Broken Age Act 1 Review: Just Duct Tape The Two Pieces Together
Throughout the 1990’s, Tim Schafer defined the graphic adventure genre while working at LucasArts. The Secret of Monkey Island, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango are frequently cited among the greatest games of all time and are nostalgically remembered for their snappy writing, irreverent logic, and robust worlds. As such, it’s unsurprising that when Schafer took to Kickstarter to raise money to develop his first graphic adventure in over 15 years, he generated over 3.5 million dollars in support. Broken Age is the result of this campaign and backers should have little reason to be disappointed with how their money was spent.
I think it’s probably best to lead by addressing the elephant in the room: Broken Age is currently only half a game. In an effort to raise a bit more money, Double Fine has released the first act with the second expected later this year. For the record, a purchase now entitles the buyer to the completed game without additional charge when it launches. The major drawback of splitting the game in two is that the narrative ends suddenly with an abrupt cliff-hanger just as the story enters a pivotal moment. It’s impossible to ascertain if the complete narrative will be a tight package and whether some of the earlier setups will actually pay-off in the end, but what’s here is coherent, witty, and enjoyable. While I feel that the first half is worth the $25 purchase price, those who can’t stand an interrupted narrative may wish to hold off until the whole thing is available. On the other hand, if you have been salivating over the prospect of a graphic adventure that harkens back to the heyday of LucasArts, don’t let the split discourage you from purchasing now.
Broken Age weaves two tales that, at first glance, appear unrelated. Vella lives in a magical world unspoilt by technology and plagued by a creature named Mog Chothra. Yearly sacrifices are made to the beast as tribute and being selected as a sacrificial candidate is considered a tremendous honor. Vella disagrees and strives to transform her selection for offering into an opportunity to slay the monster. Elsewhere, Shay is the sole inhabitant of a futuristic space ship who is tended to daily by the overbearing but loving ship computer. While his daily routine is designed to offer whatever a child could want, after several years it has grown to be prison and Shay longs for greater freedom. While the second half promises a merging of both arcs, each could independently function as a solid premise for a complete game and are engrossing on their own. The seemingly disparate worlds that Vella and Shay inhabit are united through a coming-of-age narrative that explores the notions of free will and existentialism. The pacing is leisurely but consistently moves forward and I found myself captivated while playing both lines. In the years since Schafer’s last graphic adventure, his writing hasn’t missed a beat.
Mechanically, the game plays very much like the graphic adventures of yesteryear with a few quality of life improvements. Collecting items and speaking to characters drives the player to puzzles that function as doorways to plot progression. The game is entirely controlled through the mouse and it’s clear that the interface has been designed with mobile platforms in mind. The slick setup smartly hides an inventory at the bottom of the screen from which items can be dragged and dropped for context sensitive actions. Finding items is rarely a pixel hunt as the mouse cursor conveniently changes appearance to indicate objects of interest. If I have one complaint, it’s that the puzzles (which represent to meat of the actual gameplay) are a bit easy. Veterans of the genre should have no problem snapping to instant solutions and newcomers will grasp Schafer’s quirky logic after the introductory sequences. Consequently, the game plays out like an interactive story most of the time. I understand that this represents the first half of a game and difficulty generally ramps up towards the end, but it would have been nice to see one or two head-scratchers thrown in. Consistent progression isn’t necessarily bad, but games like Braid have set a bar where solutions to puzzles can require a bit of work without being inscrutable.
What Broken Age lacks in challenge, it more than makes up for in style. Tim Schafer’s hand can be seen in everything from the visual design to the direction of the voice acting. The eclectic characters are uniquely vibrant and mesh perfectly with the lush backgrounds. Whether exploring the bowels of a space ship or a village in the clouds, nothing feels out of place. The talented voice cast of big name Hollywood stars (Jack Black, Elijah Wood) and respected industry veterans (Jennifer Hale) are expertly directed by Schafer to reflect a tone that stretches from the boundaries of quiet contemplation to full-on hammy goodness. The result is a cohesive world that has just the right amount of zany to match the script – no small feat considering how easy it would be for everything to fall into a muddled mess of the absurd. It might be a stretch to call the game ‘funny’, though it has some chuckle-worthy lines, but it certainly fits the definition of ‘whimsical’. My inner-child was constantly delighted to explore each new area and uncover layered nuances in every interaction. My only minor qualm here is that one or two areas feel a bit static and could do with a bit more animated flair.
What the second half of Broken Age has in store is anyone’s guess. You can currently switch between the two story arcs at any time but there is no practical need to do so. I suspect that we will see at least a few puzzles where coordination is necessary between the two protagonists. As previously mentioned, the first act ends right when the plot seems to coalesce. Not to spoil any details, but I was genuinely surprised, in all the right ways, by the conclusion. While the game is stunted, the chosen spot to truncate it feels natural for how I envisage the greater story to play out. In the meantime, I am left to ponder bits of superfluous dialogue that have left me with a few questions that I can’t wait to be resolved.
The biggest complaint I can lobby against Broken Age is that it left me wanting more. Given that I will be getting precisely that later this year, this is more of a compliment than anything else. I am invested in the story and that is hardly a bad thing. Genre enthusiasts will delight in Schafer’s masterful ability to spin a yarn even if they blow through it with relative ease. Fledgling adventure gamers would do well to dive in, the waters are pleasant and there is always room for more in the pond. Until I’ve played the whole thing, I’ll reserve judgement on ranking exactly where Broken Age fits into the pantheon of Schafer’s superlative body of work; suffice it to say that I consider it a worthy addition to any adventure game library even in its half completed state.