Broken Age: Act One

Full disclaimer: I’ve never particularly been a huge fan of Double Fine’s past titles like Brutal Legend or Stacking, although I’ve always appreciated the infectious charm and personality injected in their games. The first act of Broken Age is important in many regards, possibly heralding the mainstream return of the classic adventure game, as well as being crowdfunded with one of the highest Kickstarter totals to date. It’s resulted in an opportunity to see Tim Schafer and his team in the genre that they’re most comfortable with, and while this first act falls slightly short of its classic predecessors, it’s nonetheless delightful to welcome back this long-forgotten style of game.

Broken Age tells two concurrent stories that play on perspective in different ways. The space faring Shay finds himself adrift in space, comforted by a computerized overmother and father who pamper and sustain him as both son and prisoner. Having outgrown the simulations of childish heroism created for him, Shay desperately wishes to find real adventure that the machines won’t allow. On the more fantastical side is Vella, a girl destined to be sacrificed to a giant maiden-consuming monster, all while family and friends treat it as a great honor worthy of praise. Both characters so desperately want to break the cycles they’ve found themselves in, yet they find themselves on polar opposite perspectives. Where one is so clearly being manipulated in some shady fashion, the other finds herself as seemingly the only sane person fighting against a society resigned to the status quo.

There’s a strong element of surrealism with Broken Age that we’ve come to expect from Double Fine games, but it’s taken even further through brilliant art design and excellent fully voiced dialogue. Broken Age is amazingly beautiful, sporting some of the best 2D art I’ve seen in any game. It’s incredibly varied, ranging from a city in the clouds, a cake and cookie themed village, and a child-friendly spacecraft, among others. While not every environment has a lot to do in it, no area ever overstays its welcome.  It all animates wonderfully, with sharp movements and flair that gives personality to the characters. Take a scene in Vella’s story, in which a lineup of maidens are showcased in various baked goods-inspired outfits. They await the terrifying beast Mog Chothra they’re bound to be sacrificed to, yet all the surrounding characters are excited for their chance to be picked, dressed in absurdly flamboyant clothing that has more in common with Valentine’s treats than clothing. It’s an absurd, beautifully rendered moment that captures the ridiculous, dream like nature of the game.

Written with a laid back tone, while maintaining an undercurrent of mystery and surrealism, Broken Age juggles multiple themes of adolescence, seclusion, and conformity deftly without being overbearing or heavy handed. Characters will constantly delight, surprise, and humor, and there wasn’t a single one that came off as boring or uninteresting. Unfortunately, the split campaign system means that some characters aren’t fully developed as they could be, although it remains to be seen if they will be revisited to in the forthcoming second act.

The great voice lineup, with names like Elijah Wood voicing Shay and Wil Wheaton as Curtis the Lumberjack, are just a few among a great cast of actors that really get the personality of the characters across. Jennifer Hale’s performance as Shay’s computer mother is genuinely endearing and loveable, a tough act after becoming so accustomed to her voice in nearly every game out there. The fully orchestrated score by Peter McConnell fits the surreal tone set by the visuals and the narrative, and it’s just another fantastic layer of presentation that makes the world of Broken Age a delight to inhabit.

But of course, this is an adventure game, so there’s bound to be quite a few puzzles and fumbling with the right object for the right situation. Broken Age is not particularly complicated in any way, which can be seen as good or bad depending on what you’re expecting. Puzzles are fairly basic, usually requiring simple deductive reasoning and trial-and-error to figure things out. Since the game is split into two distinct parts, there’s not a whole lot of time to gain a large inventory, so calling back to older items isn’t much of a stretch.

I rarely found myself all that stumped by a puzzle because it was too obtuse, although I would have appreciated a bit of challenge or risk involved with some of the sequences. For example, the aforementioned Mog Chothra sequence is intended to be tense and hectic, but there’s really no way to fail considering you need to exhaust the dialogue options in order for the scene to continue. The lack of challenge fits the brisk and light vibe of the game, but it keeps some sequences from hitting moments where you really feel like a genius for figuring things out.

The overall lightness and simplicity of Broken Age is both its greatest strength and most painful flaw. It’s a fast paced game by adventure genre standards, moving from each screen, puzzle, and character briskly, but you can’t help but want to sit by and watch these characters become more involved and developed. Vella’s adventure spans a vast amount of different environments and offers a nice variety of locales, but Shay’s focuses on one single well developed space. I found Vella’s story to be far more interesting, as the various characters introduced were simply more entertaining and funny. The streamlining of some systems and the layout of the UI clearly seems designed for tablets, although the interface that’s there is perfectly serviceable, if a tad too barren.

However, Broken Age is such an incredibly easy game to love. Within the first few minutes I was totally won over by the great visual style, smart and clever writing, and fun, simple puzzle design. It’s easy to sit here and point out all the misgivings and underdeveloped characters and puzzles, but I didn’t really think about any of that while playing.

Make no mistake about it; Broken Age is no reanimated corpse feeding on the nostalgia of a long neglected fanbase. It's immediately apparent that this is where Tim Schafer and Double Fine are at their strongest; where narrative and gameplay come together to bring their unique personality and style across. This new entry is delightfully fresh and quirky, yet it’s instantly familiar. For better or worse, it’s simple and easy to pick up, which subsequently keeps it from reaching the complexity of adventure greats. It faithfully fulfills the promise set out in its Kickstarter, no more, no less.

Act one runs for about four hours, ending on a rough cliffhanger. It's quite painful to see it end just as the link between the two stories begins to reveal itself, but they've managed to find the perfect break point. The final moment is a shocker and has me eagerly awaiting act two. This first act of Broken Age is easily worth your time for the fantastic writing and brilliant presentation alone, but here's hoping they can really go wild with interesting puzzles and challenges in the forthcoming second act.