game is played from a third person perspective, with dynamic camera angles that change automatically in respond to the character's movement. Character control is via either the keyboard or mouse. By default, arrow keys direct movement in the corresponding directions, and the left ctrl key triggers the run stance. The keyboard commands can be reprogrammed if needed. Alternatively, the left mouse button selects the destination toward where the character moves, and the mouse wheel cycles between the walk and run stances. In reality, a combination of both is often necessary in order to negotiate tight places quickly and accurately. This is particularly important in certain puzzles with timed pressure elements where inefficient tracking between areas can waste valuable time. When needed, the control also allows you to cleverly perform a number of acrobatic maneuvers, such as jumping across a gap or shimmying along a ledge. Moreover, physical objects such as fans can be pushed or pulled.
Interaction with other characters and objects in the game are done by simple point and click. The cursor changes when hovering over a hotspot. Right mouse button then brings up the interaction options in the form of icons that describe the available actions (such as see, talk, and grab). Left mouse button selects either the desired or default action. Moving the cursor to the top of the screen brings up the inventory that is previously hidden along the top edge. Left clicking an item from the inventory selects it for use, and right clicking it gives a brief description (there is no option to examine the item in close-up). For certain puzzles, George needs Anna Maria or Nico to perform certain actions at specific times. This is done by selecting their icons from the inventory and then clicking on the correct hotspots on screen. Conversations with other characters in the game are carried out in rudimentary dialog trees that are represented by icons appearing at the bottom of the screen. Each icon corresponds to a topic of conversation, which can be clicked repeatedly until the dialog is exhausted. The game uses the propriety Virtual Actor System that supposedly allows the player to read the emotions of the characters during these interactions. Not all dialogs are essential to the progress of the game. Unfortunately, once a dialog is started, there is no option to skip it and it must be played out its entirety.
A capable cast provides the voiceovers in Broken Sword: The Angel of Death. Rolf Saxon returns as the voice for George. Katherine Pageon is the new voice for Nico, while Regina Regan is the voice for Anna Maria. In general, the voice acting is well done, albeit there are few over the top performances for some stereotypical characters. Subtitles are available. Long-time fans of the series may be initially taken back by Nico's newfound and distinct accent. Still, the familiar tension underlying the verbal jousts between George and Nico is clearly audible. The dialog is as sharp as ever, with heavy doses of dry humor and sarcasm typified by the many wisecracking remarks from George even in the most inopportune times. The character Anna Maria is particularly well developed. As the damsel in distress, the player is quickly attached to her with a strong level of empathy, even after discovering her true identity. The background music is unobtrusive, adding the correct amount of tension to the game at appropriate times (an official soundtrack for the game from composer Ben McCullough is available separately from SugarStar Records). Likewise, sound effects such as heavy rain hitting on the rooftop or rushing water running inside a sewer help to create an immersing but contrasting environment.
Though not explicitly, gameplay in Broken Sword: The Angel of Death progresses implicitly in chapters, since locations within an earlier chapter are not accessible once the next chapter is reached. The game starts in New York but quickly moves onto more exotic locales including Istanbul and The Vatican. For the majority of the game, the player takes only direct control of George. Direct control of Nico is limited to only brief sequences. Contrary to early rumors, Nico still plays a significant role in the game, even though fans may be distorted by the relative late appearance of her character in the story.
The puzzles in Broken Sword: The Angel of Death can be categorized into 3 basic types - inventory, logical, and physical based puzzles. Some inventory based puzzles are tricky since certain objects must be dissembled first to make available parts which are then needed later. Other objects, including George's trusty telescoping 9-iron golf club (perhaps a parody to the crowbar in Half Life), can be used to solve multiple puzzles. An example of the logical based puzzles is a recurrent mini game that is accessed from Geroge's PDA used to hack online computer networks or systems. This mini game is quite clever, but the player is forewarned to pay careful attention to Virgil when he first explains how it works. Once hacked, the PDA stores the hacked information which George can then access later.
