Broken Age Act 1 PC Review
Tim Schafer is back to his adventure gaming roots in Double Fine‘s Broken Age. Schafer was involved in many of the classics of the genre from the 90’s with the Monkey Island series, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango to his credit. Adventure games fell out of favor with publishers by the start of the new millennium, and in 2012 Schafer decided to turn to crowd funding in an attempt to create a new adventure game. The Kickstarter campaign was wildly successful, surpassing the $400,000 goal in only a few hours, and passing $1,000,000 within 24 hours. With the surprising success of the fund-raising, the scope of the as-yet untitled adventure game grew, and Kickstarter backers were promised a deep and rich adventure game. But Double Fine may have promised a little more than they could deliver.
Broken Age is a very retro gaming experience, which is its biggest asset and hindrance. While adventure games can be a great way to tell a linear story, there has been no evolution of the genre to match modern tastes. There are simple puzzles to solve, some wacky characters with whom to converse, and a few set pieces to explore. As a fan of adventure games, I didn’t mind some of the shortcomings of the genre being present, but the concept of Broken Age does little to attract new gamers to what has become the very niche genre of adventure games.
The conversations, for instance, are linear. There is no impact to the dialogue, just simply clicking every available option and listening to the set responses. You won’t be making any moral choices or having elaborate conversations here; just the cold hard facts. The main mechanic of play is exploring each area, and solving puzzles. It’s a genre meant to challenge your mind, not your dexterity. The puzzles, however, are far too simple. While there is something to be said about avoiding the pitfall of frustrating players with overly obtuse puzzles that require as much luck as logic, removing all challenge makes the puzzles more of a mild annoyance than a true gameplay mechanic. The game could use a difficulty setting, as well as a few objects intended only as red herrings. As it stands, everything you can pick up (and there aren’t very many) has a single use, and a pretty obvious one at that. I found I had often solved a puzzle before even encountering it. This means the story has to steal the show in a game like this.
The story follows two seemingly unrelated young people dealing with very different conflicts. Shay, played by Elijah Wood, is stuck aboard a spaceship who’s only purpose is keeping Shay safe. He is given child-like missions to save knitted citizens who aren’t truly in any danger. His boredom and curiosity are driving him a little crazy, and he has to figure a way to escape the controlling AI who calls itself mom.
Vella, on the other hand, is faced with a whole heap of danger. She has been chosen as a sacrifice to a giant monster named Mog Chothra which is meant to be a great honor. Vella, however, has no desire to be eaten by Mog Chothra, and would instead find a way to fight it. Vella’s story is much more open. Whereas Shay never leaves the confines of his ship, Vella will travel to several different countries with very different inhabitants in her search for help defeating the beast.
I cannot stress enough; this is half of a game. Unlike other episodic games like those coming from Telltale recently, Broken Age was never meant to be split into multiple parts. This first half lacks the proper structure of a beginning middle and resolution on which to judge a plot. So while I stayed invested in the adventures of Shay and Vella throughout, the story will feel incomplete. Less cliffhanger ending, more mid-episode commercial break.
The word “passable” crossed my mind through much of Broken Age in regard to its aesthetics. The game looks like a storybook come to life, and it maintains that feel throughout. But in a game in which exploring the environment is paramount, Broken Age’s mostly static backgrounds are a disappointment. They are pretty environments, but not very deep ones. The character animations, however, are fun and lively and very expressive. It is easy to read a character’s mood simply by their body language. The interface is very clean and simple, but when solving puzzles I found I would have preferred the inventory stayed on-screen instead of fading away. In the battle of form versus function, I’d have preferred a little more functionality.
Broken Age features a star-studded cast of voice actors with the likes of Elijah Wood, Jack Black, and Fem Shep herself, Jennifer Hale. Everyone is in fine form, but with the exception of the leads, most of the characters are short-lived and forgettable. Jack Black, in particular, is fantastic as a crazy cult leader, but he is only in the game for around ten minutes. The music, too, is very well done and I found I sat through the entire credit sequence just enjoying the music. I would definitely suggest purchasing this game bundled with the soundtrack.
A decade from now, Broken Age is more likely to be remembered as the game that proved crowd-funded games can work than it is to be remembered as a classic of the adventure genre. The game suffers from a lack of focus during its development. What was originally intended to be a small project that was as much about producing a game development documentary as it was a rich gaming experience tried to morph into a deep throwback to 90’s adventure gaming. The result is a lot of promise, but some missed opportunities.
For backers of the Kickstarter campaign, this is a nice beginning to a game they have already invested in. But since the goal of releasing the first half of the game is to fund the second half, I have to question how many people who aren’t already backers will be interested in paying $30 now for 3-5 hours of gameplay and only half of a story. It leaves me concerned about the second half’s production budget. Only time will tell, but if you love adventure games and want to support their continued production, it may be worth it to invest in Broken Age.
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