Broken Age (PC)

By Walter Hare

Published on Tuesday, March 4, 2014

So it’s likely best to say right off the that I am indeed a back of the Broken Age Kickstarter, and thus perhaps do not have the most unbiased view of the project. It’s hard not to feel emotionally attached to the game after watching a baker’s dozen worth of heartwarming, endearing documentary episodes involving a designer whose work you’ve loved for many years. But counteracting that nearness, perhaps, is the two year wait after submitting a large amount of money (above and beyond the purchasing price), so…. that breaks even right?

The game plays out in a traditional manner with the pointing and the clicking, though it has been streamlined with the removal of any sort of verbs or particular actions. Instead you need only click on objects to produce their response, and puzzles are solved primarily through applying the correct item from your inventory. Objects that can be interacted with meaningfully highlight prominently on the screen when moused over, and I never once encountered a situation where I could not discern a puzzle critical element of the scenery.

 Broken Age (2)

As with all Double Fine games, the primary enjoyment of Broken Age comes from the general presentation and story. Obviously the hand-painted aesthetic of the game stands out first and foremost. While it lacks the pure detail of modern genre stalwarts such as Machinarium or even Deponia, it makes up for that in pure beauty, with each scene being lovingly designed and cared for. This is particularly impressive considering the relatively large number of distinct screens with unique aesthetics.

Of even or greater importance is the story, which has always been Tim Schafer’s strong point. Broken Age is about two young people, Vella and Shay, who find themselves trapped in vastly different yet parallel personal struggles. Shay lives isolated and alone on a spaceship whose AI take care of his every need, but leaves him feeling weak, useless and alone. Vella finds herself similarly isolated as she is chosen for the great honor of being sacrificed to the monster Mog Chothra, yet seems to be the only one who thinks that there’s something wrong with that situation.

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Despite its short length, there is an incredible amount of dialogue in the game that help to flesh out the main characters and the few dozen NPC’s that populate the world/outer space, each with a highly distinguished personality and role. This is particularly impressive considering most of the characters serve very little purpose outside of establishing the context of one or two puzzles at most.

Broken Age is not without its oddities in this regard, however, and there were a handful of presentation elements that bugged me for the entirety of my four or five hours with the game. Most irksome perhaps is a few voice acting quirks. For instance Vella, who generally has very high quality direction, often seems to be speaking in such a way that completely mismatches the scene. As she stands on a podium in front of a two hundred foot tall Flying Spaghetti Monster made flesh, she continues to talk as if it’s a generally average day. While I didn’t expect her to be hyperventilating and screaming, it seemed like there was no true interaction between the acting and the scene. Shay suffers from similar levels of ennui during a handful of high stress scenes, but is generally more reactive and thus natural.

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The aesthetics of Vella’s path were also mildly disruptive, though not overly. Both characters’ environments show a wide range of styles and places, with Shay’s space ship containing equal parts cold, metallic corridor and ice cream mountain, and Vella’s adventure taking her from a village of bakers through sky and forest. In the latter’s case, I was struck by a certain feeling of randomness between each environment. Even in the most thematically random rooms of Shay’s ship, the outline of a metal door or steel girder in the distance was a constant reminder of his situation, linking each area to a central idea. Vella, however, hops directly from a village in the sky, to a three panel forest then immediately to a fishing village, with very little logical transition between them. Honestly this isn’t a major issue, as the idea seems to be that in her world each village revolved around a distinct and interesting theme, but this only really felt natural after I’d completed the game and was able to look back on the whole. In the midst of play, I was constantly wondering if I hadn’t been paying enough attention.

Broken Age (5)

These are small complaints however, and even with these issues the overall ‘feel’ of the game is nearly perfect. Where it truly, and I’d say inarguably, suffers is the puzzles on display. Nearly every puzzle involved bringing object ‘A’ to location ‘B’ with few or no intermediary steps. You receive a number of game critical items simply through the story or by working through all the dialogue options, most of which were without consequences, and there’s only a handful of environmental puzzles solved through movement. Without any verbs and with a fairly limited list of objects in the game, I stumbled through almost every puzzle without even realizing that I was in the process of solving it, and the one or two times I thought I was about to get stuck the solution was so painfully, obviously spelled out to me by one NPC or another that it was borderline insulting. Broken Age simply does not need tips embedded into the dialogue, enjoyable though that dialogue may be.

It made me consider the character switching feature that allows you to jump between Shay and Vella at any time. Notice that I don’t call it a mechanic, because it has no effect on the game as the two never interact. But the fact that it exists makes me think at one time they were supposed to, and perhaps still will in part two, and that each area presented in this first Act was intended to be the “introduction” area for that character, thus easier to complete. For challenge and design’s sake, I might have preferred a single, structured story that switched back and forth at specific points, somewhat like Gemini Rue.

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So if you just got finished with Machinarium and are looking for new, exciting puzzle challenges, this might not be for you. However, Broken Age’s aesthetic and narrative elements are exemplary and more than make up for the weak puzzles.

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