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Review: Broken Age

After becoming a ‘slacker backer’ for the project, Kim couldn’t wait to get her hands on Double Fine Productions’ adventure Broken Age. But was it worth the wait or does it need a whole lot of fixing?


Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview

Name: Broken Age
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Release date: January 2014 to April 2015, two episodes
PEGI rating: 12
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, OUYA, PC, PlayStation 4, PS Vita
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

Double Fine Productions kicked off the video game crowdfunding craze back in March 2012 when it managed to raise $3,336,371 from 87,142 Kickstarter backers in just one month. Originally set a goal of $400,000 to cover the costs of development and documentary-filming, the previously-titled Double Fine Adventure became the largest crowdfunded gaming project at the time and remains one of the highest backed campaigns of any type. Its success helped to establish Kickstarter and other similar platforms as a viable alternative to traditional publisher funding, and this has resulted in a welcome revival of niche genres such as the traditional point-and-click adventure.

Unfortunately for me, the campaign for Double Fine Adventure happened way before 1001Up was formed so I missed the opportunity to become one of the original backers. But when the developer announced its Humble Bundle promotion in May 2013 I jumped at the chance: not only did I get my hands on some lovely games such as Costume Quest and Psychonauts, but paying over the average meant I became a ‘slacker backer’ for what is now known as Broken Age. I previewed the first episode in January last year and the final instalment was released at the end of April, so it’s now time for a full review.

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Plot

Broken Age’s plot centres on two teenagers, one who’s trying to escape the so-called ‘honour’ of her duties and the other who wants to break the bonds of the protective force watching over him. Feisty female Vella Tartine is preparing to be sacrificed to the gigantic Mog Chothra, a monstrous floating creature of tentacles and many eyes. The ritual of feeding young maidens to the beast every fourteen years keeps him at bay, or so the Sugar Bunting village elders say; but our heroine can’t accept this and questions why they can’t just kill the damn thing – much to her grandfather’s delight.

Shay begins to wonder if there isn’t something a little more exciting outside the confines of his ship.

Meanwhile, Shay Volta is the sole inhabitant of the spaceship Bass Nostra but rather than being a high-tech craft, it looks more like a nursery with fake toy controls. The pretend ‘missions’ he’s sent out on, such as saving squeaky woollen animals trapped in an avalanche of ice-cream by eating through the obstacle, no longer hold any entertainment value and he’s thoroughly bored. Overprotective artificial intelligence (AI) serves as parents for the teenager and as they search for a new home for him, Shay begins to wonder if there isn’t something a little more exciting outside the confines of his ship.

Neither protagonist can accept the cards they’ve been dealt and both are looking for a way to escape their fate. They find themselves embarking on two very different adventures, although they’re related in ways you may not necessarily expect. On the positive side, Broken Age’s plot and characters are extremely well-written and it’s refreshing to see Vella and Shay not falling into the usual tropes or ‘save the universe’ storyline; it’s the girl taking on the monster while the boy is trapped in the gilded palace. The game explores themes of individualism and highlights the potential dangers in mindlessly conforming to a group without question.

On the negative side however, it’s somewhat apparent that this is a title created in two halves. The first instalment focuses more on story while the second’s emphasis in on puzzles, possibly as a result of feedback received from crowdfunding backers after episode one (more about this later). A proper villain isn’t introduced until very late on and their arrival is handled clumsily; and rather than being allowed to discover their backstory through gameplay, it’s pretty much revealed in just one conversation. The shift in focus and the lack of a fully-fleshed-out baddie means you have to keep reminding yourself why you’re doing all this, and what’s meant to be an emotional finale instead falls a little flat.

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Gameplay

If you’ve played any of designer Tim Schaefer’s classic adventures, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Broken Age.

