The term "adventure" is now being used for games that could more accurately be labelled "action-adventure." That is to say, action games with real-time combat that happen to have a better-than-average plot, some dialogue, and an items inventory. The Legend of Zelda immediately springs to mind.
Those of us who are a little older probably have a different definition. I grew up playing King's Quest and Space Quest, using a joystick and inputting simple verb-object commands with the computer keyboard. The technique was eventually replaced by the mouse's point-and-click interface, but the core concepts remained the same: exploration and puzzle-solving, main characters that generally did not carry weapons or engage in random battles, and gameplay that relied on manipulating the environment and using inventory items in creative ways. The games were 2D and nothing special graphically, but were characterized by witty dialogue and mind-bending puzzles that required an active brain instead of twitchy fingers. I loved them, and because of that I commiserate with the current state of adventure gaming and the serious soul-searching that's going on among its faithful.
Adventure games have a strong legacy in spite of their recent decline in popularity. Broken Sword's lineage stretches back to the 1996 PC/PlayStation release, Circle of Blood, which was recently ported to the Game Boy Advance as Shadow of the Templars. A sequel followed in 1997, and then there was nothing until 2003's The Sleeping Dragon. In the interim, Revolution Software's Charles Cecil, who also happens to be lead designer on The Sleeping Dragon, declared at a press conference that "point-and-click gaming is dead."
So where does that leave The Sleeping Dragon? Cecil seems to imply that there's a fundamental difference between point-and-click and the adventure genre itself. The Sleeping Dragon is meant to be a departure from the stale point-and-click formula and a breath of fresh air for adventure gaming. While there's no doubt The Sleeping Dragon spectacularly achieves the latter, I'm not convinced that it's so much of a departure from certain rigid limitations that continue to define the genre.
The Sleeping Dragon once again features American lawyer George Stobbart and French journalist Nico Collard as the two main characters that the player alternates between over the course of the adventure. The two globe-trot around the world to the Congo, Paris, England, and Prague and stumble upon a strange and ancient power while investigating a pair of murders.
The most obvious departures from the series are the switch to 3D graphics and the introduction of a direct-control system. In other words, George and Nico are now controlled with the analog stick in a similar manner to Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and a slew of other 3D action games. This gives them more of a free-range over the environment, and introduces the ability to sneak, run, climb, and drag objects.
I wouldn't call either of these changes revolutionary. The move to 3D and the resulting ripples are innovative and by no means detrimental. However, nothing else about The Sleeping Dragon seems poised to turn the adventure game genre on its ear. For fans who were left biting their nails after Cecil's bold words, this may come as a relief. It also might explain the genre's continuing decline in popularity among contemporary gamers.
For example, the game still relies on "hot spots" to dictate which items in the environment can be manipulated. Hot spots appear as glowing asterisks over the items that can be picked up or examined, and over characters that can be spoken to. Also, the gameplay remains tightly linear as opposed to the continuous, free-exploration worlds offered in Morrowind and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Environments are presented in fixed-camera perspectives, and certain arbitrary barriers prevent characters from wandering too far away from where they're supposed to be. Point-and-click has been replaced by run-over-to-the-object-and-press. The core concept hasn't changed.
That being said, The Sleeping Dragon is a refined, immersive, superbly scripted, and generally well-executed adventure. It's possibly the best example of sustained convergence yet experienced in a videogame. Characters chat to each other while walking around or performing other activities. Music seamlessly reacts to live-action events. Cutscenes depict lifelike, subtle characters with realistic facial expressions and believable personalities.
The pacing is sometimes perfect, but suffers at times from two things that occur too frequently to ignore. The first is the unwelcome overabundance of puzzles that rely on dragging crates around. The push-pull process is clumsy to begin with, and often the solution to a puzzle will be obvious but the execution just excruciatingly slow.
Also, the load-time to travel between areas and in and out of buildings often approaches thirty seconds. Needless to say, this frequently cripples momentum, especially when puzzles require repeatedly travelling back and forth between two rooms.
The dialogue in The Sleeping Dragon is often seamless. During one scene in Paris, for example, Nico sneaks up on two old women gossiping about her, and can stand listening in the shadows to the whole conversation. When she walks over to the two ladies, they hurriedly shush each other, triggered by her presence. Nico and George, during the scenes they share, frequently banter back and forth in a casual way instead of cutting to a cutscene. This is something I would love to see more of in games, as opposed to clunky Action Dialogue Action Dialogue progression.
Character dialogue is impeccable, but occasionally some of the rote responses to red herrings (items that don't do anything, but are there to be clicked on anyway), and artificial barriers, gets a bit lazy. While George is exploring a lane of row-houses in Glastonbury, he can be made to walk down an alley in between two of the buildings. Instead of emerging on the other side, he is dumped back into the same street uttering something like, "oh, I'm here again. Imagine that."
Other times red herrings will be dealt with by a scripted bit that nicely fleshes out either the character or the situation, such as the instance that Nico examines a vase and launches into a monologue about how great it would look in her apartment, before finally deciding that she doesn't really need it. It's a fancy way of saying, "I don't need that," but the extra effort is appreciated. Nico's response is much more indicative of the overall flavour of the game's dialogue.
In terms of winning over new gamers to the cause, I doubt that the addition of a few things to climb on, some very elementary stealth scenarios, and a whole bunch of crates to push around doesn't change the game enough to appeal to those who find adventure games boring to begin with. The Sleeping Dragon is more about keeping the faith than anything.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.