Secrets of the Ark: A Broken Sword Game

Revolution Software’s Broken Sword series continues the adventures of patent lawyer turned adventurer, George Stobbart, as he becomes involved in another quest reaching into the fanciful history of the Knights Templar and what they have left behind. The Broken Sword series is known for its tongue-in-cheek storylines dealing with the ancient past as well as the characters that add color to the narratives that they are wrapped up in, and the latest chapter continues that tradition. But while fans will find themselves back in familiar company, the title can feel very much like a retread of what it has done before with less spectacular results.

Secrets of the Ark used to be known as Angel of Darkness, and adventures only on the PC.

George Stobbart, Patent Lawyer and former Dragonslayer

Players won’t need to have experienced any of the previous Broken Sword titles to get started with this one as it feels much like a reboot with George starting from scratch once again, although longtime fans will appreciate the feeling of being back with familiar faces. For newcomers just getting into the series at this point, when the series last left George, he had managed to slay a dragon in England at the end of another quest to stop a secret society from misusing an ancient secret that the Knights Templar had managed to hide away.

After that deadly episode which was quickly hushed up by “secret service agencies”, George found his reputation in tatters and without any work. Going back to what he knew best, he found employment in being a legal aide at Big Bros’ Bail Bonds in one of New York’s seedier locales. The man who had saved the world from the clutches of a secret society, an Aztec god, and who had done battle with a dragon now finds himself simply trying to make ends meet as best he can.

But when a mysterious woman named Anna Maria arrives at his office with the story of an ancient treasure and the Mafia knocking down the door for the same reason, George finds himself back in bed with the Knights Templar whose legacy has once more come back around to haunt him. Journeying from New York to the Vatican itself, George will find himself meeting up with old friends and new foes as he attempts to uncover a world shattering conspiracy where anything…and anyone…are not exactly as they seem.

Adventurer’s Tip #1: Pick up Everything that Isn’t Nailed Down

The last Broken Sword chapter had made the move to the world of 3D with mixed results among fans hoping that it would continue being a 2D cellfest of animation. The fourth chapter is also in 3D, although it feels far less polished in some ways. Series regulars will probably recall that the third chapter had “action” sequences that required the player scramble for the right action or combination of actions in a timed, Dragon’s Lair-like sequence, usually deciding whether or not they would live or die. Then there were the crate puzzles. If it wasn’t a crate, it was a giant block of stone. Fans of the series like myself will probably breath a sigh of relief as the newest chapter focuses on being more of an adventure title with puzzles that have to do more with figuring things out as opposed to acting as furniture mover as it has largely done away with both of those features. There are still crates in the game, but in far fewer, threatening, numbers than before.

The entire game can be played without having to touch the keyboard as you mouse George and company to where they need to go or tell them what they might need to do as they flip dusty levers and trick their way into secure areas. Inventory and commands all blend seamlessly into the context sensitive gameplay making it easier to focus on the game. However, the engine that drives the game will probably drive you to use the cursor keys if only to move George around thanks to the awful camera positioning system that attempts to be both cinematic and useful, only it doesn’t so good a job.

It will often change perspective which can confuse the mouse if you are holding down the button to lead the character, causing who you may be controlling at the time to run into walls, go the other way, or head off in odd angles when the perspective suddenly shifts. I’d often simply click to where George needed to go as opposed to holding down the mouse button to ‘steer’ him on the right path or in using the cursor keys, waiting for the camera to position itself to where it needed to be before continuing on. The only reason I didn’t do this all the time was that the engine is also finicky when it comes to pathfinding as it can sometimes get the characters bumping into objects, waiting for you to click somewhere else so that they can navigate around them.

The game can also feel as if it is leaning towards something along the lines of Tomb Raider Legend which might not be a bad idea given how awkward some of the movement controls can feel. George and his friends can now shimmy along walls at select spots, climb up on crates that he has moved into place, or jump up to ledges to get to where he needs to go, but all of this is context sensitive so you won’t see him jumping around just because. He also has a PDA which keeps track of notes that he may make as to what he will need to do next, stores the translations that he has done, act as a phone for when he needs to contact somebody, or use as a hacking tool. Thanks to one of George’s friends, he’ll be able to hack his way into most anything that he can get a connection to creating a series of puzzles that increase in complexity as he finds new ways to get some of the info that he needs in researching an important topic. The puzzles in the game fit in with the locales, although a few of them are also extremely obtuse in their solutions with little to go on other than in wondering if you had talked to anyone that may open up another option to explore. You may often run into situations where you are doing well with the puzzles, only to be stopped by one with a decidedly bizarre solution.

The box’s marketing spiel is correct in that the puzzles in the game all have logical solutions, but it’s up to you to figure out what kind of logic. In one situation, the player may want to let someone know that there is someone tied up in a closet and would need the combination to open it, or worse, to call in the police in order to clear up the situation. But that approach isn’t possible and the character never explains why, or even offers it up as something that they may want to do, railroading you into figuring out exactly what they may have to do now. Other puzzles are simply done as a matter of being there, such as one that had me knock a stone loose thanks to water pressure. Did I know that it was what George had to do? Not really, but there were knobs and pipes so I went to work in trying to break them. These are just a few examples of what kind of puzzles you can expect from George’s latest adventure.

Adventurer’s Tip #214: Talk to Everyone that Doesn’t Shoot at You First

As is typical of the Broken Sword series, the story behind the newest chapter takes a decidedly unconventional look at the legend of the Knights Templar and the Ark of the Covenant, an imaginatively whimsical angle that has become a hallmark of the series’ treatment of both history and legend. In Europe where it was initially released, it carried the ominous title, The Angel of Death, while for its release in North America, it was renamed to Secrets of the Ark with the flyleaf cover describing a secret superweapon that Moses had used and which may still exist.

