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Circle of Blood (PC) artwork

Circle of Blood (PC) review

"Holiday in Paris Ė Itinerary for the day. "

Holiday in Paris Ė Itinerary for the day.
- Buy paper. Check.
- Have coffee in nearby cafe. Check.
- Get blown up by suspicious-looking clown with a bomb in his accordion....*sigh*...Check.
- Attempt to foil international conspiracy.........

As unlikely as it may seem, the game starts with our hero, George Stobbart, emerging from beneath a pile of rubble and broken glass following a not-so-funny joke by a murderous jester. After George recovers, he is given a swift yet slightly disturbing interrogation by a self-touting psychic detective with a dislike for fictitious comedy Belgians investigators (most notably Agatha Christieís Poirot). As we can guess, Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars (known as Circle of Blood in North America) is not a game obsessed with realism. Just before the explosion, George remembers seeing the clown steal the briefcase from one of the now-deceased men inside the cafe. George, intrigued by the contents of the missing briefcase, must track down the assassin by solving puzzles to progress the story and uncover a deeper conspiracy involving the descendants of the ancient Knights Templar that will take him to various historical locations throughout Europe and the near East.

Despite the rather complex if intriguing storyline, the game boils down to a rather simple point and click adventure Ė on the surface at least. Rolling the mouse over an object will change the pointer to one of three icons, allowing you to see the action which George can perform before choosing whether to do so. Itís a nice system that avoids any confusion that can lead to trial-and-error gameplay as it doesnít force the player to go through every possible action in turn in a near-robotic way. Right-clicking will see George give an observation of whatever the mouse is rolled over. This is a very helpful option if you arenít quite sure what you should be doing. It gives plenty of subtle hints and can be vital to your progression in certain stages of the game. Putting your pointer over a non-playable character will see the mouse-pointer turn into a ďtalkĒ icon. It is massively important for your success in Broken Sword to commune with all of the characters in the many locations that George will visit. Itís this kind of interaction that makes Broken Sword much more than a generic puzzle adventure.

The concept of the game is simple, but the simplicity isnít displayed in the gameís execution. Developers Revolution have attempted to combine a fusion of intelligent puzzles, atmosphere and humour to create a taxing, epic yet light-hearted adventure. Itís a concept which initially seems to create a mishmash of different styles and the underlying tension of the gameís subject matter is thrown into obscurity. The gameís opening sequence begins with a murder which has arisen from a conspiracy on the brink of revelation by the quickly-deceased man in the cafe. The malice of the murder (clown-suit excluded) is grittily portrayed and a real tribute to the dark, sinister nature of the core storyline. The opening cut-scene is a real mood-setter and is a perfect example of how to inject instant tension by creating a lingering feeling of danger and forebodement. However, when youíre then faced with some eccentric French stereotypes with various oddities and a tendency to make jokes, the tension which should have carried the gameís atmosphere is destroyed. The humour is light-hearted, yes, but the timing of it is poor. Luckily, from then on, the developers have taken the correct decision to keep any humour and major plot developments separate, ensuring their effects donít cancel each other out like having some physical slapstick comedy after someoneís death.

The parts which thankfully arenít affected by other aspects of the game are the puzzles. The developers have wisely taken a leaf out of Lucasartsí book by using a mixture of item combination and character interaction to form some ingeniously inventive puzzles. Each chapter is designed as one giant puzzle in which the few items you can find and the many character you encounter will be the keys to developing the gameís plot. The puzzles are creative, but unlike many other puzzle-driven adventures, they never reach a point to which the solutions could be considered ridiculously obscure or lacking logic. Theyíre brilliantly perplexing but not to the point where the gameplay could develop the trial-and-error monotony that can ruin many a finely crafted adventure game. A good example would be where you must distract a bar-tender through dialogue before stealing a bar-towel which can be dampened in a sink in the bar toilets. This can then be used to moisten........ and so on. The beauty of the puzzles stem from the larger dependence on the interplay of characters. While most characters in puzzle adventures serve as a way of making the game-world seem less bland, characters in Broken Sword are integral to the structure of the game. Some well-chosen lines of dialogue can be more effective than clicking about randomly trying to uncover secrets. The importance on character interaction underlines the way developers Revolution have attempted to create a sense of personality in the gameís locales. Some delightful voice-acting make the puzzles a lot more interesting and entertaining than they would be otherwise. The gameís puzzles are inventive, but they never aspire to the level of Promethean creativity which could have made Broken Sword a cult classic. However, such gameplay would certainly make the game overly complex and the larger effect would be a game thatís far less playable.

