Review: Broken Age, Act One

Okay, let’s start this thing off right. If you’ve heard anything at all about Broken Age by Double Fine Productions, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard it’s the Second Coming of classic adventure games. There are some gaps in my knowledge of adventure games: from the end of King’s Quest, I went on hiatus until The Longest Journey (which didn’t really speak to me), and off again. So Broken Age is kind of the Third Coming of the genre for me.

This is the kind of game where it’s hard to give a detailed breakdown without going deep on spoilers, and the story has enough surprising twists that I don’t want to do that to you. I will say a few things in this review that are not strictly true just to preserve spoilers – I am doing you a favor, not misleading you maliciously.
If you backed the Kickstarter or you’ve followed it at all, you have probably heard that the game tells two stories in parallel, with a male protagonist, Shay, and a female protagonist, Vella. The characters don’t interact, but you can cut back and forth between their stories with just two mouse-clicks. In a linear puzzle game, this is important; if you’re going along and get stuck on a puzzle, you can go look at the other character’s puzzle for a little while, rather than just shutting off the game in frustration.
Frustration and the structure of puzzles is the only negative thing I have to say about this game, though puzzles are 95% of all gameplay. As the designers have noted about Broken Age’s very narrow command structure, there’s really no command concept other than “interact,” and inventory objects follow it up with a prepositional phrase. That simplicity means that the game doesn’t need to teach commands, and there’s only one UI button, which opens your inventory. The game minimizes the famous pixel-bitching of the original adventure games, with mouse cursor changes, large hitboxes for any clickable object, and highlighting objects when moused over with a dragged inventory object.
This improves the game directly – anything at all that got in the way of the game’s art would be an outright crime. The colors and textures are incredibly rich, while characters and objects are highly stylized. It’s hard not to compare it to Stacking, the other Double Fine game I’ve been playing lately; the style isn’t the same, but in both games the highly stylized art establishes the tone and expands on the charm of the dialogue.
I don’t have quite as strong of feelings about the audio; while good, it expresses quality through unobtrusiveness, and I never stopped and thought to myself, “My stars, what an extraordinary bit of music.” The sound effects are another matter; particularly in the opening portion of Shay’s tale, the sound effects perfectly enrich the infantilizing power of the setting. This may not sound like praise; you’re going to have to take my word for it. It really works.
So I mentioned that I had some gripes about puzzle structure. I spent a lot of time frustrated by the game, feeling like I’d tried everything there was to try. My problem with this is not the frustration itself, but the fact that puzzles with only one rather obscure correct solution, and no in-game hint system or particularly clear context clues, the puzzles are more guess-what-I’m-thinking than testing the player’s cleverness. Guess-what-I’m-thinking is the famous and nearly universal criticism of adventure games; for me it only got really bad in the second chapter of Vella’s story. At other times, there are some rather nice puzzles where the end goal is clear and the means to achieve it are reasonably plain, but the pathway from where you are to both of those things is a bit murky. For me, this is the ideal puzzle, because it involves reasoning rather than brute-force testing of every item against every environment object. Compare this to the puzzles of Stacking, where the tools and goals of each puzzle have neon-flashing-sign-like clarity, and the game explicitly states that every puzzle anywhere from two to five solutions.
The linearity of the game and the absence of meaningful choice in dialogue (that is, there are no wrong choices, only ones you haven’t used yet) enhances the frustration of a roadblock – you can’t review any of a conversation except for the very last thing that a character said to you, and sometimes not even that. I might encourage Double Fine to consider a Journal function, as the game transitions from beta to release.
The weakness of linear dialogue and single-solution puzzles combines to create situations in which it seems that the protagonist pushes back against the player’s actions. I particularly found this to be the case in Vella’s chapters, such as the rather opaque puzzles at the end of her second chapter. This is problematic because it creates a rift in the game’s effort to get the player to identify with the character. While playing, I thought it would lead me to giving the game a rather lukewarm review. It has – as you are discovering – not done so, because the third chapter of Vella’s story has much clearer puzzles and goals, and because the end of Episode 1 sets up an Episode 2 that I cannot wait to play.
Already I have lavished praise on the game’s writing, but I want to really drive the point home. The characters and setting are as bizarre and comic as anything Double Fine gave us in Psychonauts, including a hipster lumberjack (played by Wil Wheaton) and a “guru,” excellently ludicrous as played by Jack Black. The characters are, in short, pitch-perfect. The surface-level ridiculousness conceals much – but I’ve said too much already. Initially, Shay’s story is farcical while Vella’s is surprisingly dark, but this too changes back and forth.
Tone shifts like this seldom work well in games or movies; it’s all too easy for a laugh to undermine a dramatic scene (even retroactively), and as a result erode its characters. Tim Schafer compartmentalizes tone, and the only shift between tones in a single NPC is a shift from silly to serious. Thus he does not undercut drama, but reveals it. Well, I’ve said it enough: it’s handled with strength and assurance, where many writers would have fumbled.
In conclusion: if you have even a modest tolerance for adventure games, you should play Broken Age as soon as possible. If you think adventure games really aren’t for you but you haven’t really played one in years (like me), give it a shot, and you may be surprised.
Art Style: 10/10
Audio: 9/10
Level/World Design: 9/10
Gameplay: 6/10

I originally wrote this for Shoost, but since that site has had to close its doors, I’m reposting it here for general consumption. When I wrote this, Broken Age was brand-spanking new; now, the release of Act Two is Coming Soon. (Ahem, this is not just filler because DtD is next weekend and I have no time… honest. Also, expect a bit of this over the next couple of weeks.)

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