Broken Age Review – PC/Steam

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I’ve been playing these hidden-object adventures on my iPad for so long I had forgotten what a “real” adventure game was, but it only took a few minutes of playing Broken Age to get back into the groove of a genre that was born in the 80’s and perfected in the 90’s; a genre that made Sierra Online and LucasArts revered household names for anyone who enjoyed a good graphical adventure.   Even back then Tim Schafer was paving the way with amazing hits like Full Throttle, Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island, Grim Fandago, and one of my personal favorites, Psychonauts.     And even when adventure games lost their popularity Tim and his studio, Double Fine, continued to make games of the non-adventure sort ranging from epic action titles like Brutal Legend to the more niche hits like Costume Quest and Stacking.

Broken Age marks the triumphant return of Tim doing what he does best; adventure games, and even though the big-name publishers had no faith in resurrecting the adventure genre, Tim turned to the fans who generously donated (pre-paid) over $3.6 million dollars to the dream.  That dream is now a reality as the first act of Broken Age arrives on Steam this week – of course those who backed the project have already been playing the game, so this review is for the rest of you.

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This is one of those games that is impossible to talk about without spoiling so I will keep it as general as I can while still being somewhat useful.   Broken Age is divided into two tales, one dealing with young maiden Vella, and the other of young Shay, a boy seemingly trapped on a spaceship by an overprotective “mother”.   In a stroke of genius you are allowed to not only decide which story to start playing first, but you can also switch back and forth between the two at any time.  This can break up any potential monotony – not bloody likely, the game is riveting – or give you a chance to step away from a challenging puzzle that may have you stumped – more likely.

Click for Vella trailerKnowing what I know now that I’ve made it to the “to be continued” screen, I would recommend playing Vella first then Shay – not that it terribly matters, but it just seems to flow more naturally, as if that is what the designers secretly intended.   The two characters couldn’t be more diverse, not only in gender, but on one hand you have Vella, a girl who is about to be “willingly” sacrificed” to a Cthulhu-style behemoth, and a boy trapped in a vicious cycle of playing games and eating ice cream, whose biggest concern is which breakfast cereal to eat each morning.

Vella is wise beyond her years, or at least smarter than the townsfolk that want to serve her up as a frosted desert treat for Mog Chothra.  Through a bit of traditional adventure game puzzle-solving she escapes the maw of Mog and retreats to a village in the clouds, a temporary layover on her way to Shellmound; the next city on Mog Chotrha’s maiden feast world tour.  Can she defeat the beast with a hundred eyes?  Only if she can figure out how to make a tree vomit.

Shay’s adventures are confined to his ship, although there are a few nifty holodeck-style diversions that “mom”, the ship’s computer, uses to keep him occupied and safe on a daily basis.  Only after purposely crashing one of the simulations does he encounter a wolf (looks more like a weasel to me) who offers to show him a more exciting life outside his daily routine.  Shay will get to explore parts of the ship normally off-limits as well as navigate the galaxy conducting various rescue missions using  a claw arm mini-game.

Whichever story you finish first will come to a rather abrupt ending, and then later rejoined when both parts are finished.  This marks one of the most jaw-dropping revelations in narrative history since Luke and Darth’s paternity test results were revealed on the Maury show.   Each character’s arc will take experienced gamers roughly two hours.  Broken Age is not hard in the classical sense or even in a way that old-school gamers might be looking for.  The game is linear with a set list of puzzles and a single solution for each.  You’ll want to take everything and talk to everyone repeatedly, often backtracking to previous characters to see if any new dialogue options have appeared.   Double Fine is definitely more interested in telling its story more than frustrating those wanting to enjoy it.

Click for Shay trailerAnd story is what it’s all about starting with the brilliant art design and animation style that is beyond comparison because frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it.  Characters and background art are indistinguishable – the entire game plays out like one giant gorgeous cutscene that you get to control.  The characters are absurdly funny without being absurd, both in their look and their expertly crafted dialogue delivered by a cast of noteworthy talent including; Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Jennifer Hale, and Wil Wheaton just to name a few.  Even Peter McConnell’s score transcends what you would typically expect from an indie adventure – even one with a three-plus million dollar budget – so much in fact that you can get the standalone soundtrack and enjoy this immersive score outside the confines of the game.