Even so, the puzzles will probably try your patience at one time or another should you get stuck, which is why thereís a generous helping of subtle jokes, wit and genuine humour to lighten the mood when frustration threatens to mar your enjoyment of the game. George Stobbartís sarcastic tone and generally critical ways lead to some great mockery. The gameís characters convey humour in their eccentricities and there are plenty of stereotypical characters which become the butt of various ethnic jokes. Broken Swordís humour even branches out into satirical Comedy at times, with some excellent mockery of various peoples. Whether youíre Irish, French, British, American, Arabic, Spanish, a taxi driver, an archaeologist, a policeman, male or female or any of the other types of characters that usually receive their fair share of mockery, youíll require a sense of humour not to be offended by the gameís comedic ways. Nevertheless, itís all very much a light-hearted affair and one canít help but smile at the game charactersí sharp, witty, teasing repartees.

George: Iím Innocent! Iím an American!
Gendarme: Canít make up your mind, eh?

Most of the gameís humorous quality derives from some exquisite wordplay, innuendo and some classic (if a little tired) double entendres. However, for those who prefer the more brash and direct humour, Broken Sword has some laugh-out-loud moments. The various eccentricities and oddities of the gameís characters (such as the Arabic boy who learned his comical English from Jeeves and Wooster books.....old bean) combined with some clever wordplay, sharp humour and masterful raillery mean that Broken Sword is indeed one of the funniest games to have ever been conceived.

But what makes Broken Sword such a wonderfully absorbing and charming experience isnít the puzzles, the intriguing plotline or the sharp humour, itís how each of these creative aspects has been woven to create a game with haunting atmosphere and incredible enjoyability. How could one aspect transform a game from a ďsum of its partsĒ title to a genuinely tense yet light-hearted experience? As painful and unclean one feels about admitting this, itís the gameís superficial qualities that make Broken Sword rise above every other adventure game available, most notably the audio. It is a real achievement have managed to keep the right balance of intrigue, excitement and humour simply by use of the gameís soundtrack, but it is something that the composer should take full credit for. As George uncovers secrets and completes puzzles, the score echoes with shimmering excitement as strings and woodwind glissando and tremolo to create a rousing and empowering atmosphere. The score manages to add a general sense of intrigue to the gameís historical references by use of slow and echoing string plucks from Harp instruments fused with a whispering undertone from a smooth violin and cello accompaniment. What makes these kinds of emotion-swelling movements so effective is the effortless transition between each style. Simply by a small transposition to the minor harmonic and a lengthening in melodious notes, the gameís mood can change fluidly from a rousing score to a worrying and foreboding tension that is instantly captivating and almost tremulous in nature. With such a smooth variety of musical emotion, Broken Swordís melodious score oozes excitement and tension and is an effusive display of the kind of orchestrated genius which games can bring out. Itís just a terrible shame that the gameís publishers didnít tout the musical score as ostentatiously as they could have.

Indeed, Broken Sword can be considered a game of great mastery.... for its time. Released around the back end of 1996, the game has surely been bettered by many games willing to evolve the concepts which Broken Sword had, initially it seemed, perfected. But when you look deeper into the fine adventure games which followed, it becomes clear that they merely adopted Broken Swordís mighty concepts and gave them a graphical tune-up. Broken Sword may well have been massively influenced by previous adventure titles, but Broken Sword has been greatly influential in itself, pointing future developers towards the importance of character interaction over item combination as a way of progressing gamesí plot and creating a sense of involvement in the game world. It also managed to display how a musical score can dictate a change of atmosphere subtly and effectively. Unfortunately, the many conceptually similar adventure games which followed mean that Broken Sword seems visually dated. While many of the locations have been artistically hand-drawn with some bright and lush backgrounds such as the scenic streets of Paris or the quaint, rustic villages of Ireland, many of the gameís locations and character sprites look grainy and lack refinement. The game seems to have a rustic look in that everything looks coarse and rough around the edges. Maybe the developers should have opted for a less realistic and more bold look for the game, but in all honesty, the gameís graphics do not detract substantially from the gameplay. It was developed at a time when 2D graphics were nearing their pinnacle and so the two-dimensional visuals arenít as bad as one could expect from some games developed around 1996.

Even considering these minor quibbles, Broken Sword is a tribute to the empyrean quality of a fusion of styles in adventure games. Despite some dated, grainy visuals, the draw of the gameís taxing puzzles, quick-witted humour and gorgeously orchestrated score is unquestionably irrepressible. It is a cornucopia of tension and creativity that begs to be played. All that can be said against Broken Sword is that it isnít particularly accessible to those without patience or logic. To those with these virtues, especially ardent adventure fans, Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars is true ambrosia.

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Community review by ceredig (January 18, 2005)

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