It’s hard to open a review of Broken Age without discussing the circumstances surrounding its development. After raising over 3 million dollars to produce an old-school adventure game, to say Double Fine had a lot riding on this is something of an understatement. If the game was even in the realm of mediocre, the potential outcry could’ve razed that studio to the ground. Both a second Double Fine Kickstarter and the announcement that Broken Age would be split in two upon release certainly didn’t help matters.
Let me assuage the fears of both Kickstarter backers and Double Fine employees: Act One of Broken Age is legitimately great. For once in this crazy industry, everybody wins.
Broken Age is about both Vella and Shay, young adults trapped in unfortunate situations by societal convention and their parental figures. Vella is to be ritually sacrificed to Mog Chothra — a horrific monster that villages of her world alternately worship and fear — but yearns to fight the creature instead. During the ritual, she escapes, and begins a long journey with one specific goal: kill Mog Chothra.
Shay has been charged by the inhabitants of a dead planet with finding a new home, and spends his days laboring under the gaze of an overbearing computer programmed with the usual matronly instincts. When a shifty wolf creature named Marek opens his eyes to the dangers of the universe, Shay takes this opportunity to see a universe beyond the confines of his ship, and embarks on a dangerous quest.
Both stories definitely have their moments, and they’re very well written, but Vella’s is just a little more compelling. Since her tale spans multiple villages, each with their own unique puzzles and cast of interesting characters, there’s a larger amount of variety. By comparison, you’ll get very familiar with the contents of Shay’s personal spaceship.
Vella’s quest is also thematically richer. The idea of dressing women up for the express purpose of satisfying a creature’s base needs isn’t a subtle metaphor by any means, but the subject is handled with more grace and humanity than you’d expect. Shay’s conflict with his “mother” should resonate with most of you, and it definitely helps that Shay is more inclined towards eye-rolling than relentless complaining, but “hey my parents are overbearing” isn’t a new statement by any means.
Even though I really enjoyed my time with Vella, that doesn’t mean Shay’s tale is poorly written. Broken Age is a laugh-out-loud hilarious game, with sharp writing and extremely talented vocal performances. Shay’s mother/computer is really likable, even as she tries to sand the edges off the universe to protect her son. It would have been so easy for the game to portray her as an overbearing shrew, so I must give Double Fine a large amount of credit. I can even sympathize with her mission, especially after I’ve seen the adorable worlds she crafts for Shay. You haven’t known pure joy until you’ve helped the Yarn Pals escape an ice cream avalanche. Seriously: the Yarn Pals. How cute is that?
I can see the Yarn Pals and many of their co-stars refusing to leave my brain long after I’ve put this game to rest. Giant bird egg polisher Maggie — sorry, M’ggie — was a particular standout for me, but everyone will probably have their own favorite side character. Vella and Shay are the real stars, however. They’re not the most well rounded characters ever written, but their dialogue is snappy and is blessed with some of the best line delivery I’ve seen in years. As the credits roll on Act One, both protagonists have been left in some very interesting places, and I can’t wait to see how their story continues.
Broken Age is simply gorgeous, sporting an aesthetic that feels both nostalgic and unique. Everything looks hand-painted, right down to the futuristic technology and horrendous monster. If Double Fine ever wants to make a killing on Broken Age prints, all they would have to do is take a few screenshots.
Sadly, when it’s time to stop drinking in the art direction and start pointing & clicking, the game stumbles. There are a few obvious puzzles, like the aforementioned ice cream avalanche, but you’ll be spending a lot of time chatting with NPCs in the hopes of stumbling across a new item or hint. It’s not all bad, thankfully; the dialogue is very charming, and I never felt like my time was being wasted. The logic is a bit hard to follow at times, that’s all.
You’ll have to go back and forth between areas — especially when you’re stuck — so it’s a shame that Broken Age doesn’t come with some kind of fast travel. Double-clicking does quickly move you from room to room, which goes a long way. But this game is unabashedly a retro point and click adventure, so expect to get a lot of use out of that left mouse button.
Broken Age is a game that practically dares you to dislike it. With a cast full of memorable characters, a soothing soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and some delightfully clever writing, the game oozes charm from every pore. If you long for the days of Monkey Island or want to see adventure games done right, give Broken Age a shot. Just have some kind of walkthrough nearby for when the designers forgot you can’t read their minds.
(Disclaimer: Mike backed the Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter after they had raised $1 million dollars. We see this as a pre-order rather than helping fund a game, but hey, you guys should know what’s up)
Let them eat cake
The first part of Tim Schafer's big return to point and click adventure games is sharply written and a feast for the eyes, if occasionally a little obtuse.