Reviews

Broken Age: Act 1 – Review

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

This game was tested using an AMD Radeon HD 7790 graphics card kindly supplied by AMD. Click here for details on that, the Radeon HD 7790 and the test system used for all PC games.

Expectation, and it’s more dangerous sister hype, can be terrifying things within the videogame industry. When you have a legend like Tim Schafer making his grand return to the point and click adventure genre after a 16-year absence expectation is high,  and that creates the potential for vast disappointment. Even if the game is terrific, can it ever truly live up to such expectation? And then there’s the fact that Broken Age comes with a pre-built fanbase who funded its  development via Kickstarter, all expecting the old-school, classic adventure they were apparently promised.

And then there’s me, a gamer who literally grew up playing games like Monkey Island, Discworld, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and more. While I didn’t fund Broken Age’s developement I’m still a part of the same community who did, a community that like myself grew up with these games and yearns for more. This raises an important question: should I judge Broken Age by those expectations, or should it be judged for what it is. Ultimately when reviewing anything I try to cast aside any expectations I have and judge the game in question for what it is, but in this case there’s no getting away from what Broken Age was promised to be to the very people who had a hand in its creation. So, my final verdict is going to be based on what Broken Age is and how it compares to other modern examples of the genre, but along the way I’m going to tackle those expectations.

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Anybody who attempts to be cheerful in the morning around me is likely to be involved in a nasty “accident”

But lets begin with the basics: the game’s narrative is split between two very different people who at first seem to be connected by little more than an overarching theme. Shay is the only human aboard a spaceship, raised from birth by an over-protective AI who continues to mother him despite his being a teenager. The ship is filled with baby toys, with even the bridge featuring a fake steering wheel and large buttons to play with. Shay’s days are spent embarking with heroic missions like rescuing a runaway train or helping a ship in distress. But these “dangerous” missions are nothing but cute scenarios set up by the ship’s computer, all featuring cuddly creatures, bright colors and absolutely no danger, the highlight of which is an Ice-cream avalanche. Doomed to repeat these daring outings every day and follow the same old routine Shay is understandably depressed, sensing no escape from monotony, until one day something rather unexpected happens, kickstarting an exciting adventure.

Meanwhile Vella is facing a rather odd situation: her home village of Sugar Bunting is planning on sacrificing her and several other girls to a giant monster named Mog Chothera in the Maiden’s Festival, done in order to appease the beast, and everyone’s quite alright with that, because that’s just how things are done. Vella’s parents and sister are all disconcertingly cheerful about her getting picked for this great honor, while the other maiden’s go to their death willingly, even going so far as to try to deliberately attract the monster’s attention in a variety of ways. But poor Vella certainly doesn’t feel honored, and rightly asks why nobody is willing to take up arms and wage war against Mog Chothera. Only Vella’s crotchety old grandpa, who remembers the days when the village was called Steel Bunting and was full of warriors, urges Vella to fight. The bulk of her story is spent trying to find a way of bringing Mog Chothera down.

IceCreamAlps

Heaven or many years of hell?

The tying theme, then, is one of breaking free of expectations and routine, of forging your own path through the world, but of course eventually the character’s individual stories do come together in more ways than just theme, though not properly until the very end of Act 1. This duality manifests itself as a gameplay mechanic, allowing the player to switch between characters at will, an idea that would seemingly make for some interesting puzzle ideas, but that in reality is never actually used.  Broken Age doesn’t encourage you to swap between Shay and Vella nor does it require you to through puzzle design or plot, which is a shame as some of the  twists could have greatly benefited from this. Ostensibly this mechanic is included so that if you get stuck on a puzzle you can jump away, but as we’ll cover later that’s just not needed. I would have liked to have seen this element of the game emphasised more, but still it is at least nice to have the option to swap present.

As a point and click game Broken Age doesn’t break tradition in that you spend your time exploring environments, chatting to various people and picking up everything that isn’t nailed down along the way on the basis that it will inevitably be used for something. Where the game does differ slightly from others is in the use of a single context sensitive button to do everything, a control scheme that works well enough. Coming from the warped mind of Schafer, who helped design some of the cunning, if often illogical, puzzles seen in the Monkey Island games, I went in expecting my intelligence to be tested in a marvellous display of devious challenges, yet this is far from the case as Broken Age’s puzzle designs and solutions are remarkably simplistic. There is, of course, plenty of room for clever design within a simple framework, but sadly Broken Age’s conundrums just aren’t very memorable, with only a couple throughout the entire 4-hour playtime standing out in my mind. The puzzles are simply very easy to solve, and incredibly generous hints via dialogue can sometimes make it feel like you’re getting hit over the head with the answer. Genre veterans will fly through the game, coming up with the correct answer to every problem as soon as it’s presented, while even  newcomers to the cult of point and click adventure games will never find themselves stumped  for more than a few seconds at a time. Nor does the difficulty of the puzzles increase as the game goes on, rather they’re consistently basic throughout.

