Broken Age Act 1 | Review
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux. Android and iOS soon
Developer: Double Fine
Publisher: Double Fine
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by Double Fine. Thank you.
Point and click adventure games fill me with melancholic nostalgia. My friends and I were huge nerds, you see. I’d go over to their houses and play games on their computers all day long. Exploring the mysteries of Crystal Caves, Duking it out with Nukems, bouncing around in Commander Keen – I was enraptured with the technicolour pixels. But I never had my own computer at home. I was lucky enough to get a Sega Master System with Sonic and Wonder Boy and a few other games, but my parents were rather computer illiterate. So I played my platformers, and was happy. But my friends had “real” computers, and their tastes developed differently. While I was growing up with Sega, they were playing other, more mature games. I was collecting rings and chaos emeralds while they were insult sword fighting and punching Nazis and dancing the grim fandango. And it was all thanks to LucasArts.
I missed that part. I missed growing up with them, and sharing those games with them then.
Broken Age, the much anticipated point and click adventure game from Double Fine – and LucasArts alum Tim Schafer – raised a frankly obscene amount of cash on Kickstarter. It seems many people were nostalgic for the point and click adventures of old, made by a master of the genre. Split into two parts, the first act has been released, and I’ve had my hands on the keyboard and mouse, firmly pointing and clicking everything in sight.
Shay is a teenage boy, trapped in the gilded cage of an AI controlled spaceship. An overprotective, overbearing computer “mother” takes care of all of his daily needs, feeding, changing, and entertaining him as necessary. But the simple and transparently contrived “adventure” scenarios that mother creates are no longer fulfilling, and Shay has sunk into a deep malaise. When Shay discovers a mysterious stowaway asking him to help save the galaxy from war, naturally he jumps at the chance to do something different and important.
Vella is a teenage girl, and one of five chosen villagers to be sacrificed to Mog Chothra at the next Maiden’s Feast. While it is considered a great honour, Vella doesn’t seem to take the idea of being eaten alive very well. Rejecting tradition and potentially bringing the wrath of the huge monster against her family and village, Vella decides to escape the beast and find a way to fight it, journeying across the land to meet and defeat the creature in combat.
Each story has its own distinct narrative arc, with Shay exploring his ship to gain control back from mother so that he may help save the galaxy from war, and Vella travelling across villages to try and persuade others to help in her battle against Mog Chothra. Their stories are independent yet inescapably intertwined, with each story supplementing the other in a number of subtle yet powerful ways.
While Vella’s story is more traditional in structure, with a wider range of environments and characters, Shay’s story is no less powerful, with its focus on locational density.
Broken Age tells a deeply melancholy and nostalgic tale. At its core it is an allegory for growing up, and the necessary sacrifices it calls for. Firmly rooted themes of innocence, choice, consequence, independence, and responsibility are maturely approached, tempered with a sadness only age and introspection can bring. It is about adolescence, and it is about joyous adolescence, but through the softening window of hindsight.
I think that’s why I like it so much. It is joyous and innocent and often very funny, but with a hint of sadness that only the experience of age can bring. Broken Age is Tim Schafer’s reflection on youth, a wistful remembrance of carefree days being lost to necessary change. In that way, Broken Age is a beautifully mature message to grow up in moderation, captured in both narrative and gameplay.
While Broken Age is a point and click adventure, it is not a LucasArts point and click adventure. Basic navigation is handled by clicking a position on screen, and then waiting for your character to walk to that point. If there is a room transition option, instead of waiting for the full animation, you can double click and instantly load the next room. Instead of a raft of verbs to choose from, instead a click will perform a contextually appropriate action. Touch a background feature of no importance and the character will comment on it. Click an item and you’ll automatically place it in your inventory. Selecting a character will talk to them. Some will find it too simple, but it does a good job of streamlining out unnecessary interactions.
Interacting with characters can sometimes initiate dialogue options, which can be used to either advance the story or obtain helpful information. Selecting the correct choices to progress is generally common sense, but you will never miss content from selecting the “wrong” choice.
