Broken Age’s first act was mediocre but had potential. Potential that its conclusion squanders.
I’m glad Double Fine’s Broken Age wasn’t both the beginning and end of Kickstarter funding, because it’s been basically a poster child for everything that could go wrong—over-scoped, over-budget, and eventually split in half to help fund the ending off the back of the beginning.
And it’s not even that great.
Two small bookkeeping notes: This review contains spoilers for Act I . If you want a quick and dirty, spoiler-free review, I’ll tell you I don’t think Broken Age is especially worth your time.
Also, for the purposes of this review I went back and replayed Act I of Broken Age, having forgotten almost everything about it in the fifteen months since I played it. I’d recommend you do the same. It won’t make you appreciate Act II more. Quite the opposite, I think. Retreading Act I right before playing Act II just throws the conclusion’s issues into starker relief.
Without further ado…
Broken in two
The problem with Broken Age Act II is that it ends. Or, rather, that it’s an ending.
I don’t actually think Broken Age Act II is much worse than Act I. Objectively, both halves have the same issues: The puzzles are bad (even for a point-and-click adventure game), the story is contrived, and there’s little-to-no depth to both the characters and the environments. But somehow Act II feels like more of a letdown.
It’s all about potential, I think. Act I had to:
Set up the characters (dual protagonists Shay and Vella),
Set up the locations (Shay’s baby’s-first-spaceship and Vella’s monster-threatened world), and
Set up the second half.
And Act I accomplished all those things. It didn’t necessarily accomplish them with aplomb—see my complaints about the characters and environments lacking depth—but it did them. And then it dropped a hell of an ending on us, revealing that the “monster” Vella had been battling through her whole story was actually the exterior of Shay’s ship.
Boom. If you’re going to arbitrarily split your game into two episodes midway through development, you could do worse than that cliffhanger. I wasn’t amazed by Act I, but I felt like it was a solid foundation for Act II to build on.
Act II squanders that foundation. It’s not exactly worse, per se, but it’s also not better—and this time there’s no chance an “Act III” is going to fall from the sky and rectify the game’s many, many issues.
Let me pause for a second to point out there are some things Broken Age gets so, so right. For instance, voice acting. I don’t know why Double Fine spent (presumably) so much of the project’s budget getting the likes of Elijah Wood and Jack Black, et cetera to do the voices, but the results are top-notch.
Also fantastic: The art. Broken Age‘s environments might be empty, but the storybook/papercraft aesthetic is unilaterally gorgeous.
But that brings us to our first problem, which is that Act II is mostly content to retread the same areas we already visited in Act I.
Were you sick of Meriloft and Shellmound after Vella’s chunk of Act I? Too bad, because you’ll spend most of Shay’s story this time wandering those same towns and talking to the same people. And while Vella’s half of Act II introduces some battle-scarring and cosmetic damage to the interior of Shay’s old ship, it’s still the same fifteen or so rooms you circled through before.
What’s worse is that neither character seems perplexed by their changed circumstances. Vella lived her entire life in a semi-primitive baking society, but seems totally at ease in Shay’s electronics-ridden ship. Shay, for that matter, lived inside the confines of that tiny ship his entire life—and yet he doesn’t bat an eye upon seeing the ocean, for instance, or an entire floating city made out of clouds.
That lack of meaningful character exploration was honestly the biggest problem with Act I, and if anything it gets worse in Act II. It’s an entire cast of robots! No feelings. No emotions. No opinions. Just soulless automatons that exist to get or give items. Act I seemed like it at least had some well-trod-but-earnest ideas about adolescence. Act II has nothing but a trope-filled science fiction story you’ve heard a thousand times over, filled with empty characters.
Chief offender is Vella, who has zero character development in Act II beyond people saying “She was right the whole time and we should’ve listened.” Most of her story in Act II is actually spent uncovering more information about Shay. That and plodding up and down empty hallways. It’s almost insulting.
(Though the prize for stupidest reveal goes to Shay. Ten seconds into his story, we’re treated to a “plot twist” that makes literally zero sense, renders most of his story in Act I implausible if not downright impossible, and stretches suspension-of-disbelief to its absolute limits. Suffice it to say it involves Shay’s dad.)
As for the puzzles, Double Fine overcorrected from last year. Act I was too easy. The second half, with its overreliance on randomness, is tedious. Not difficult. Tedious.
The biggest change—and biggest source of frustration—is that some puzzles now rely on you swapping between Shay and Vella for the solution. In theory, great. You’ve got two worlds, so it makes sense (if you’re Double Fine) to force them to interact.
Unfortunately, Act I had none of that. Shay’s story was entirely independent of Vella’s, and you could play through to the end of one character’s arc without ever swapping to the other. Thus when you hit the first of these “forced swap points” in Act II, there’s a good chance you won’t even recognize it’s a roadblock—you’ll just keep looking for an answer that doesn’t exist, oblivious to the fact you need to change characters. It’s not even difficult. It’s just poorly designed.
Broken Age is neither a fantastic representative of the point-and-click genre in 2015 nor the “return to the LucasArts classics” we were promised by the original Kickstarter campaign. It’s all-style-no-substance. It’s boring. It’s lifeless.