Crowns and Pawns: those Broken Sword vibes
Looking for an adventure which makes you nostalgic for the classics?
Crowns and Pawns: Kingdom of Deceit was one of those games which seemed to be everywhere for a while. It appeared at several real-world and digital expos such as AdventureX and The Big Adventure Event from 2019 onward, before I finally got a chance to play the demo at February’s Steam Next Fest.
Being a lifelong fan of point-and-clicks, this was always going to be the sort of title I’d be drawn to but there was something about the demo which felt almost nostalgic. It reminded me of being a young kid in the 1990s and sneaking out of my bedroom far too early on Saturday mornings, so I could switch on the family PC and play an adventure. When Plan of Attack got in touch recently with the kind offer of a review code, I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of Tag of Joy’s project would be like and completed it with Pete over eight-hours during a quiet weekend.
The story begins when Milda, a girl from Chicago, receives news that her grandfather had named her as heir before passing away. She travels to Lithuania to collect her inheritance with help from her friends Dana and Joris, but it soon becomes clear it’s about more than just a house and its contents. A mysterious letter which refences a family secret unfurls into a web of danger which goes deeper than she ever could have imagined, leading her to investigate lost relics, the country’s most legendary royal and the clandestine machinations of the KGB.
Some nice touches at the beginning of the game succeed in drawing you into its world. At a location in a square with a huge metal sculpture in the background, the reflections on its surface match what’s happening on screen rather than just being a dull blur; and we were impressed when the trumpet-player seamlessly went back to the right point in his music after speaking to him. The conversations between Milda and her friends via both text message and in-person served as their introductions and felt entirely natural.
Being a fan of point-and-clicks, this was always going to be the sort of title I’d be drawn to but there was something about it which felt almost nostalgic.
Although we expect to see character customisation options when playing RPGs nowadays, it’s still not prevalent in the adventure genre so it was a pleasant surprise to be able to choose the protagonist’s clothes and hairstyle. It was even more pleasing to find this wasn’t just about cosmetics: the solutions to a couple of puzzles involve changing Milda’s appearance so she can fit in appropriately. I wasn’t entirely sure about some of her fashion choices but hey, there’s only so much a girl can fit into one suitcase.
You’re also able to select a profession and, deciding on freelance programmer, we picked up a USB key with keylogger software which helped during a later challenge. This set-up reminded us of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis where you’re able to choose between three different paths and complete the title in different ways. We guessed there may have been a few solutions to the puzzles as a result, but didn’t see any direct evidence of this (the Steam page does advise that the world ‘reacts to your decisions’).
One of the highlights of the game is playing through sections which have clearly been inspired by the classics. For example, the twisting cave area towards the title’s conclusion is reminiscent of beneath the giant monkey head in The Secret of Monkey Island; and a driving sequence hints at hitting the highway on your motorbike in Full Throttle. It’s worth pointing out though that the level of challenge here is much lower, and we managed to solve all puzzles without too much head-scratching or resorting to a walkthrough.
It does make Crowns and Pawns feel like a more casual release than the older adventures it’s inspired by and this bleeds into the plot. You’re constantly reminded of the Broken Sword series as you chase an ancient artefact through various countries, but there’s less detail so history fans might be slightly disappointed. This didn’t detract from the game for me however: heavy twists full of minutiae can make your head hurt if you’re not playing total attention, and here we were able to enjoy it without getting bogged down.
Pete can be a little fussy when it comes to artwork, so him commenting on the hand-painted visuals several times and saying how much he liked them was a good sign. The sound is great too and, instead of dipping into cheesy territory as can be common for adventures, Milda’s voice-actor Erin Yvette does a brilliant job at making her a likeable protagonist. There’s lots of subtle, adult humour which made us chuckle – because who doesn’t love a sarcastic remark or euphemism occasionally.
One of my favourite things about Crowns and Pawns were the easter-eggs paying tribute to the classics found scattered throughout the title. For example, the mask from the cover of Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror can be seen on a print on the wall in Joris’s bedroom; and when booking a trip to Belarus through a travel agency called The Quickest Journey (a reference to The Longest Journey), an advert for trips to the Tri-Island area can be found on the desk (from the Monkey Island series). And yes, there’s a stubborn goat too.
Sadly, the ending of the beta copy I received fell slightly short to everything which preceded it. The setting for the final showdown was ripe for a more complex puzzle, the kind of which we’ve come to expect from the adventure genre, with markings on the floor and symbols carved into an ancient door – but the title simply ended. There were also a few plot holes, such as the disappearance of a family member not being explained and Milda barely even mentioning it in her last conversation.
The fact there were no credits and the game returned straight to the menu screen made Pete and I feel we might have missed something. We kept hold of our save file and went back in after the title had been fully released to check, excited to see that new objects had been added to the final area. We readied ourselves for a challenge but no: these moved themselves into place during the showdown and the scene continued as before. An additional choice had been added towards the end too but didn’t change much of the dialogue or the ultimate outcome.
I’m hoping Tag of Joy will release a sequel, to give Milda a chance to continue her adventures and truly find out what happened to her family.
We got the impression of an intention to include a big end puzzle and perhaps not enough time to implement it before release. After the added credits had rolled, I scanned the initial Steam reviews out of curiosity to see if any other players had mentioned the ending. It seemed we were alone in our feelings on it, with all of the reviewers instead talking about an adorably-quirky main character, fun challenges, pleasing art-style and nostalgic point-and-click atmosphere. I can’t say I disagree with them.
And just like them, I’d recommend Crowns and Pawns to fellow adventure fans for those reasons too. We spent an enjoyable eight hours with the game regardless of our views on the ending, the puzzles didn’t leave us reaching for a walkthrough, and the likeable characters are well voiced and occasionally throw out a comment which makes you laugh. The fact this release gives you those Broken Sword vibes without the annoying George and Nico is also a massive bonus (one day I’ll write a post on my feelings for this famous duo).
They say that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. I’m hoping this is true for our protagonist, and that Tag of Joy will release a sequel to give Milda a chance to continue her adventures and truly find out what happened to her family.