A highlight of the game involves making a tree spew.

A highlight of the game involves making a tree spew.

The flipside to this is that the game does follow a flowing thread of logic which is never broken. Since you’re adventuring through spaceships, towns full of bakers, exploring a realm of clouds and battling baffling monsters that sense of logic is obviously a little skewed compared to our every-day, boring brand, but the mental leap required is relatively tiny, and once you’ve got a hold of the thread solutions feel like they make complete sense, ensuring you’re never left fumbling around with numerous objects in order to make something happen by complete accident.

The basic puzzles further emphasise the fact that Broken Age is a more story and character driven game, as you’ll spend far more time chatting to the various people than you will coming up with answers to the challenges presented. When you tie this together with the relative ease in which you’ll progress through the game, some player’s may find themselves feeling unsatisfied by time the credits role. Personally I constantly found myself wishing for more clever puzzle designs and cunning solutions.

So, as a story-driven game how does Broken Age fair? It almost sounds insulting to say this, but the writing in Broken Age is far more subtle than I expected from a Schafer title. Not that the legendary man isn’t capable of it, but I had gone in expecting the zany, in-your-face humour usually associated with his work, but that’s simply not the case here. Broken Age isn’t a laugh-out-loud game, but rather one that constantly elicits a smile through its clever dialogue, charm and brilliant characters, most of whom sadly never get anywhere near as many lines as they truly deserve. The humour here simply feels more subdued, taking a backseat in order for a more heartfelt, charming experience.

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A cast of exceptional voice actors helps sell the characters and world. Elijah Wood plays the role of Shay, and while he can occasionally come across as a little flat and emotionless he generally brings a satisfying amount of warmth to the character, completely selling the worn out, tired attitude that one would expect of a young lad being subjected to hug attacks. Jennifer Hale more than manages to stand with Elijah in her performance as Vella, again sometimes lacking range but still doing her character complete justice. In truth both actors occasional lack of emotion largely comes down to the script, because characters within the game often don’t seem to react as very much  to big events, although in fairness this is a problem that runs throughout the genre. Meanwhile Jack Black and Wil Wheaton also lend their ample talent to the game, but sadly both of their characters don’t get as much screentime as they deserve, especially true of Black’s entertainingly weird leader of a sky cult.

The writing really is spot-on for most of the game, balancing out the plain weird with making it all seem so very…real. While it’s not as in-the-face as before Schafer’s wit is has not been dulled by time, or if it has then the talented team of writers at Double Fine are more than making up for it. Shay’s overbearing “mother” is fantastic to watch and listen to as she takes such pleasure in looking after her son, even as he is clearly becoming more frustrated, while the knitted little creatures tasked with enacting the fake missions which Shay embarks are so enthusiastic that they border on being psychotic, which wouldn’t be a surprise given that they’ve been having to play out these little fantasies for years. The village that Vella lives in is populated entirely by bakers with sweet cakes everywhere, making the ease with which girls are sacrificed all the most disconcerting. In some ways it reminds me of modern fairytales, all calming colors and charming people, while paying homage to original stories with its slightly dark edge.

It's all so pretty.

It’s all so pretty.

And yet there is something of a lack of depth. Both Vella and Shay are interesting characters but they feel more like outlines rather than real people, while both the NPCs you meet along the way and most of the environments never get fleshed out fully. This is most noticeable in Vella’s half of the game as she passes through several areas populated with characters which are really cool, but doesn’t spent much time there and can only explore them in a very limited capacity.

There is also the problem that Broken Age: Act 1 is one game split into two, a fact that becomes very apparent in its fairly short play time and the slightly jarring cliffhanger ending that merits both praise and criticism. This raised some serious questions about exactly how I should tackle reviewing the game. Is criticising its short length of just four hours justified when Act 2 will be free, and presumably be another four hours in length, doubling the total playtime?  Ultimately I feel that I’m here to review this product as it stands here and now. I was provided a code to review this game, invited to critique it as a complete product available to buy.