Inventory is handled by a disappearing bar down the bottom of the screen. Once you pick up an item it will transfer down to the bar, which hides automatically when not in use. Hitting the “I” key, or clicking the tab down the bottom left will open the bar at any time. To use an item, simply drag it from the bar to where you want to use it and let go. Some items can be combined, which is a simple process of dropping and dragging one item on top of the other, once you know the feature exists.
You’ll use your pointing, clicking, and item dragging to solve the problems of the environment around you. Puzzles are at the core of any good point and click, and Broken Age’s are some of the best. Each one is logical and methodical, with the solution not immediately apparent but always discoverable. Subtle hints and common sense application will get you through the toughest situations, and solving a puzzle always feels rewarding. Unlike some older point and click games (cough Last Crusade painting cough), Broken Age’s puzzles are always fair, and always make internal sense.
The desire and drive to simplify and streamline, however, has led to some strange omissions. Most of them stem from the sometimes clumsy UI. For example, to open the inventory you must mouse to the bottom left corner then click, then click the item you want. Why waste a click on the tab on the left when the item bar could just as easily appear by mousing to the bottom? With dialogue options, you must click the one you want, but why can’t you use the number keys to select your option? And why can’t you advance dialogue line by line, instead of either skipping the lot or listening to everything? Navigating around the screen can be slow, especially when the place you need to click on is off screen. You must click a point as far as you can go, wait for the character to start walking to reveal the screen, then click the place you want to go. Why couldn’t there be a way to scroll the screen independently so you could go straight to the opposite door with the double click? Those basic UI flaws do take some of the shine off the experience, and give the impression that Broken Age was a game designed for tablets, rather than desktops.
The minor gripes are forgivable, however, when you remember just how wondrous the world of Broken Age is. Each location is inspired and unique. Whether it is the ice cream avalanche, the town in the clouds, the seaside hamlet, or the vastness of space, each place has its own identity and feel. This is most notable in Vella’s story, where her valiant quest takes her to a variety of interesting locations.
And, if you get tired of a location, you can always swap characters at any time. Switching between Shay and Vella is a simple process of toggling between the two in the inventory bar. You lose zero progress and can change any time you can access the inventory. Character switching can help refresh the brain during a particularly protracted puzzle, while not interrupting the flow of gameplay.
Each character is lovingly created through art and voice. The stellar cast, including Elijah Wood as Shay, bring life to their respective characters. Wood does a fantastic yet understated job with Shay, adding an amusing touch of sarcasm to Shay’s innocent personality. Not to be outdone, Masasa Moyo brings a strength and determination to Vella. Naturally, the rest of the cast – Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, Pendleton Ward, and Jennifer Hale – deliver spot on vocal performances that are both serious and funny. The orchestral score is the cherry on top, evoking the fairy-tale fantasy experience perfectly.
Coupled with the exceptional voice work is the gorgeous art, bringing character to every environment. The painterly, art book look is charming and evocative, tying the look to the storybook feel. Each place is distinct, with its own identity and personality. Characters are expressive, telling their story and attitude through their appearance. Even the (very rare) awkward animations don’t feel too out of place with the art choices made. It looks colourful and tactile and rich, and pleases the eye constantly.
Act 1 weighs in at about three hours, all said and done. It isn’t the longest experience, and that doesn’t work in its favour. But taking into consideration the quality of what’s on offer, and the fact that it is only one half of the final game, three hours isn’t so unreasonable. Still, I would have liked a little more in this offering.
Broken Age is Double Fine at its point and click best. Tim Schafer and the team are clearly masters of the genre, and Broken Age is them at the top of their game. Time has only improved their skillset. Broken Age is mature, clever, and has boundless heart to share. Memorable characters, interesting puzzles, and a touching and mature story make Broken Age quite the special game. Broken Age, from the snippet we’ve seen in Act 1, is one of the finest point and click adventures crafted, and if Act 2 is anywhere near as good as the first part, the final game will be something worth the very long wait.
Broken Age is out now for PC, Mac and Linux, and coming soon to Android and iOS. Act 2 is set to release later this year.