The games industry hasn’t been the same since Double Fine‘s Adventure Game Kickstarter project that turned into the point-and-clicker Broken Age. But is the final product really worth the hype?
Broken Age (PC)
(USA 2014/2015, developer: Double Fine, publishers: Double Fine/Nordic Games, platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita, iOS, Android)
Young girl Vella Tartine, chosen by her village to be sacrificed to the monster Mog-Chothra, breaks tradition and escapes, while young boy Shay Volta is isolated on a spaceship and wants to experience real adventures, away from the computer Mother’s protective eyes.
Two worlds with different people, creatures and things which aren’t so different
Tim Schafer is known for his eccentric world-building and weird but also human characters. Broken Age is no different, although the writing isn’t always perfect, sometimes missing the mark with its humor and also some more serious parts of the story. Generally, the mix of fantasy and sci-fi works quite well with the main leads Vella and Shay being characters who’re not only easy to relate to, but who also fit nicely into worlds one feels right at home in, with very imaginative places to visit and strange-looking people, creatures, robots and other things to talk to.
While Shay’s world is dominated by rules and games which don’t challenge his creativity or individual development, Vella’s might be more colorful than the restricted space of a ship (although there are many simulations and it’s quite big), but she’s also bound by tradition, making both stories different and connected at the same time. It takes a while until they finally meet, but how one’s action affects the other’s life is carefully interwoven in the plot. Changing between these characters isn’t only a storytelling device, but part of the puzzle design. As it has been the case with other Schafer games, the characters the protagonists meet are always a treat to talk to. This is true in most cases when the script is quite witty, e.g. with a talking tree who throws up each time it hears people talking about the (mis)treatment of wood, or a lumberjack who’s afraid of chopping wood and who’d much rather experiment with other material for art’s sake, while teleporter doors also have their say when transporting their passengers, and knives and forks don’t necessarily shut their mouths (or whatever they talk with), either.
Unfortunately, as with many point-and-click adventure games, dialogues can become quite tiresome when they’re too long and not every joke works. So this isn’t on par with the excellent writing of a Grim Fandango. The story also suffers from these long conversations, slowing down progress with too much wisecracking and some characters who are simply not that memorable or funny. The final part of the game gets a bit too trash-y with a villain who might have his sick motivations, but who just remains faceless and exaggerated.
Back to the good old puzzles of yesteryear
The puzzles herald back to the LucasArts era with often very funny uses of items and strangely logical solutions to certain problems, but these are far from easy to find without a bit of trial and error. It’s great to have the freedom to tackle different objectives in any order and even switch between Vella and Shay if one is stuck in one part and wants to try the other. However, a few more hints in conversations and object descriptions would have helped both beginners and more advanced gamers. Using a map and being able to run in each screen could have made progression and revisiting locations easier as well, especially in Shay’s case when one can get lost in the ship’s many rooms quite easily. Some timed sequences and mini games are also part of the game which can be quite frustrating.
What’s also problematic is that the interaction between the main characters only becomes important in the final part of the game, but it’s not used to its full potential. Unlike a game like Day of the Tentacle when one has to play cooperatively right from the start, the interactions are either unclear or rather repetitive, e.g. with complicated wiring patterns of a robot being done twice in different situations. Of course this separation has to do with the story, but it’s disappointing to see this gameplay mechanic applied so late.
Appealing looks and strong personalities
Aesthetically, the game looks great with some vibrant, colorful backgrounds and lovely hand-drawn characters in addition to cutscenes which don’t feel out of place with the rest of the game. There’s also a nice zooming in and out effect with layers of different backgrounds and foregrounds giving a sense of depth and making the worlds much bigger than they would be on one screen. Character animations have a weird puppet-like appearance, although this strangely fits the overall otherworldly charm of the fantastic-looking locations Shay and Vella are in.
What is also fitting is the great soundtrack that ranges from elevating orchestral tracks to atmospheric tunes and moody setpieces. It might not be as memorable as in Grim Fandango or other works by Tim Schafer, but it makes the journey all the more enjoyable. The voice acting is also pretty good, with Jack Black and Elijah Wood being the most prominent actors, even if there are some parts which aren’t delivered that well and lip sync is off at times as well.
A Kickstarter phenomenon and a very good game
Double Fine’s Broken Age has been in development for a very long time, and despite a few ups and downs in the Kickstarter phase, it’s a pretty good game. But it’s not the best game and also not the most original in the genre. Just like so many crowdfunded projects, it’s a labor of love for the genre and its fans. While some might mourn the lack of really imaginative puzzles as in Tim Schafer’s other games, others who expected less or are new to the game will find plenty to like here.
An interesting story with good character design and two wonderfully realized worlds which couldn’t be any different from each other aren’t the only reasons to play Broken Age. Even if it’s less compelling and emotional and relies more on funny lines, the plot develops at a good pace, while each screen is amazing to look at and interact in. Puzzles are also varied and, with exceptions, usually fun to solve.
It’s always difficult to meet expectations of everyone, and while the game helped Kickstarter to be profitable for many developers and also made a lot of people’s dreams come true, Broken Age remains a very good game, but not a classic as so many other Schafer games have become. However, if one expects a nice throwback to the old LucasArts era without the reinvention of the genre or storytelling in general, and one likes his adventure game worlds and characters as fantastically weird and at the same time easy to relate to, then one won’t be disappointed.
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