Shay, one of the two heroes of Broken Age, is stuck on a spaceship. Each day he gets dispatched to some random corner of the galaxy, on a quest to rescue helpless creatures. Every time, Shay saves the day with remarkable ease, and is rewarded with pellets of nutritious, easily digestible space food. Endless repetition, meaningless quests, manufactured “danger”… yes, Shay seems to be stuck in a video game. He gets his own squeaky voiced companions, creatures called Yarn Pals who give helpful, overly frequent instructionsThey bring to mind a certain N64-era fairy.. Shay’s world is all soft, plush edges, with no real consequences.
Meanwhile, the world of Vella, Broken Age‘s other protagonist, seems just as cheerful at first glance. The citizens of her town of Sugar Bunting seem to spend their time harmlessly making elaborate cakes and pastries. That’s until they mention that Vella is scheduled to be dressed as a giant cupcake and offered as a sacrifice to Mog Chothra, their flying Lovecraftian monster god. The other teen girls on the sacrificial docket seem to think that whomever the monster chooses to eat “wins” the beauty pageant, but Vella isn’t content to be monster chum. Her resolve to escape that fate (and her chipper-with-a-hint-of-anarchic demeanor) drives most of Broken Age‘s plot. While Shay plays video games and gets filled with ennui, Vella has to survive the potentially flesh-rendering consequences of a more brutal kind of game.
Broken Age creator Tim Schafer seems here to be gently poking the noses of the mainstay genres of the video game world. The sacrifices to Mog Chothra echo the endless bloodletting demanded by some FPS and MMO games. And the bright, aggressively cheerful decor of Shay’s spaceship gives the impression of an endless game of Candy Crush in space. While the basic critique (i.e. men drive spaceships in video games while women get eaten by monsters) may be cheeky, it’s never heavy-handed or distracting. Instead Schafer is using Broken Age to gently suggest a third way, proposing through example the kind of game where character and story are kept paramount, supported by satisfying gameplay rather than sacrificed at its altar.
That may sound like a familiar recipe to some fans of adventure games. If you’ve followed the genre from King’s Quest through Sam and Max Hit the Road and Grim Fandango then you’ve probably already heard of Broken Age, which follows in the tradition of those games. The project began in 2012 as a Kickstarter campaign called “Double Fine Adventure”, and managed to capitalize on the pent-up desires of a devoted cadre of adventure game fans, to the tune of $3.3 million. Even with this windfall, the development process was protracted, raising concerns of sprawl and mission drift. The release of the first half of the game in early 2014, in order to raise more money through early salesI specifically waited for the full game release to play the game, which I can’t help but feel was the better choice. At the end of the first half of the game, the complete story is only just beginning to come into view. I can easily imagine how the abrupt ending left some reviewers unsatisfied in 2014. didn’t exactly help. It seemed possible that the convoluted origin story or its status as a Kickstarter icon might overshadow the final game.
However once I started playing, I realized that those fears were unfounded. The game opens with a refreshing lack of preamble. You choose to start with either Vella or Shay, leading them through their introductory puzzles by employing the time-honored combination of pointing and clicking. In true adventure game tradition, you try to grab anything that isn’t nailed down find a hammer to deal with anything that is. Sometimes you must combine inventory items in bizarre ways to advance. But, as in the best of the LucasArts adventure gamesDay of the Tentacle, 1993., puzzles are solved largely through talking with the inhabitants of the game’s world. Each minor characters will tell you about their problems, and give you hints as to what you need to do to help them. Their problems mostly range from wacky to ludicrous, but the story manages to keep them grounded in relatable emotionI really felt for several of these characters. Vella’s grandfather, for instance, who carries on the martial spirit their people left behind in favor of cupcake frosting. Or Twyla, a girl whose depression after not being eaten by Mog Chothra feels surprisingly universal. As for the mayor who needs glue to keep his sandcastles from falling apart, or the lumberjack who needs wood so he can make a “sample stool”… well, this is still an adventure game. You’re going to have a few wacky item exchange quests.. This is where the excellent voice cast shines. Navigating Broken Age‘s dialogue trees is, for the most part, delightful rather than tediousThere is one tree (an actual tree) who talks far too much. The insider joke is appreciated, but I could have done without most of what comes out of his mouth.. Masasa Moyo (Young Justice, Team America: World Police) and Elijah Wood (Some Movie About Hobbits) both do fantastic work making Vella and Shay charming and memorable. The rest of the voice cast is largely delightful, giving shading and pathos to cartoonish charactersJennifer Hale (Regular Show, Mass Effect, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) gives superb depth to the voice of the maternal computer of Shay’s ship. Cameos by Jack Black and Wil Wheaton don’t prove too distracting..
