Broken Age Review – iPad

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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 is now available for the iPad.  It’s worth noting that the game is only $9.99 for the iPad with an in-app purchase option for Act 2 when available while the PC version is $24 and includes Act 2 as a free update when available.  Personally, I found the game just as enjoyable on the iPad as my PC, and if you can save $5…well, there you go.

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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.

I mentioned in my PC review for the game that I thought Broken Age would be perfect for the iPad and it is.  The touchscreen interface is perfect for tapping to move the characters around or tapping on dialogue options to engage in conversation.  You can even double-tap on screen exit points to quickly move to the next screen.  An eye icon at the top can be tapped to reveal hotspots and the inventory bar slides up from the bottom to access items, switch characters, or access the system menu at the top that allows you to save your game, adjust volume or toggle subtitles.  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.  Think of it as more of an interactive storybook more than a video game.

I had a great time revisiting the world of Broken Age on the iPad, and 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…

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