Review: Broken Age (Act I)

It says a lot about Double Fine and their following that even before its release, Broken Age quickly became one of the most influential titles of recent years. In much the same way as Minecraft birthed an entire generation of games sold in an incomplete state, but were developed (or are currently being developed) further over time, the success of Double Fine’s ‘Double Fine Adventure’ can be considered the biggest influence upon the now abundant crowdfunded indie game movement,  which has since given us such gems as the rogue-ish starship sim FTL: Faster Than Light, deathmatch hack and slash Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and, er, the OUYA. Can’t win them all.

Regardless, the massive success of Double Fine’s Kickstarter drive opened up the floodgates to a brave new world of player-funded content; previously starving indies are now being paid upfront for their work, and old dead franchises and genres are being reunited with the people that actually care enough to throw money at them.

One thing you may have noticed about the games I just listed is that, whilst they were all Kickstarted after the Double Fine Adventure project, they all got a release long before it. In the usual Double Fine way, Broken Age arrives on our systems well over a year behind schedule, massively over budget and, curiously, incomplete. Rather than have the game spend another six months in development actively irritating backers who were told to expect their game in late 2012, and missing out on the potential revenue that is generally garnered through actually selling things, Double Fine have opted to release the game in a semi-episodic manner, releasing the first half now, and then (hopefully!) releasing the rest of the game as a free update in a few months time.

Developer: Double Fine
Release Date: 28 January 2014
Format: PC, Mac, Linux
Version Tested: PC (Windows 8)
Price: £18.99

Broken Age - Shay

The game is, as so many stories are, about a boy and a girl. Unlike the vast majority of such stories however, said boy and girl apparently have nothing to do with each other, connected only by the thematic threads of coming of age, rebelling against their parents and the sacrifices demanded by their respective societies. Vella is the only sane person in a society that, having come to terms with the fact that there is a series of Eldrich horrors that stalk the countryside destroying villages, has created a system whereby the best and brightest young ladies are elaborately dressed up and offered as a sacrifice to a creature at something called a ‘Maidens’ Feast’. Not wanting to be a canape for a giant evil monster, she decides, against the wishes of her family and culture as a whole, to escape from her Maiden’s Feast and find a way to fight the beast instead.Her world is one of light and beauty; brightly colored vistas, filled to the brim with natural imagery and fascinating characters. A stark contrast to the twilight imagery of Shay’s lonely existence.

Shay is a young man stuck alone on a spaceship designed for a child. Shackled by a monotonous life of toddler-oriented games. engineered by the well-meaning, but overprotective computer known only as ‘Mom’, his boring and lonely life takes an abrupt turn when a wolf-headed figure claiming to be a stowaway, tells him that the galaxy is at war. The wolf-headed figure tells him that if he can take control of his ship, he can use it to save innocent lives. Despite the colourful childlike imagery that fills his spaceship, Shay’s world is decidedly dark and artificial, with entire areas shrouded in incomplete lighting and the vast, black empty void of space regularly coming off as a visual motif in the background behind primary colours and knitted wool.

While there is no direct interaction between these two scenarios, players can switch between the two characters at any time over the course of the plot.

Watching the game in motion, it’s quite easy to see where all of that lucrative Kickstarter money went. Far from the pixelated little people and digitised art assets that Tim Schafer used to work with back in the nineties, Broken Age looks like an animated movie as opposed to a game. While the game’s art style will be familiar to anyone who remembers Nathan Stapley’s work on Psychonauts, Broken Age has given him an opportunity to outdo himself; every character, object and backdrop in the game seems to have been hand-painted in great detail, and yet the animation is fluid and naturalistic. Each of the game’s rooms feels like a pristinely animated oil painting, filled with vibrant colour. But there’s always a sense of a larger world to both Vella and Shay’s adventures, even though we see so little of it, and the whole thing is underpinned by a rather excellently composed soundtrack that fits each scene down to a tee.