The tale that it tells continues to be one of its best features, bringing together many of the things that the Broken Sword series is known for from the charming, lighthearted dialog and the caricature characters that inhabit the world of George Stobbart to the fantastical history woven in with ancient conspiracies. Although it is fairly predictable with few real surprises, it keeps things moving along as George continues to follow the clues that you discover, although longtime fans will probably be the ones smiling through much of the familiar humor.

Nico does return, but not in a way that you would probably expect as much of the beginning of the game will be spent introducing Anna Maria who becomes involved with George’s adventures. The voice acting is particularly good, and fans will be happy to learn that Rolf Saxon returns to voice everyman adventurer George Stobbart for his fourth outing, although his longtime partner, Nico, is voiced by another actress who does an okay job. With only a few words, each character makes a memorable entrance whether it’s the chain smoking manager of a seedy hotel to an Irish accented priest who turns out to be an action film fanatic. There’s also quite a bit of subtle comedy peppered throughout the story that helps to lend the game a light, cartoony, tone that fits in well with each character. In fact, there’s not a lot of overt violence until the end and the most intimate moment in the game is hidden behind a quick cut to the next morning. Helping to lift many of the scenes and key moments in the game is the excellent soundtrack. Starting from the mystery filled notes of the opening menu to the song that accompanies the final credits, the different tracks that play at special moments during the story such as when you figure out a puzzle, stumble across a hint, or move the story along all add to the story in as much as the dialog does.George will find himself working alongside a friendly face again as you try and guide him through the adventure. His partners will become as useful as a well stocked inventory and can even offer one or two pieces of advice as to what they may have to do next, although they will be as confused as George so don’t expect too much help puzzle-wise from their corner. Where they do come in more useful is in giving a different perspective of the story along with a few puzzles that require both George and his new friend to work together. One new twist this also opens up with the story is with George’s new romantic interest and Nico’s apparent distrust of his new partner, setting the stage for quite a bit of fun banter between the two.

Stumbling into Holes

Secrets of the Ark is a challenging adventure, but some of the frustration comes not from the puzzles but from the engine that drives the game. Although it does a decent job in presenting each location that you will be exploring whether it is in the Topkapi Palace in Turkey or the hallowed halls of the Vatican, the graphics are a strange mix of detailed backdrops and bland textures. It doesn’t help that the performance also tends to chug, even when the resolution is set low to try and compensate for it. The characters, on the other hand, are expressive and help to illustrate each part of the story well despite how plain the scenery can appear to be.

Unfortunately, a few other technical issues created more than a few puzzles of their own. In my playthrough, characters sometimes became stuck on objects, scripted scenes would simply break and fail to continue, or the mouse cursor would disappear after certain objects were moved around. Reloading would solve most of these problems, although one scripted scene refused to continue on until after multiple reloads and restarts of the game. Other issues include the inability to skip dialog, or to map the controls to a gamepad. If you have one, you’ll be out of luck as the title relies completely on either the mouse or keyboard.

While the characters carry the story well, several scenes can feel as if they’re an episode from an adventurer’s sitcom when faced with dramatic twists. When the story attempts to tell its own imaginative twist, the characters simply take what they hear at face value with an underwhelming acceptance of the fantastic as pure fact. In one scene, a drunken character is able to defuse a bomb without much trouble apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be smashed. In another, a tremendous revelation is made and George pretty much takes it as just another day in his life. The worst part is in one particular climax, where the bad guys simply stand around to watch George do his thing. The puzzles can also be part of the problem thanks to how oddball some of the solutions are, putting the brakes on what might be a good narrative when the brick wall of obscurity comes into view.

There’s also a feeling that there may have been more to it than what is actually there. The minimap will show several locations, but only a handful of these can be visited or traveled in between in order as a part of the story. You can’t help but wonder if there was a plan in place to realize several of these locations in order to beef up the rather sparse world. The Vatican, in particular, doesn’t feel as if it you are at the Vatican at all aside from what the characters tell you since you spend most of your time there staring at its walls. As a whole, the world of Secrets of the Ark feels pretty empty and aside from a few set pieces, I simply didn’t feel the same sense of wonder or discovery as its previous titles had managed to accomplish.

The game will leave you with the distinct impression that there is going to be a sequel. There’s not a lot to expect after the screen fades to black and the credits start to roll which may disappoint some adventurers hoping for more than a few seconds of material as a reward for saving the world. Just as its predecessor had quickly closed out, Secrets of the Ark seems to follow that same, disappointing, path. There are a few extras with art samples from production and a few weblinks to share your experiences with the rest of the world, but there’s little else.

Next Time, As We Leave Our Hero

Secrets of the Ark continues the Broken Sword series’ tradition of adventure filled with charming characters, fitting puzzles, and a fantastical take on another chapter of the Knights Templar. However, this is one chapter that seems to lack some of the epic feel that its predecessors had managed to astonish the players with in the past because of its rather predictable plot and a small world that feels as empty as many of its scenes. The technical shortcomings of its engine also lend a somewhat unpolished feel to the whole adventure that is hard to overlook when you are reloading it simply to get a cut scene to work right. In the end, George Stobbart and his friends may have returned in another adventure that fans can appreciate. But for everyone else, you may need to put up with a little digging in order to discover the Secrets of the Ark.

-World 1-1