Developers: Double Fine
'Shut up and take my money!' That was the first thing I said when I learned that Tim Schafer and co. were making a new point-and-click adventure game. It didn't matter that they'd incorrectly assumed everyone thought that the genre was dead, it didn't really phase me when they announced that the game would be split into halves; after all, some of the finest of these extinct adventure games we've had in the last few years have been episodic in nature. It miffed me a bit when they decided that big name Hollywood talent was more important than getting the whole thing out on time, but to be fair, the voice acting in this thing is fantastic, so no complaints there really.
Put simply, there was a lot of excitement for Broken Age.
It is, in many ways, a delight. In one universe, Shay, brought to life with a marvellously understated performance from Mr. Wood, gets up for another day of routine aboard the spaceship Bossa Nova. He lives out his days in a childish paradise -- eating ice-cream, playing with train sets, and rescuing little knitted critters from staged peril before enjoying their hugs. The ship is a daycare prison, guarded by an overbearing AI (Jennifer Hale is fantastic) who addresses Shay as if he were her toddler son, and shields him from anything even remotely involving risk or danger. But adventure comes a-calling, and Shay learns the hard way that to be an adult is to make hard decisions, and that seeking danger has its consequences.
Elsewhere, Vella (a feisty Masasa Moyo) prepares for the Maidens' Feast -- a ceremony that sees villagers serving up girls of a certain age as offerings of appeasement towards an ancient, multi-eyed, tentacle monster named Mog Chothra. Her whole family -- the crotchety grandpa aside, who remembers a time when his was a village of warriors rather than bakers -- believe being chosen by the Mog to be a high honour, but it doesn't sit well with Vella. After all, she's the one about to get eaten. Given the opportunity, she fights for her right to choose her own destiny, before searching for a way to kill Mog Chothra and end this barbaric cycle of events.
Two teenagers, then, and two classic bildungsroman stories, dealing with coming of age and understanding one's place in the world. Like so many adventure titles, you start with a lot of questions, and there are plenty of seemingly random and wilfully quirky elements to the narratives that appear to make little sense. An hour or so into Shay's story, and I couldn't help but wonder if Double Fine were being weird just for the sake of it. But it isn't too long before things begin to come together, and a game that seems split into two very distinct and discrete paths starts to shade in the gaps as we reach the interval.
There are some wonderfully left-field exchanges between the main protagonists and the colourful cavalcade of characters that they encounter. Jack Black turns in a great performance, managing to limit his usual wacky loudness, as the leader of a cult living in the clouds. Vella comes across a forest of talking trees at one point, who've been hurling insults at a neighbouring woodcutter, and one of the little puzzles involves trying to obtain some sap from a particularly theatrical and obstinate tree and making him vomit by showing him the sort of thing that humans can do with bits of wood. It's a wonderfully bizarre sequence that had me laughing out loud.
It's encounters such as this that made me want to throw my money at Double Fine in the first place. Broken Age is a gentle game, full of little moments, aided by sumptuous aesthetics, clever and witty one-liners, and a gorgeous soundtrack. It's not a game that will WOW anyone with moments of grandeur, but it does draw you in with a familiar, if slightly more adult, charm. There's little by way of sarcasm to Schafer's script, and not too much by way of parody or pantomime as has sometimes been the case in the past. Instead, the writing is warm and inviting, making for a captivating experience not unlike some of the finest that Dreamworks and Disney have had to offer in the past.
But something is also lost in this tonal shift. Where old-school point-and-click adventure games often proved a little too obtuse, Broken Age swings in the other direction. None of the puzzles are especially taxing, with NPCs frequently spelling out exactly what you have to do. There's no hint system, but you won't ever really need one; everything's very clean and simple and logical and, well, a little bit boring in that regard. There's nothing here on a technical level that rivals some of the invention of Machinarium or Gemini Rue or even much of Schafer's earlier work.
The fact that this is only three hours long and is part of a much larger whole is problematic too. Broken Age wasn't designed to be an episodic series and it doesn't have the dramatic highs and lows of a series such as The Walking Dead to compensate on an act-to-act level. When Act 1 ended fairly abruptly, it was kind of a case of is that it? The answer is clearly of course it isn't, but the difference between a series purposefully designed to be played in instalments and a game that's been broken up due to necessity is rather evident here. At least the game's twist, though foreshadowed fairly significantly, is enough to make you really want to play on, but there's a sense that the best bits are all still to come.
At least let's hope so.
- It looks and sounds wonderful
- Some beautifully written and acted moments
- Colourful cast of characters
- Lovely blend of the serious and surreal
- Act 1 ends just as things start getting truly interesting
- The puzzles are fairly dull
- Those looking for a truly old-school point-and-click adventure won't find it here
The Short Version: Broken Age's first act does just about enough to stand alone, though it really wasn't supposed to be this way, and that's clearly evident in a game that's slow to start and ends just as it hits its stride. However, gorgeous visuals, cracking performances, and a wonderfully-written script that manages to perfectly blend the serious and the surreal make Broken Age worth a look at this early stage. But we won't be putting a score on it until the whole thing is in our hands.