Veteran game developer Tim Schafer and his self-founded company Double Fine are known for their eclectic and varied catalog of titles, ranging from the platformer Psychonauts to the action-strategy hybrid Brütal Legend, as well as numerous downloadable games. Those who are familiar with Schafer’s earlier works, however, will know that his roots go back to the heyday of point-and-click graphical adventure games, particularly those made by the now-defunct LucasArts.
The aforementioned list includes such well-regarded titles as The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and one of my all-time favorites, Grim Fandango. However, one of the results of the ever-shifting video game market in the late nineties was the near-death of the adventure genre, with it ultimately becoming more of a niche compared to its boom in previous years. Schafer eventually left LucasArts, founded Double Fine, and branched out into other genres with his more recent projects.
Despite his forays into other areas, Schafer has apparently always harbored a desire to return to his roots, as evidenced by his 2012 Kickstarter campaign to create an all-new traditional adventure game. Fans donated in droves, myself included, and besides helping to directly fund the development of what has become Broken Age, backers now have the opportunity to play the game before it’s released for purchase to the general public.
Now that I’ve finished the first half of what has become an episodic game in the form of Broken Age: Act 1, I can safely say that, while some overly streamlined mechanics and an unfortunately short runtime hold it back from classic status, it does many other things very well and shows that Schafer still has some great ideas.
In an interesting mechanic, Broken Age tells two stories in one game, which the player can freely switch between at any time. One is of Vella, a girl whose village has an unfortunate tradition of offering up their maidens as sacrifices to a gargantuan beast known as Mog Chothra. Vella has the constantly frowned-upon idea to fight back, and ends up escaping her ceremony. As such, she is then tasked with figuring out a way to find and defeat the monster.
The other story focuses on Shay, a teen who seems to be the only human on a spaceship run by his loving adoptive parents, who happen to be the ship’s computer systems. Shay yearns to break out of the doldrums of his repetitive existence, and is given the opportunity to do so when he encounters a stowaway on the ship who sweeps him into a much larger adventure.
As adventure games are traditionally heavy and reliant on plot, it would probably be best for me to not say too much about the rest of the story. That said, I didn’t find it as deep or involving as some of Schafer’s past works. There are many interesting characters to encounter and converse with via good old-fashioned dialog menus, but the actual stories, particularly Vella’s, lack interesting turns and a sense of genuine progression.
That said, while Shay’s story in Broken Age: Act 1 ends rather abruptly, Vella’s has an interesting twist at the end that, along with a conversation Shay has with the ship’s computer, helps to tie the two stories together in ways that we’ll have to wait for the remaining half to explain. Vella gets a much better cliffhanger, too, so I’d recommend finishing up Shay’s story first on an initial playthrough.
The control scheme is both as traditional and simple as you can get with a conventional adventure game. Clicking your cursor on the environment will cause your character of choice to walk over to that location, and certain characters can be clicked to have conversations with. Of course, various items can also be picked up using this method. These items are then used in specific situations to solve puzzles and progress the story, though it’s up to the player to figure out where they go or what they do.
You can basically play all of Broken Age with just your mouse. Your actions are limited to either clicking directly on things, dragging items from your inventory onto other elements, and picking what to say in certain conversations. While there’s technically nothing wrong with any of this, I did end up wishing that there were some more unique mechanics thrown in. Thinking back to titles like Monkey Island, I remember that you could choose from multiple verbs to interact with each object or character in different ways. Then again, this could sometimes lead to puzzles with unclear solutions, so Broken Age‘s simple approach might be for the best.
Now that I’ve gotten my complaints out of the way, I should get into what makes Broken Age so good. To start, the presentation is superb. The graphical style, accomplished using a 2D paint-like approach, looks consistently gorgeous and whimsical, with appealing designs for both the characters and environments. The voice acting is also great, using veteran voice actors like Mass Effect‘s Jennifer Hale, and Hollywood talent like Jack Black in a brief cameo and Elijah Wood as Shay.
Though I mentioned the story as being fairly simple, I also thought that the supporting characters had plenty of personality. They’re appealingly designed and voiced, and provide some good moments that offer genuine humor. I especially loved meeting a talking tree who accused a lumberjack of being a mass murderer.
I also can’t stress what a wonderfully immersive experience this game is. The charming and lively art provides plenty of imaginative landscapes, particularly in Vella’s story, and the soundtrack also helps add to the fantastical atmosphere. Though the gameplay may be simple, it’s still easy to get lost in Broken Age‘s world.
Sadly, this first half’s biggest drawback may be its underwhelming length. I clocked a little over three hours, and while Act 2’s total playtime may still be up in the air, I had hoped that with all the money Double Fine had raised, they could deliver a meatier quest. What’s there is good, but those hoping for another epic in the vein of Grim Fandango should temper their expectations a bit.
Though I may have found certain plot elements and gameplay elements a bit basic, there is so much genuine artistry, creativity, and charm packed into Broken Age: Act 1 that I still highly recommend it. Tim Schafer has always been one to provide us with fantastically developed and creative worlds, and thankfully, this is no exception. I hope the game does well with the general public when it becomes available for them to purchase, not just because Schafer has confirmed that its profits will go into the second half, but because I’d love to see Double Fine do more work like it.
This review is based on the PC version of the game.
Broken Age: Act 1 may be overly traditional, but it possesses plenty of artistry and charm that players will love.