(Disclaimer: Review Copy provided by Double Fine Productions.)
Double Fine really shook things up with their wildly successful Kickstarter for the Tim Schafer-led Double Fine Adventure which would later become Broken Age. Fans funded a high-budget old-school adventure, a genre many thought was long since dead. They also took a step forward by giving the fans an in-depth look and important role in designing the game. It was a landmark moment for the industry, the tone of which wouldn't be ultimately determined until the masses got their hands on the game.
I did not back Broken Age. I don't have any history with old-school adventure games whatsoever, so Double Fine's pitch did nothing for me. I grew up on Real-Time Strategy games, RPGs and Halo: Combat Evolved (Yeah, yeah, get it all out in the comments.) Names like Tim Schafer hold no bearing on my history as a player. The closest I've come to having any meaningful relationship with the old-school adventure game genre was playing the first Monkey Island a couple of years ago and enjoying it. A far more important event though was falling in love with Telltale's evolution and modernization of the genre with their seminal Season 1 of The Walking Dead. So while I had no investment in Broken Age, monetarily or historically, I still felt confident in my ability to discover just what Broken Age was all about.
Broken Age follows the journey of two teenagers from two very different worlds, both of whom share eerily similar stories of rebellion and self-discovery.
Vella is a girl from a fantasy-esque world where it's common practice for the various villages to sacrifice their daughters to enormous monsters. If this practice isn't kept, then the monsters will mercilessly destroy those villages which refuse tribute. Instead of letting herself become devoured, Vella resists and escapes, potentially dooming her village in the process. Grim but determined, Vella embarks on a grand quest of killing these monsters and freeing her people from their tyranny.
Shay is a boy from a science fiction-esque world who, since he can remember, has been trapped on a spaceship with no other humans besides himself. Here he is taken care of by a benevolent AI called "Mom" who washes, feeds and entertains him with various "dangerous" missions scenarios and yarn robots that she has built and knitted. Now in his teenage years, these childish things fail to excite Shay anymore. This causes Shay to derail one of these missions out of sheer boredom, which leads him to stumble upon a mystery which changes his reality forever.
At anytime you can switch between these two stories which is a nice touch, but I didn't find it useful because of how compelling each story was. And because of the the tightness of the pacing and engrossing cast of characters in either adventure, I never felt the urge to deviate from whatever story I had initially chosen. Both Vella and Shay's tales have a large cast of characters which are all brilliantly written, fleshed-out and acted. There really isn't a weak spot in Broken Age's monstrous list of highly talented actors and actresses, with the standouts including the wonderful Masasa Moyo as Vella, Jennifer Hale as the AI Mom and Jack Black as Harm'ny Lightbeard (Jack Black really tones down his Jack Black thing for this game, which is really refreshing.)
Despite the very different settings that these two characters inhabit, how they play and control is the same: Broken Age is a point-and-click ass point-and-click adventure game. You move the character, examine the environment, open your inventory, interact with characters, and solve puzzles all with the click of the mouse. Broken Age was pitched as an old-school adventure game, and Double Fine delivered. It is modernized a bit with a clean UI that makes it easy to get into your inventory, but apart from that it feels traditional to the genre.
Unfortunately, one of the aspects that's commonly associated with the atypical traditional adventure game is some senseless and esoteric puzzle design. Thankfully, Broken Age sidesteps this, but perhaps takes too far a leap. Broken Age is far too easy because of how determined it is to have you succeed.
The game frequently spells out the solution to puzzles in character dialogue and examining the items in your inventory gives you pieces of descriptive text which borders on looking at a guide online. This results in a smooth experience which lacks any sort of intellectual stimulation. To be fair, solving a puzzle is fun, and the writing that results from it is fantastic. It just felt that sometimes I was sleepwalking through my time with Broken Age.
There is a line between too hard and too easy, but Broken Age never shows the slightest inclination to walk it.
But with a powerful, funny story and fantastic cast of characters, Broken Age fulfills the important story side of adventure gaming. Both of the storylines have a general lightheartedness that is friendly, with some truly dark and intriguing subject material which never threatens to consume the overall tone of the story which is a hallmark of a great youth novel like Harry Potter or Silverwing. I did find myself enjoying Vella's side of things more than Shay's, but that's probably because I picked her story first. I can easily see it going the other way if I picked Shay first.
What else is easy to see is the excellent production values of Broken Age. Those 3 million Kickstarter bucks were spent very well as Broken Age looks and sounds great. The art design didn't strike me immediately, but it perfectly fits the tone of Broken Age's story, and eventually I found myself absorbed into it. The hand drawn look of everything is very attractive, and the distinctly separate sci-fi and fantasy worlds hone their own identities, yet simultaneously feel cohesive as if they can exist together. The audio work is nice, with the standouts being the voice acting (as stated above) and the soundtrack by Peter McConnell. It's a fun orchestrated score that brings to mind old Disney animations and Pixar movies, which is always a very good thing.
One important aspect of Broken Age that I haven't addressed yet is its episodic nature. Not originally envisioned as episodic, Double Fine handles the division of the story expertly. Buying the full games includes both Acts 1 and 2, so you won't have to pay extra for the conclusion of Broken Age. Also the cliffhanger that concludes Act 1 is brilliant. It justifies the reason that these two separate story lines are told within the same game, and left me very excited as to how Double Fine manages to handle such a promising concept when Act 2 releases later this year.
Nothing about Broken Age is bad or poorly done. Its puzzles are often simplistic or self-explanatory, but they are still fun to engage with. And if the puzzles were actually bad, Vella and Shay's stories would be reason enough to push me ever onward. The characters and darker implications of Broken Age's two stories still come up in my mind frequently, and it's rare that a game manages to accomplish this.
With some time before the release of Act 2, hopefully Double Fine will take the feedback of Act 1 to heart. I don't want old-school adventure game puzzles, frustrating and dumb as they can be. I want modern well-designed, stimulating puzzles in an old-school adventure game body. But if Broken Age manages to do this and maintain the quality of its storytelling and keep the production values up to snuff without reusing old assets -- which I have a cynical suspension that they might -- then Tim Schafer's latest game will truly be one for the ages.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)