Broken Age: Act I
- Street Date:
- January 28th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Trevor Ruben
- Review Date:1
- February 25th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Double Fine
- Double Fine
PC version of Act I reviewed. Act II is included with purchase, but is not expected until later in 2014.
Formerly known as 'Double Fine Adventure' on Kickstarter, after $3.3 million worth in backer support and two well-documented years of development, 'Broken Age' aims to bring players back to the glory days of point-and-click. And who better to do it than Tim Schafer, the comic mastermind behind such classics as 'Psychonauts' and 'Grim Fandango.' Few games have garnered as much attention and expectation before the first line of code written, and no game is in a better position to prove Kickstarter's worth as a tool for developers seeking refuge from an overbearing publisher's control. That it's about two young people simply trying to define themselves in the shadow of preset fate is either coincidence or just another friendly wink from Schafer to his fans.
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Strip away all the expectation and all of the development back-story, and Double Fine's latest is still an anomaly. Endearing in its charm and artistic design, fulfilling in its narrative themes, this point-and-click adventure actually does very little to innovate on the age-old genre's actual pointing and clicking. Instead, with Schafer at the helm, 'Broken Age' is more about utilizing the well-worn framing to expose the famed storyteller's natural gifts. I didn't come away with newfound appreciation for point-and-click adventures, rather it was Shay and Vella's connected tales that lingered in my mind. The story leaves off at quite the compounded cliffhanger with remaining questions both semantic and emotional serving as an affirmation of the game's story. But while the story does soar, the gameplay feels a bit empty.
Both of the titles' teenager characters are victims to their predetermined fate. Shay, a lone human aboard an AI-run spaceship, does very little of consequence, skates through his days without interruption from the outside world, unknowing to his true purpose. Despite his age he's treated as a toddler, spoon-fed by an AI that calls itself his mother and surrounded by toys and simulations he might've been fooled by ten years ago. He's been doing this his whole life, resigned more to boredom than impatience, until, of course, machinations¬ of plot intercede.
Vella, on the other hand, is an unwilling object of consequence. She is to be sacrificed as part of a yearly ritual called the maiden's feast. The ritual is dedicated to a horrible and massive monster named Mog Chothra and is required it as an alternative to the obliteration of Vella's town. Her family is very proud of her impending sacrifice. She, on the other hand, would rather live and aims to fight back, even when every other 'maiden' hopes for the exact opposite. It's a representation of a young person's confusion at her place in life when everybody else seems to buy into their given roles so freely. Shay's story reflects a young person's potential for aimlessness in a similar period of self-growth.
But it's not all so serious. Schafer's deft comedic touch is splattered all over the place, in a good way, ripening a world that might've been somber or grotesque from the mind of someone who confuses seriousness with depth. And it's this lighter tone that enable's 'Broken Age' to brightly shine in stark contrast to last year's darkly shaded 'The Walking Dead,' the art style and exaggerated characters guiding you through a story with impressive literary ambitions.
The playful tone manifests when Vella encounters Harm'ny Lightbeard, voiced by none other than Jack Black, a cloud-surfing cult leader spewing comedic platitudes as often as he strokes his impressive facial hair (read:ego). On Shay's side of things, who interacts more with machine than man, it's a talking, endlessly eager-to-feed spoon or a simulation requiring that he eat a mountain of ice cream in order to save the adorable stuffed animals within. These are jokes on top of jokes on top of slyly conveyed thematic underpinnings; a certain rarity in an industry of macho dudes, guns and needless exposition.
The game doesn't so much falter as it does hold ground on the gameplay/puzzling side of things. Like any point-and-click adventure, you're guiding your character through sets of interconnected spaces, finding items and speaking to NPCs, eventually using the information you've found or a combination of items to advance the narrative. 'Broken Age,' supported so well by its artistic design and clever writing, gets by with very little in the way of challenge or complexity. The best puzzles aren't the ones that have you scratching your head. They're the ones that integrate the writing into the solution, like forcing a talking tree to throw up his sap at the sight of a wooden stool. That's a definite highlight.
The one twist, more of a structural thing than anything else, is you can switch between Vella and Shay's adventures at any time you want. As both a narrative and gameplay reshuffling, a player can break away from one scenario the moment it's gone on for too long. It's a subtly brilliant way of keeping the game fresh, although there is room for miscalculation. I finished Shay's story far earlier than Vella's, and upon final completion I got the impression the two endings would have felt more impactful had I timed them closer together. Of course I had no idea when each story might end, but the cliffhanger twist that (naturally) connects the stories was nevertheless surprisingly mystifying. I just had to take an extra second to think about it.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
If you ever felt too old for a storybook but you wanted to read one anyway, play 'Broken Age' instead. Not just pleasing to the eye, the paintbrush aesthetic does a great job of blending Vella and Shay's wildly diverse landscapes, Vella in particular traveling high and low in a world you wouldn't believe was connected if it didn't sell itself as a child's fantasy. The character design, in particular, does an excellent job of presenting both archetypes and stereotypes in a way that feels fresh. You won't be rolling your eyes as much as widening them at the sight of these many odd people.
Sometimes the animation work feels a little rudimentary, which for a game of this nature isn't altogether unexpected. In choice moments when some sort of visual effect was needed however, the moment's often fell short leaving underwhelming sense to some of the visuals.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Elijah Wood as Shay and Masasa Moyo as Vella fill their respective roles perfectly, as does the supporting cast, which is as much a credit to the casting director as it is to the individual actors. The script doesn't really ask much from its key players. The game never strikes the most dramatic tone, oftentimes opting for a laid back approach in contrast to the slightly darker themes. You're never blown away by a performance, but that's just a result of Shafer's style.
The music is similarly fulfilling in that it's rarely the centerpiece of a scene, rather holding up that scene in a passive sense. It all works out very well without overstepping, a dignified but inessential piece of the overall puzzle.
Going through the story a second time offers a clearer picture of the overall tale, given the final scene's revelations. That said, the puzzles won't change, nor will the characters. Your thoroughness in conversation the first time around will determine if the second playthrough offers anything truly new.
Coming in at between three or four hours, depending on your point-and-click literacy, it feels a bit short, but this is just Act 1. You'll be going back to this game in a couple months upon release of Act 2.
The scenes you explore and characters you discover will keep you delighted. 'Broken Age' is charismatic, colorful and, above all, decidedly unique. Double Fine is unafraid to break with the current trends that lean away from this kind of tale and this kind of game. I can't say anybody who hates point-and-click adventures will suddenly find joy in the kind of puzzles requiring your attention, but that's really not the point anyway. Vella and Shay are well-designed characters looking for their own answers in well-written worlds. It's their answers, and not the puzzles', which propel the player forward.
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