If you’ve played any of designer Tim Schaefer’s classic adventures such as Full Throttle or Grim Fandango, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Broken Age. You take on the role of Vella or Shay depending on which story you’re playing, and explore the world while talking to characters, collecting items and solving puzzles. There isn’t exactly anything revolutionary about the gameplay here but it all works rather well: it’s easy to pick up and there’s no steep learning curve. The only thing I didn’t like was the inventory bar, which kept popping up at the bottom of the screen whenever I clicked on something low down in the environment.

Players are given the option to switch between Vella and Shay’s stories at will. This serves no real purpose in terms of the storyline and you could potentially complete the section for one character before starting the other, right until the end of the game when some switching is required in order to progress. The ability to leave the fantasy setting of Vella’s world for Shay’s high-tech one (and vice-versa) is a nice addition and can provide a welcome break; but I was a little disappointed that players never have the opportunity to see both characters work directly together.

Rather than the verbs or interactive cursors typically found in traditional adventure games, Broken Age makes use of context-sensitive actions. Your cursor changes whenever it encounters a hotspot and clicking on it will result in the person being spoken to or object being handled. According to Schaefer in an interview with Polygon a couple of years ago, he opted for this more-modern approach as ‘there really was always one verb’ – ‘interact with’ – and while I understand the sentiment, I have some issues with this type of mechanic. On one hand it facilitates smooth gameplay and possibly better suits today’s gamers but on the other it removes some of the challenge, as you no longer have to consider how to interact with an item or character.

The staple of the genre is the puzzles and those found here aren’t bad but they’re a mixed bunch.

And speaking of challenge, the staple of the genre is the puzzles and those found here aren’t bad but they’re a mixed bunch. The first half of the game is quite simplistic and experienced adventure gamers may find it too easy, while the puzzles in the second half are more complex but unfortunately a little frustrating. There’s a particular challenge that involves a lot of walking around Shay’s world which grated on me after a while; and the final puzzle involves a series of interactions that need to be completed in a specific order, otherwise you end up having to start again (and start over again many times I did, as shown in my gameplay video below). The trial comes from effort rather than from challenge itself.

That being said however, there are some good moments and the puzzle involving cloud god Harm’ny Lightbeard was one I particularly enjoyed. It’s necessary to get a solution from another character for untying a tricky knot so you have to describe it to her correctly (‘a bowl full of fingers’ being one of the options); and instead of giving you clear instructions she draws diagrams, which you then have to interpret to a further character (‘tug on the piggy’s tail’). I’m aware that a number of other reviewers have criticised Broken Age for having puzzles that are too obtuse but personally I didn’t find this to be the case. There may have been a couple of cases of slightly-fuzzy logic, but there were no solutions that made me scratch my head in complete confusion.

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Visuals and audio

One of the high points of Broken Age is the glorious visuals. There are plenty of differences between Vella and Shay’s worlds, the former being magical and fluffy while the latter is a somewhat colder and harder; and although they’re both relatively small, they’re beautifully realised. The understated, painted style stands out against the current trend for ever-more realistic graphics and it’s almost as if a child’s storybook has been brought to life. There are some lovely background animations which add to the atmosphere and it’s easy to see how much effort Double Fine has put into the visuals.

Some would say that this design was to save on time, and I have to agree that it does seem as if less effort went into the second episode.

I won’t include any spoilers here but in the second half of the title, our protagonists switch places and find themselves in each other’s’ worlds. On one hand I appreciated that they had been thrown into an environment which was strange to them yet familiar to the player and it’s a nice contrast; but on the other, it was disappointing to see that there were very few new locations or characters to experience. Some would say that this design was to save on time and money but while I don’t necessarily feel like that, I have to agree that it does seem as if less effort went into the second episode.

Switching back to the positives, another highlight is the sound: gorgeous and full of melodic strings and violins, adding just the right amount of drama when needed to highlight the danger or urgency of a situation. Composer Peter McConnell originally planned to use a small ensemble for the score but then realised that some parts needed something bigger, and ultimately recorded the soundtrack with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (similar to Grim Fandango Remastered). At first it reminded me of that from Fable but the comparison isn’t quite right: Broken Age manages to be softer yet fuller somehow, whilst being completely unobtrusive.