Heeding to critics who have previously complained about the physical based puzzles in Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, Broken Sword: The Angel of Death has adopted a different approach. Fans who cringe at the sight of pushing or pulling crates from the last game will be happy to find that they have been significantly reduced in number in this game, and the remaining "crates" have been disguised as other objects (fans). There is even an in-joke in which multiple crates are found in a meat packing factory where George scoops, but none of the crates can be moved. Instead, the physical based puzzles are cleverly disguised obstacles in which the player must bypass or trespass to access certain areas. An example is a puzzle where George must gain access to Anna Maria's apartment through a baloney on the upper floor by performing acrobatic maneuvers in the style of Tomb Raider across facing buildings. Fortunately, since the emphasis is on puzzle solving rather than reflex, the player needs not to time the jumps correctly between ledges and poles, nor the player needs to worry about falling off to death during this acrobatic exercise. Perhaps as a way to ensure that the pace of the game is never too static, several of these puzzles also involve timed pressure or stealth elements. Failure to complete an element (for example, because George has been captured by the guards) necessitates a partial restart (but not a complete restart, to great relief) of the puzzle.
Not unexpectedly, mixed within the many innovative elements of Broken Sword: The Angel of Death are several minor gameplay annoyances. Foremost is the somewhat confusing keyboard navigation. In many instances, the direction to which the character moves does not correspond to the arrow keys, particularly when the character is not facing straight ahead but at an angle on screen. This is made worst when the camera suddenly switches to a different angle such that pressing the same arrow key may now mean walking back in the direction where the character has just been. This chaotic control makes tracking over a long distance in certain time pressure elements (ice in the meat packing factory) sometimes a frustrating exercise. In other cases, the time allotted in these time pressure elements is just too short (Anna Maria's hotel), so that the player must perform a series of essential steps without error or distraction. Any other action, even if the action is seemingly inconsequential, results in failure of the sequence. In addition, some inventory based puzzles suffer from unfair hotspot hunting. A few objects (log, ticket) are so small or blended so well into the background that the player may resort to a frustrating swept of the entire screen with the cursor in order to locate these objects. The much rumored in-game hint system does not exist at all. Instead, hints are accessed via an external hyperlink from the Extras menu. There are a few continuity errors in the story, including an oddball error at the wafer factory where George's obvious subterfuge somehow goes unchallenged by the nuns who already know him. The graphics, while polished looking, still suffer from the occasional clipping. The abrupt ending told in the final scene of the game may leave the player longing for a more satisfying closure.
Notwithstanding these few annoyances, the overall execution of Broken Sword: The Angel of Death is nearly flawless. The story is an intriguing mystery, mixing historical fact with fiction while adding a hefty dose of believable conspiracy theory. The introductory cut scene is superbly done, as are the other intermediary cut scenes. The plot twist unfolds well, even when it is anticipated early on in the game. The sexual tension between George, Nico, and Anna Maria is subtle, but it still makes for many great one-liners spurted out by these characters throughout the game. The dialog is clever, laden with in-jokes that even include a self referencing joke on pirated video games!
In general, all the puzzles in Broken Sword: The Angel of Death are well integrated. Many of them are quite clever, and none of them are too laborious or frustrating. Even the mini game on the PDA lends itself well within the context of the story. The graphics are rich. Each environment carries its distinct favor, as exemplified by the selection of production art available for view from the Extras menu. The attention to small details is readily seen everywhere in the game world. An example is the appearance of George's reflection on mirrors, large and small, that are found in many areas in the game. Whenever George walks in front of a mirror, a properly reflected image of him appears, even when George is far away from the mirror. Another example is the reaction of the hotel manager at Anna Maria's hotel whenever George tries to call him with his PDA phone. If George stands too close to the manager when he makes the call so that he is still in the manager's line of sight, the manager answers the call with a sneering remark to the fact that he can see George talking on the phone. The animations for all the characters are generally well done, including lip synchronization (quite a feat for a game with multi language support). Even the pigeons are animated with their own AI so that they fly away as a flock if George runs toward them!
Similar to Broken Sword: The Shadows of the Templars (also known as Circle of Blood), the game has been renamed differently by different publishers. Broken Sword: The Angel of Death is the title of the game when it is first released in Europe. In North America where the game is released later, the name has been changed to Secrets of the Ark.
Overall, Broken Sword: The Angel of Death surpasses admirably the high standard and expectation set forth by the previous games in the series. The story is intriguing, the characters are engaging, the graphics are polished, and the puzzles are appealing. Playing the game at a leisurely pace should guarantee 20-30 hours of enjoyable and untiring gameplay. The game's sharp dialog and near flawless storytelling of a cleverly woven tale competently preserve the trademark quality that is pervasive throughout the entire series. As such, Broken Sword: The Angel of Death is a highly polished sequel worthy of taking the Broken Sword series into the next trilogy.
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