Therefore let’s talk about that ending, though obviously in no great detail so as to avoid spoilers. Episodic games, written from the very beginning with being split into chunks in mind, generally manage to work because each episode’s narrative is created with a beginning, middle and end. Sure, the overall story will continue in the next release, but in a good episode you should still feel like you got a complete and enjoyable experience which also just so happens to leave you anticipating the next installment. The problem is that Broken Age clearly was never originally intended to be split in half, and as a result there’s no middle or end, just a beginning. Shay’s story is easily the most frustrating of the two because it quite literally just stops without any sort of build-up, which left me staring at screen with a vague sense of disappointment. Vella’s, on the other hand, at least gets a more climatic sequence to end with. The difference between the two also means that it feels like Broken Age should actually be played from Shay’s perspective first, before swapping over to Vella, that way you at least get a semi-climatic ending to the first half of the game, but with the option to switch characters whenever you want there’s a good chance players will end up with what definitely feels like the “wrong” order, creating an even less satisfying ending. But regardless of the feeling that I was left with a narrative that was only just really getting going the finale reveal for the cliffhanger was at least effective in that it left me intrigued and waiting for Act II.

Co-ordinates are set by a computer that knits them into a blanket. Genius.

Co-ordinates are set by a computer that knits them into a blanket. Genius.

But criticisms aside the story of Broken Age manages to hit the sweet spot, evoking a sort of classic kids story feeling, which of course is bolstered by the truly outstanding graphics. Broken Age looks like a mixture of watercolor, pastels and crayons, designed to sooth the soul, while fluid animations bring the characters to life. Cutscenes that zoom in to tend to make the low resolution backgrounds painfully apparent, but it’s far from enough to really damage the overall look of the game.

With this review dragging itself slowly to a close let’s head back to those pesky expectations I mentioned earlier, because it’s in that context I need to utter some harsh but true words: Broken Age will be disappointing to anyone who plays it those expectations firmly in place. It doesn’t have entirely the same tone or feel as those older adventure games, and the lack of any degree of difficulty within the puzzles will leave veterans of the genre with a sour taste in their mouth, although it’s altogether possible that you might actually find yourself stuck a few times because, like me, you initially assumed that the obvious solutions were red herrings. Broken Age: Act 1 feels like it has been designed for a modern audience and not in a good way. The thing is there are things like Daedelic’s bloody awesome Deponia trilogy that manage to marry the joys of old-school adventure games with a modern feel, great characters and killer humour, essentially beating Broken Age at its own game in many regards. If you really, really want that classic tone with more complex puzzles, and sadly some examples of the baffling logic that plagued the old games, then go play those.

Exactly how the wind feels in Scotland.

Exactly how the wind feels in Scotland.

Does this mean you’re going to dislike playing Broken Age if you funded its developement? Hell no! As we’ve already discussed this is a charming, beautiful adventure game with a fascinating world and characters, and I’d be genuinely surprised if you don’t find yourself having a good time. Just be sure to curb those expectations and go in with the understanding that this isn’t a hardcore point and click full of challenging puzzles and zany humour. It’s simple stuff, but good stuff. Some would even argue that it’s a puzzle game stripped down to its core, and is all the better for it. Not a view I hold, but an understandable one.

Many of the flaws and criticisms I’ve mentioned here may also be addressed in Broken Age: Act II. With presumably another four or more hours of play on the horizon the story and characters may get more fleshed out, the environments may be expanded upon and the puzzles could become more complex and challenging. But that’s pure speculation at this point, and as I’ve said I have to review Broken Age for what it is right now.

The puzzles may be lacking but the clever writing is more than enough to pull you from scene to scene of this beautiful game. Perhaps it’s not what those who funded its development wanted, but Broken Age is a damn fine game in its own right, albeit half of one. Do yourself a favor, pay the entry fee and get lost within another Double Fine game.

The Good:
+ Beautiful graphics.
+ Great writing.
+ Genuinely funny.

The Bad:
– Simplistic puzzles.
– Awkward cliffhanger ending.
– Just ends when things are getting really good.

The Verdict: 4/5 – Great.
As a puzzle game it’s somewhat lacking, but this is a brilliantly charming adventure from start to finish.

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