And yet another high-point is the voice-acting from stars such as Elijah Wood and Jack Black, whose talent along with some superb writing make for a cast you can’t help but fall in love with. As mentioned above, it’s good to see characters here not falling into the typical stereotypes and that old LucasArts humour is still there albeit a little more subtle. My favourite individual had to be Curtis, voiced by Wil Wheaton, a hipster lumberjack with some special innuendos on whom the trees are seeking revenge; and Dutch, the talking knife with murderous inclinations, is also worth a mention.

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Replay and innovation

When you’re looking for something to replay that’s modern yet conjures up the feeling of classic titles within the genre, this one will hit the spot.

Unfortunately for point-and-click adventures, they don’t tend to hold a lot of instant replay value as the linear storyline and puzzle solutions are always the same. Although there are a number of Steam achievements you can aim for there’s no real incentive to reach for Broken Age again straight after completing it. That being said however, it’s highly likely that many gamers will return to it at some point in the future once its memory fades; when you’re looking for something to replay that’s modern yet conjures up the feeling of classic titles within the genre, this one will hit the spot.

The game is inventive in the way that it gives players the opportunity to switch between two stories and does well when it comes to characters who don’t fall into the usual tropes, but its main source of innovation is the fact that it was a crowdfunding success that really helped establish Kickstarter. Relying on backers for funding meant that Double Fine had to open themselves up to feedback and consider incorporating gamers’ suggestions in the title. Whether you consider this to have worked or to have been a disaster (my thoughts on the subject are below), it was new way of working at the time and required a certain amount of bravery the developer’s part.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

The original campaign for Double Fine Adventure brought in over eight times more funding than the initial target set, and in light of this Double Fine had to reconsider their plans for their project. The additional money meant they could be more ambitious but it also caused a number of issues. They ended up having to split Broken Age into two parts so sales from the first could raise the extra funds needed to complete the second; and with increased production values and added platforms, the title spent a further year in production and missed its anticipated October 2012 release.

Double Fine were torn between creating something that would harken back to the glory days of the genre, and pleasing those looking for a more modern adventure.

As a result, this almost feels like a game of two halves. It’s clear that a lot of effort was put into the first episode in terms of writing, design and visuals, but the feedback from the community was that it was too easy; the developer then tried to cater to the desires of its backers in the second instalment and the result is an uneven affair. It’s one of the issues faced by anyone going down the crowdfunding route: you can potentially end up swapping the chain of the publisher for that of the fans you’re trying to please. Double Fine were torn between creating something that would harken back to the glory days of the genre, and pleasing those looking for a more modern adventure.

So does that mean I wouldn’t recommend it for a 1001 list? No: it may not deserve a spot right at the top but I think it would definitely be in there somewhere. There’s a sense of unfulfilled potential about Broken Age but there’s also something wonderful about it too. I completed the game feeling a little disappointed at its finale but after walking away from the screen, I realised it had done something that no title has managed to in a while: it made me felt just like a kid again playing The Secret of Monkey Island for the first time. Despite its shortcomings, it’ll feel almost as if you’re coming home if you grew up in the company of Ben, Manny and the rest of the classic adventure crew.

Pete ended up playing the last third of the game with me, and I think he said something that I think sums it up perfectly: “It was like a lovely slice of buttery toast. It’s very nice but it’s always good to have more.”

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Review round-up

Reviewed: PC
Source: We were ‘slacker backers’ for the crowdfunding campaign
Positive: A lovely, warm adventure that harkens back to the glory days of LucasArts
Negative: A game of two halves, experienced gamers may find it too easy
Score: 43 out of 60
Grade: Buy it now!
Broken Age, video game, review, graph, Buy it now!

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