There is no controller support, but the game is completely playable with mouse only after you reassign a few keystrokes to mouse buttons (space bar = RMB), and I had no problem sitting back on the couch playing Broken Age with a wireless mouse.   You can access the pop-up inventory bar, which also gets you access to options and switching story arcs.  The inventory bar shows everything you have collected using large icons that can be clicked for a verbal description or dragged onto the screen onto any glowing hotspot.  Most items find their use not far from where you found them, and there really aren’t a lot of item crafting puzzles in the game.

My only real issue with Broken Age is that it ultimately comes off as a bit too easy, too short, and perhaps dumbed down to appeal to a lazier generation of adventure gamer – you know, the same people who are going to complain that they finished in four hours.   I remember (and so does Mr. Schafer) when adventure games required weeks to finish with calls to 900 hint lines and invisible-ink hint books.  The Internet has eliminated the need of supplementary hint tools, but that doesn’t mean gamers don’t enjoy a challenge and sadly, there is nothing remotely challenging about Broken Age.   You win by thoroughly clicking on everything, everyone, and every branch of the conversation tree until it’s over.   You’ll have a great time watching how it all unfolds, but so will anyone else in the room not playing, which means this game is going to quickly fall ruin to the Let’s Play video channels.

I had a great time with Broken Age.  It was a nice one-day diversion from my normal diet of FPS, action, and racing titles, and it was nice to see the final (or at least the first half) version of the game that put Kickstarter on the map.  I only hope Tim Schafer takes this opportunity to realize that there is a hungry audience waiting to consume adventure games…HIS adventure games, and that his next title steps up the challenge for more seasoned adventurers.  Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Act 2 to see where this is all going…

Broken Age: Act 2 Update:

I just finished the second half of Tim Schafer’s adventure game, Broken Age; a game that launched last January and was finally finished 15 months later.  Given the extensive lead time on this final chapter I was shocked at just how “phoned in” Act 2 appeared to be.  Telltale Games makes us wait weeks or maybe a month between their installments, but here we’ve been waiting for over a year…a stretch of time so long I had completely forgotten about the game.  The only reason I even knew the second Act even existed was because I saw the game had updated in my Steam library.

Jumping into Act 2 we are quickly tossed into the shoes of Shay and Vella.  Stuff happens and Vella gets trapped inside Shay’s monster-ship and Shay is left standing on the beach in Vella’s world, and guess what?  That is the hook.  You are about to spend the next 2-4 hours rehashing the same rooms and the same levels, talking to the same people you did for the first 2-4 hours, only with the other character.  How original.

As before you can choose which character to play and when, but unlike the first half there are points in the story where you must now coordinate certain activities between Shay and Vella, and the game does a poor job of communicating this.  Equally frustrating are the puzzles.   Perhaps we are all to blame for this since we all complained how “easy” Act 1 was, but the puzzles in Act 2 are so “out there” that some walkthroughs even need walkthroughs.   Things start off simple enough, but by the end of the game when you are required to rewire this silly little robot multiple times you’ll be pulling out your hair and cursing the adventure game genre.

Act 2 is supposed to be the second half of the game introducing new characters and locations.  Sadly, there are only three (yes 3) new screens in the entire second act, and rather than introduce any new characters they simply bring Vella’s family over to Shellmound so they can interact with Shay.

I’m curious what Double Fine has been doing for a year.  It sure wasn’t coming up with any original ideas or generating new assets.  Considering they got exponentially more money than they asked for in their Kickstarter and took twelve times longer than any other episodic game studio to release part 2, Broken Age has gone from a promising rebirth of a genre to just another nail in its coffin.

We’ve changed our score from the original 4 to a 2.5 and recommend you don’t waste your money or your time on this game.

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