This level of attention to detail is thankfully also present in the game’s graphics and sound design. The score is orchestral without ever being intrusive, and pairs well the lushly hand-painted settings. The background art was always a delight, even if I never warmed entirely to the characters’ facial design. The game reserves its greatest attention for the design of its puzzles, which manage to be clever without sacrificing difficulty. It’s a complicated feat of balancing, but the puzzles should be challenging enough to satisfy long-time adventure game aficionados, and accessible enough not to frustrate determined newbiesMy ten-hours of play time involved two glances at a walkthrough. In both cases, I later noticed dialogue cues that I had missed, which would have given me hints to the solutions. The game organically provides gentle hints when you seem to be stuck, in a way that’s less obtrusive than any other similar system I’ve seen.. If you do get frustrated, you can flip back and forth between Vella and Shay’s storylines, giving even the least-connected sections of their two stories a feeling of unity. It’s a trick lifted from Day of the Tentacle, but it’s used in a more leisurely way here, since the puzzles in the two storylines only occasionally interact directlyMy take: Vella’s storyline is better, because she is better. I felt bad for Shay, but Vella is master of her own destiny. As well as the master of cheerfully blowing things up.. It also works to freshen up settings that are reused (an understandable requirement, given the level of detail in the background artwork). Watching how Shay and Vella approach the same places and characters highlights the contrasts between the two.
The detail put into settings is even more impressive given how easy the game makes navigating through them. Clickable hotspots, a serious bugbear in previous generations of adventure games, are well designed and never overlapping, although their boundaries are occasionally defined a little on the large side.I was impressed at how the game managed to balance clear hotspots and detailed art without resorting to the heavy highlighting of objects used in, for example, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series. This was necessary in The Walking Dead because of its more photorealistic graphical style, but still tended to distract from visual composition. Broken Age really is on another level entirely from Telltale’s games in terms of its artistic design, especially its use of scope and perspective. On the other hand, Telltale’s games tend to be released in a relatively timely fashion, give or take some Game of Thrones episodes.. Broken Age does an admirable job smoothing out rough edges, through eliminating busywork and useless inventory items, or with a double-click feature that makes navigation between multiple screens quick and easy. There are a couple of puzzles that require too much walking back and forth to solve, and one or two steps along the way that lack clear cues to their solutions, but these issues are minor.
Although Broken Age may not open the floodgates to a flurry of new point-and-click adventure games with charmingly handcrafted aesthetics, maybe that’s okay. Shay and Vella both have to learn to strike out on their own, to ignore the restrictions of the roles they were born into. Broken Age tries to do something similar, positing that a video game doesn’t need to spawn a half-dozen sequels, take 100+ hours to play, or have more than 2.5-ish dimensions. It just needs to take you on a journey. With its memorable story and charming characters, Broken Age follows its own meandering path to that goalThe kind of path that involves a little help from 100,000 Kickstarter backers.. And if there’s not a crowd following in its footsteps, well, it seems like the kind of game that would be more comfortable striking out on its own.
Double Fine Productions
Available on Steam, Playstation Store, Google Play, and Apple AppStore