Broken Age - Vella

Naturally, the voice acting is also excellent, utilising a surprisingly star-studded cast of voice actors from gaming and geek culture, including Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, Richard Horvitz, Pendleton Ward, and Wil Wheaton. While there’s a certain amount of ‘hey, it’s that guy’ effect with many of these voices, and some of the voice actors are scandalously underused, the performances are generally excellent and the actors involved fill their characters with charm, delivering joke after joke with wit and timing. Jennifer Hale’s performance as Mom, the computer in control of Shay’s ship is, in particular, the highlight of the act, while David ‘Stuart Little’ Kaufman’s performance as the wolf-headed Marek and Psychonauts veterans Nikki Rap and Ginny Westcott, acting as a pair of blind guardians, stick out as particular favourites of mine.

The gameplay, however, is rather simplistic in a way that may perturb those looking for a truly old-school point and click adventure game experience. Broken Age uses a context-sensitive single mouse button control system where clicking on an item will do whatever the game needs to do with it. Using items from the inventory involves clicking on the inventory button, then dragging and dropping the desired item on the item you wish to use it with. While this is very much a natural progression from the two-button system used in Full Throttle, it makes the game rather shorter and easier than an equivalent game from 1993 would have been, which is a problem considering the small number of inventory items and extremely logical puzzles which already make the game easy enough. While I’m not exactly advocating a return to pixel-hunting and the completely nonsensical puzzle solutions of the LucasArts era, the game could certainly have done with slightly more complexity in its puzzling.

Also, the game doesn’t give us quite enough time to get to know the supporting cast in Vella’s story. While Shay’s adventures (being set entirely upon a single ship occupied by only a handful of characters) gives us time to get to know his world and its denizens in greater detail, Vella’s more traditional quest-like story structure moves us from location to location far more quickly. Characters often serve only one purpose and have extremely limited dialogue, never to be spoken to again. While some of these characters are mere stereotypes, others are genuinely interesting and  it would have been nice to learn more about them. It seems quite likely that many of these characters will be reused in the second half of the game, but for now, their role in the game is a little disappointing.

Broken Age - Shay

Still, the quality of the game makes it easy to look past this through sheer wit and charm. There’s also the fact that it’s extremely well written. As is the Double Fine standard, there’s an absolute abundance of humor, and the jokes hit far more often than they miss. Indeed, the plot itself is a triumph; while I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any details for you, suffice it to say that for much of this first act, the game does an excellent job of pulling the wool over your eyes by carefully feeding the player some smart red herrings, only to end the act with a shocking, game-changing reveal. Much like the Bioshock games, it’s the kind of moment that sticks in your mind for a long time afterwards, your brain carefully digesting what just happened, desperately trying to piece together all of the clues you’ve been dripfed throughout.

In this man’s opinion, Broken Age was well worth the wait, even if we’re only getting to see half a game. While those looking for an ultra-traditional point and click adventure with puzzles and systems reminiscent of the first two Monkey Island may be disappointed with the game’s simplicity, the wealth of creativity present in the game’s worlds and the sheer artistry of its visuals and soundtrack more than make up for it. Broken Age is one of the most beautiful and polished experiences I’ve seen in recent years, and while the portion we’ve seen so far only lasts for around three hours, the wait for the final three is going to be absolute torture.

Pros:

  • Stunning hand-painted graphics full of life and detail.
  • Star studded voice cast and stellar soundtrack
  • A well-written and amusing plot in a pair of fascinating worlds
  • Incredibly well-built and polished

Cons:

  • Somewhat simplistic puzzles
  • Only three hours of gameplay
  • Ends on a cliffhanger and then doesn’t offer a release date for the second half

Rating:

4.5 out of 5

Broken Age oozes imagination and quality in a way that is highly reminiscent of the genre’s golden age, but with the beauty afforded by modern technology.

About the author

Mark Cope

A sort of gaming jack of all trades, Mark is a lifelong enthusiast who has more recently directed his interests towards the PC and indie gaming scenes. He once wrote about a different game every day for a whole year, but nobody is entirely sure why.