Broken Age came out in two acts: one in 2014, and the other more recently in the form of a free update. It was never intended to be split like this, and so this review will look at it as a whole. Broken Age was developed by Double Fine, a studio headed up by Tim Schafer that has established itself as caring for the personal touch. In Broken Age they’ve returned to the point-and-click adventure genre that has a strong place in the company, due to Schafer’s connections to Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. However, unlike the recent remasterings of these games, here we’re given a brave new leap into a brilliant new tale.
Broken Age is the story of a boy and a girl, Shay and Vella, who live in radically different environments. The boy begins his story in a space ship where he’s pampered by his mother, who only appears through screens. The girl lives in a small village where she’s to have the “honour” of being sacrificed to appease a mighty monster. Both face great twists I’ll avoid spoiling, both view the world through the eyes of sceptical teenagers, and, since the game is developed by Double Fine, their coming of age stories are told in both bizarre and hilarious ways.
The clever gameplay matches the creativity you’d imagine from a critically thinking teen, and from the start the game subtly slips you into its way of thinking. It wants you to question authority, to really think dynamically, and to have fun doing so. In the beginning of Shay’s tale he lies in bed while continuously being told to wake up; refusing to do so sets off an alarm, showing the player that unresponsiveness is an option. Moving onto breakfast, the message is reinforced; Shay is given the arbitrary option of what cereal he wants. Saying no to one will cause new ones to be offered, each with strange names like Choco Rockets and Honey holograms, and by saying no to all of them you get an achievement.
Of course passiveness isn’t the main option for puzzles, but they do begin quite simple, at first teaching you the controls and eventually getting more complex. One of the first puzzles for Vella involves finding a knife to cut the celebratory cake for the Maiden’s Feast (where the maidens are the monster’s feast). It’s pretty obvious that her grandfather is stashing it away, and talking to him makes it clear that he wants a cupcake. My first instinct was to keep offering him cupcakes, but the correct thing to do was ask him to split one, which naturally requires him to take out the knife and absentmindedly give it to Vella. Silly grandpa.
Most puzzles involve finding a certain object in the environment, or from talking to a person, then stashing it in your inventory, and using it at the correct time, or in the correct way. There are a few ways you can use items, such as giving it to a character, or using it on the environment, and you can also combine items, or use them on yourself. Perceptiveness and intuition are required, but, unlike some classic titles, most puzzles are fairly logical, and if you can’t get past a certain area it’s likely that you missed something or someone. Talking to people, searching for hidden pathways, and listening to what your character has to say will all offer new ways to tackle obstacles. However, for those who are familiar with the adventure genre, Broken Age may seem like a bit of a breeze.
Act 1 in particular is very easy to get through without even needing a pause to think, and could easily be finished in a few hours. The game does get more difficult towards the end of it, but only really in Act 2 does it offers up any sort of challenge. The areas you have to explore get larger, making for a larger pool of options, and puzzles that require more steps. Towards the end you’ll need to be grabbing a pen and paper to make notes to solve certain puzzles, and it’s also towards the end that we’re finally given the need to switch between the two characters, a mechanic that feels like something that could’ve been explored more. Unfortunately Act 2’s problem is that certain environments and people become overly familiar, and there are pretty much no new characters to meet.
However, since the characters here are so interesting, this can be forgiven. Anyone who’s played other Double Fine titles, such as Psychonauts, will be fully aware that it’s the bizarre characters that truly make the games stand out, and Broken Age is no different. Each have an Alice in Wonderlandish ridiculousness mixed with satire. You’ll meet eating utensils who have raunchy relationships, a cult leader who replaces a part of cult members’ names with an apostrophe, and a hipster lumberjack who fears a talking tree (which makes very good points on the mutilation of its species). Even the teleporters on the ship have voices and take a strange pleasure in their jobs.
The world itself is beautifully drawn with varying environments. From the ice cream mountain that has regular avalanches, to the train that carries sock creatures to certain doom, everything has had a great amount of work put into it. This is especially evident in characters’ appearances and mannerisms; even the way Vella walks and stares reflect her stubborn side. The voice actors also do a terrific job, and some famous voices pop up. Elijah Wood voices Shay, Jack Black voices Harm’ny the cultist, and Will Wheaton voices the lumberjack. Small and big names alike add to the joy of conversing. You’ll find yourself talking about everything you can with characters, and doing so really highlights that this is a game that wants you to have fun.
It may not have been the most difficult, but the game evokes playfulness. The amount of detail to the story and characters is fantastic, and will keep you playing just to see and hear more of the world. By the time you come to the surprisingly emotional finale you’ll have laughed out loud more than you have in most games, you’ll have witness peoples’ worlds twisted and changed, and you’ll care about a group of characters that feel like wacky friends. After Double Fine’s recent remaster of Grim Fandango, it was exciting to see Broken Age finish its second act. It shows that adventure games still have a place, and will make newcomers and veterans of the genre hungry for more.
Ice cream avalanches, an emotional tree, and erotic kitchen utensils.