Version tested: Wii
Games can be a cruel medium. There aren't many other things in life that so encourage the donning of the rose-tinted spectacles, yet which have progressed so rapidly as to render our memories naught but cruel twists of hindsight. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a member of the camp that thinks retro's place is under the stairs, but revisiting an old classic often serves to remind that we've moved on, in much the same way as trying to entertain yourself for an hour with a stick and a puddle.
Happily, sometimes you encounter a charming exception.
Shadow of the Templars is, to the greater extent, one such exception. Sure, it's had an overhaul of sorts, with new content and a few cosmetic tweaks, but the real joy remains in what made the original such a pleasure: good storytelling, likeable characters and an engaging, intriguing pace.
For those of you who haven't experienced Charles Cecil's point-and-click adventure in the 13 years since its original release, here's a quick overview. For the majority of the game players are in control of George Stobbart, an unheroic sort of protagonist who stays shy of Guybrush Threepwood's total ineptitude whilst remaining vulnerable yet chivalrous. He's an American on holiday in Paris - a young lawyer looking for nothing but a nice vacation and a spot of European culture.
But when a grim-faced clown murders a mysterious rain-coated stranger by bombing the café which Stobbart is drinking at, the genial youngster is drawn into an international conspiracy of calumny and ne'er-do-wells, which put the Knights Templar back into the public consciousness years before Dan Brown.
The bombing of a public café, even by a capering harlequin, might not sound like the most light-hearted of ways to begin an adventure, but the wit and banter of the excellent script maintains a levity that belies the dark nature of the plot. Without giving too much away, the murder case quickly expands to reveal world-threatening intrigue, ancient mystery and mild racial stereotyping, seeing young George travel all over Europe in the search for truth, justice and inventory items.
It's classic adventure stuff, with relatively simple puzzles that give pause for thought without frustrating, larger-than-life encounters and just the right mix of endangerment and enlightenment to hold the attention. Control via the Wiimote is a breezy pleasure, flicking around the lushly drawn environments and interacting with one of two button presses to examine, use, talk or take. Conversations are navigated through two rows of pictures, one representing subjects, the other the inventory. It's a genuine improvement over the mouse, with small rumbles pointing out items of interest as you move over them in case you miss the icon change, presumably compensating for the detail lost by the relative distance from televisions as opposed to monitors.
The core story might be the star, but the two or so hours of new content is worked in pretty seamlessly, and to great expositional effect. Whilst the original jumped into the deep end of the plot with George's explosive café experience, we're instead treated to a prologue of sorts, controlling the acerbic yet truth-seeking young photo-journalist Nico Collard as she sets off to interview a media magnate famed for his philandering. It's no real surprise that he's soon given short-shrift on the end of a bullet and Nico is embroiled in the mystery which leads her to meet George at the café shortly after the bomb goes off. These new scenes and locations offer a fresh insight into the intricacies of the conspiracy, feeling like plot devices removed due to time or space pressures originally rather than cynical modern additions.
In Nico's sections we also see more true puzzles (rather than the use of inventory items, which clears most of the game's obstacles) tailored to the new control system, but the results here are mixed. There's nothing truly amazing or awful, but a few mild glitches and awkwardnesses render at least one of the tasks a chore rather than a pleasure. On the whole, however, this switching of roles is useful and refreshing rather than incongruous or jarring, and justifies the 'Director's Cut' addendum.
What will probably jar, certainly for fans used to a more modern style, is the slightly lacklustre presentation. Backgrounds might be colourful, charismatic and crisp, but the animated figures that stomp around them can be radically out of place with their jagged edges and odd scaling. Played on a large television, the faces of George, Nico and the other ragtag cast are largely indistinguishable blurs - flat, lifeless and clashingly artificial against the hand-drawn back-drops. This irksome oversight is pleasantly assuaged, mind you, during conversations when insets pop up, showing partially animated close-ups of each participant, drawn, somewhat incredibly, by uber-comic artist Dave Gibbons.
Sadly, these delicate mignons of art also serve to illustrate the blandness of the low bit-rate, fuzzy FMV preserved from the original. There are points, during the generally ropey cut-scenes, when you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a hazy episode of Murun Buchstansangur on a Vaseline-smeared watch.
Audio also seems to have suffered from the same kind of compression process used to make people sound like they were underwater during 1940s sci-fi radio programmes. There are some painfully obvious jumps when a line or scene has been re-recorded and the quality switches from broom cupboard to studio, even occasionally sounding like different voice-over actors entirely. We also experienced a game-stopping crash during a load at one point, and this being a point-click-adventure, the lack of danger meant we hadn't saved for some hours and lost all progress. That said, the decision to remove the sudden-death scenarios of the original is definitely a positive move.
As with nearly every adventure game ever, there are also a few illogical puzzles, which reduce you to trial-and-error inventory spamming, but the hint system, another new addition, removes much of this frustration. The game keeps track of how many times you use the pointers, but there's no electric shock feedback and it can be an excellent way of getting back into the swing of things after a break from the game, as is the story journal, which records the details of the plot.
Other than the disappointing lack of a spruce up for the sound and cut-scenes, only the lazy racial stereotyping of much of the cast and the occasional interloping of slightly crass sexual humour into an otherwise very family-friendly script (despite the murders, obviously) mar an otherwise-excellent adaptation of a genre classic. Gamers without the requisite patience for plot-development and graphical foibles need not apply, but if gentle adventuring with an enjoyable narrative floats your boat, then there's 10-13 hours of solid fun to be had here.
7 / 10