Broken Age Act One review: Kickstarter's darling is a charming, shallow half-game
At a Glance
After all this time, it's finally here—the game that kickstarted Kickstarter, that brought crowdfunding to the mainstream. Once known only as Double Fine Adventure, then renamed Broken Age, it was a golden promise: point-and-click adventure legend Tim Schafer was going to take the gloves off the wall for one more fight, returning to the genre that made him famous with games like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle.
Well, he did take the gloves off, and Double Fine did make a game, but whether or not you'll enjoy it I think largely depends on why you play(ed) old-school point-and-click adventures.
In other words, when you asked the Tim Schafer to make another adventure game, why? Was it because you love Schafer's worlds? Or was it because you loved 1990s LucasArts adventure games?
Broken Age tells two stories that you can theoretically swap between at will, though I never had reason to. Instead I played one story to completion, then played the other.
There's Vella, who lives in the bakery-themed town of Sugar Bunting—a town set on sacrificing her to the evil monster Mog Chothra. Vella's grandfather remembers a time when Sugar Bunting was called Steel Bunting, though—when they were the most feared town in the land. While everyone else prepares to send Vella to her death, he reminds her of a time when Steel Bunting fought the Mogs and implores her to do the same.
And then there's Shay, whose existence is as safe and quiet as Vella's is imperiled. Shay is trapped in a spaceship built for babies. He goes on missions with all the danger of a Legends of the Hidden Temple episode, yearning for a bit of adventure but “imprisoned” by Mom, a well-meaning artificial intelligence whose sole purpose is to keep him safe. After all, he's the last hope for his dying planet.
While I don't think Broken Age as memorable as Grim Fandango or Psychonauts, it's clearly a Tim Schafer/Double Fine production. World-building is what they do best. Every single frame is gorgeous, and the game resembles an interactive children's book more than anything else.
Vella's half of the story is particularly interesting from an art standpoint, since her quest against Mog Chothra leads her through multiple distinct (fascinating) regions. You typically spend about half an hour—at most, forty-five minutes—in each area, so there was plenty of room for Broken Age to stretch its legs and show off.
Shay's half is more restrained. You're on the ship. Then you're on the ship. Then you float through space a bit, but you're still basically on the ship. Then you're—surprise!—on the ship.
And you know what? Despite the limitations, it's a great ship to explore. There are a lot of clever sci-fi references sprinkled throughout (Soylent Dreams cereal, anyone?) and the core “child's plaything” conceit makes for clever design. Your ship travels through space courtesy of a grizzled old robot named Space Weaver, who literally knits patterns into the ship's navigation and quickly became my favorite character.
But it says something about Broken Age when the environments in Vella's story take at most thirty to forty-five minutes apiece, and when Space Weaver—a character with one purpose and few lines—is my favorite character in the game.
Broken Age is missing one key aspect: depth. And it's missing it in so many places.
There's a sparseness to Broken Age. The game is beautiful, but it's a passive beauty. Frames are crammed with visual detail, but 95% of it is static background. A frame with five objects to interact with—even if “interact” just means “Shay or Vella provides commentary”—is a crowded frame in Broken Age. Too many areas have a single object.
And it's not just environments. Broken Age has tons of potential which it rarely capitalizes on. Characters are disposable, given one purpose and then cast aside. I mean, Jack Black voices a soft-spoken cult leader who licks feathers and loves yogurt, and he does a fantastic job...for the maybe fifteen or twenty lines he's given. Then he's gone.
It's lucky the game looks so great on the surface, because so far “surface” is most of the game.
Which brings me to the last point I'm going to make about narrative—splitting your narrative when it wasn't originally intended to be split is awful. I understand the reasons: Double Fine ran out of money, whether you like that reason or not, and needed to fund Act Two of the game off the first half's profits. But episodic stories only work when they're planned that way from the start. Just splitting a singular story in half? Not so much.
It's all about structure. Episodes work because they form a larger arc in the long run, but each singular episode contains a beginning, middle, and end.
Broken Age halfheartedly tries to fit a beginning, middle, and end into its story, but it doesn't quite make it. The beginning drags on, and the “end” (such as it is) feels rushed. Which is a shame, since the end is the most fascinating part of the story so far.
Shay's story is particularly egregious—his entire half feels like set-up to a larger tale that's then cut short right before it begins. Vella at least gets a halfway decent arc before it's over.
And then we come to the puzzles—the other half of the adventure genre, and the part that's harder to get right.
Broken Age is easy. I say this as someone who is typically terrible at adventure games. I got stuck daily during The Longest Journey, and Secret of Monkey Island? Forget it, I got stuck on the first real puzzle.
Now, the act of “getting stuck” is subjective. The places where I'm going to get stuck are different than the places you'll get stuck, because you're not going to make the same connections I do.
But wow. Let me say it again: Broken Age is so easy. I got stuck once, and it was nothing a night away from the computer couldn't solve. I've seen people posting consistent numbers for how long this first half took them to beat, so I know it's not just me—four hours is the norm, with three for those who ran through the game and never bothered to interact with the (sparse) scenery or skipped over the voice acting because they read subtitles faster.
On the one hand, simplicity is good. One of the reasons point-and-click adventure games “died” to begin with was the absurd, opaque logic behind most of the puzzles. “How would I ever figure that out?” was a common refrain with those 90s LucasArts games.
There's a balance, though, and Broken Age feels a bit too much like Shay's “Baby's First Spaceship!” setting. Broken Age wants you to solve puzzles, but the solutions are often so glaringly obvious that there's no satisfaction when you've moved on—no “a-ha!” moment.
Once you remove the difficulty, adventure games play like one long, interactive film with a few dialogue choices. This can also make for a good game (see TellTale's output recently) but Broken Age's dialogue isn't a game in and of itself—it's simple dialogue trees, straight out of those classic adventure games. You go through each option one at a time, people say things, you listen. You're not making moral choices here, nor would I expect Broken Age to be that kind of game.
But what is offered...if you're coming to Broken Age because you want a challenging, wacky adventure game in the vein of Day of the Tentacle, you're going to be disappointed.
Personally, the story on offer was enough to keep me engaged even as I churned through the puzzles, but if you're coming to Tim Schafer's table hoping for a classic LucasArts adventure...well, just don't. Don't come to the game expecting that.
Broken Age gets a lot right—certainly enough that I'd call this Kickstarter story a success—but it's a shallow victory. “More” is the key word, here. I want more depth to the characters, more dialogue for incidental characters, more difficulty for puzzles, more objects to interact with.
Oh, and more story, obviously. After all, half a story is half a story, no matter how beautiful the art.
Broken Age is still full of potential. There's room for the second half (whenever it releases) to plumb the depths of both settings, giving us more characterization for both Shay and Vella and wrapping it all up in a shiny emotional bow. Perhaps that's not feasible on the project's shoestring budget, but I'll hope for the best.
Note: At PCWorld we don't score episodic releases on a per-episode basis. Broken Age will receive a rating after Act Two is released.