Broken Age - Act 1 Review
The promise of adventure
Double Fine’s point and click adventure game, Broken Age (formerly Double Fine Adventure) is in many ways the poster child for videogames being funded through the crowdsourcing site, Kickstarter. In the spring of 2012, the game earned a whopping $3,336,371 from backers – unheard of at the time – who were itching for a new game in the niche genre, but more so because it was being helmed by adventure game guru, Tim Schafer, head of Double Fine and of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango fame.
Broken Age, initially pitched as a $400,000 love letter to fans, soon became the focus point of the entire company; with Schafer’s ambitions soaring, the game turned into a Triple-A project for Double Fine, which before long exceeded even its larger budget. In fact, Schafer has said that the fate of his company itself relies on Broken Age, as all of their other profits have gone into making it a reality. And so, the fate of backers’ faith in projects like this, rest on Broken Age’s shoulders too. Lucky for all, Broken Age has some sturdy – and beautiful – shoulders indeed.
It seems fitting to start, then, with the art, as that’s the first thing you’re going to notice. Broken Age is simply stunning to look at and like nothing you’ve seen before. Basing the entire art style on painter and fine artist, Nathan ‘Bagel’ Stapley’s work (who is also Lead Artist on the game) was a stroke of genius. The hand painted backgrounds and characters are vibrant and lush, but it’s the texture of the thick brush strokes that really sell it – honestly, I’ve never played a game that looks quite like this. Coupled with Peter McConnell’s stirring score, it hooked me within seconds.
The story itself is interesting too as it’s split between two central leads, Vella and Shay, both teenagers wanting to escape the shackles of home life and their supposed fates. Vella’s a young girl living in the idyllic fairytale town of Sugar Bunting, while Shay’s a quiet boy who calls a futuristic spaceship home, but neither of them are happy in their situations. Vella has been picked to be a sacrificial maiden for a great beast named Mog Chothra, who, in return for feasting on beautiful maidens – with wedding cake sized dresses that read ‘delish’, ‘up for grabs’ and ‘hot stuff’ – will refrain from destroying their village. Vella’s told this is an honor, but can’t help feeling fighting back would be a better alternative.
Shay, on the other hand, ought to be living every boy’s fantasy. He lives on his own spaceship with a computer AI ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, but all is not what it seems. They’re overbearing and protective to the point of suffocation, and force Shay to undertake ‘missions’ to save the galaxy, which in reality are just games set up by the cuddly soft toys who form the rest of the crew. Needless to say, Shay wants to escape and go on a real mission. It’s only when he meets the sly and mysterious, Marek, a black fox who lives in the bowls of the ship, that this might become a reality.
The set up and design of these disparate worlds is fascinating, and although I’m not sure Broken Age has as much character (or will be as memorable) as Psychonauts or Grim Fandango, it’s still clearly the work of Schafer and Double Fine. There are so many moments to make you smile; small extra details that other companies would overlook are in abundance here. One of my favorites is Shay’s talking spoon, who upon entering yet another bowl of cereal, happily shouts, “Once more into the milky breech!” It’s this kind of humour and detail that really make the game appeal to me. Schafer’s inimitable dialogue is littered throughout the entire experience and it’s often funny and always charming, but sometimes heartfelt and serious too on the more significant moments.
And there’s an impressive voice cast uttering those lines as well, featuring the likes of Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward and fan favorite Wil Wheaton. It’s just a shame, that aside from the leads, most characters only have a few lines of dialogue before they’re off. Take Jack Black’s Harm’ny Lightbeard, who he plays wonderfully with a soft, self-centered voice. A couple of scenes and he’s gone. And then there’s Pendleton Ward’s Gus – a rather funny and extremely sad character – who is potentially skip-able altogether. One of the many signs of the tight budget Double Fine were working under.
Broken Age also features classic point and click game design (I mean that was the whole point, right?). You have your inventory of items collected that can be used to solve puzzles, and there are multiple dialogue choices to try and work out the secrets behind each carefully crafted scenario. And that’s it – use what you find, ask people about stuff. It’s so simple, but it works. Sometimes the puzzles can be a little frustrating, but on the whole I found them to be quite easy, which depending on your stance, could be a plus or a minus. The puzzles aren’t quite ‘bring x to y’ – the designs are often multi-layered and quite clever – but there’s not enough options to truly stump you. I mean the point with a genre like this is to offer red herrings and occasionally make you feel ‘stuck’ so that when you finally work it out, it feels like a real eureka moment. I’m not sure this game has any moments quite like that, at least not in Act 1, but simplicity is something to applaud too so I’m not quite sure where I sit on this. Hopefully there’ll be a few tougher puzzles in Act 2.
And speaking of Acts, I know that Double Fine had to split Broken Age because of budget, but when the game was initially planned as one whole thing, a singular entity, it does feel a little strange. It’s clear that Broken Age was cut back in scope as the pacing’s a little off (Shay’s half feeling like the opening of a grand quest cut short, and Vella’s showing more scope and breadth, but rushing to its conclusion). And the conclusion of Act 1 was a surprising and interesting revelation, but again one that feels a little forced or rushed in order to accommodate the new structure. It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out in the second half and to speculate on how it might have been as one complete product.
As it is then, I can happily recommend Broken Age Act 1, particularly for fans of the genre or Schafer’s previous work, but it’s a tale only half told so far, and one, that at least for the moment, that is rather pricey for the four hours of adventuring it takes to beat it (although of course you get Act 2 included when it releases later this year). But I think – such as is the case with so many passion projects and niche titles, of which Kickstarter is perfect for making a reality – you already know if this is your sort of thing or not. If it is, dive on in. It’s been a long time coming. Let’s hope Schafer and co. don’t keep us waiting too long to get our grubby mitts on the rest of the story.