Despite its record-setting Kickstarter success, last July Double Fine founder Tim Schafer realised he was going to run out of cash before Broken Age was complete. The solution? Complete half the game and sell it to fund the completion of the second half. However, unlike Telltale titles – whose story is designed around an episodic structure – Broken Age Act 1 just feels a little light.
To Double Fine’s credit, the game ships via Steam with a firm-ish release date for Act 2 (April/May), and the purchase of Act 1 will unlock the full game when it’s ready. And where Act 1's story really delivers is the ending, which will leave players eager for the conclusion.
Broken Age starts with a choice between its two stick-thin lead characters. Sleeping innocently back to back, our first action in the game is to wake one of the teenagers for the day’s adventure. Shay, played with down-home simplicity and repose by Elijah Wood, is confined to a spaceship drifting through space for an unstated purpose.
Overbearing AI parents watch over him, keeping him distracted with toys and pretend missions. His journey is one of subterfuge and teenage rebellion – help him escape from the suffocating love of artificial parents to search for real adventure.
Shay’s relationship with his protectors is frustrating to him, and we share his annoyance when forced to rescue infuriatingly high-pitched toy characters from non-existent danger in the first part of his storyline.
The writing here is excellent, and evokes the deeply bittersweet balancing act between protecting those one loves from harm and letting them find their own path. Like so many indie games in recent years, the idea of the family permeates Broken Age. The personal experiences of game designers who are now parents are deeply infused in the work.
Our adolescent heroine, Vella, is a confident, level-headed young woman who has been chosen by her village for the great honour of being snaffled up by a monster at the annual maidens feast – a Faustian pact to prevent its destruction.
Despite her warrior Grandfather’s bitter objections, she is to be offered to the mythical beast Mog Chothra along with other young hopefuls, in exchange for the village’s continued survival.
Everybody native to this land sees the monstrous offering as a hallowed tradition, and indeed a great honour for a young maiden. Vella’s teenage rebellion is starting to kick in, and what better way to get the player on her side than to have them rebel against a status quo that would have her eaten alive?
Broken Age is every bit a conventional point-and-click adventure game, from a rich tradition made famous in the early ‘90s by companies like Sierra and Schafer’s former employer LucasArts, who for a brief time in gaming history owned the monopoly on richly-designed worlds and artful storytelling.
The control system here is streamlined, with the use of a single cursor, and familiar logic-based object puzzles. It’s wisely optimised for every conceivable platform, and the inventory menu at the bottom of the screen is simple and effective. A major plus point is the ability for players to flick back and forth between the two stories at will.
This mechanic is great for taking a break from a difficult puzzle, which unfortunately isn’t as necessary as it should be. Here’s the thing about Broken Age: the first hour is a joy, and the tutorial curve is nicely paced, but it never kicks in to that deep, satisfyingly difficult adventure gameplay of old.
The whole first act is simplistic, and most experienced adventure gamers will breeze through it as though they are playing an interactive storybook (which the fantastic art design closely resembles).
It’s not as easy to slap an hour count on as most games, but there not many spots to get seriously stuck. These are not the same puzzles that drove classic adventurers into expletive-laden, hair-pulling
rage sessions. If you have ever struggled through titles such as Discworld, Kings Quest, or Shafer’s own Monkey Island games, there is nothing here that will make you flex your logical-thinking circuits.
The screen count just isn’t big enough to present a challenge – there are three or four locations accessible at any one time, which plays a big part in diluting the difficulty. This deeply harms the game, and turns it from a satisfying experience into a quickly finished pop-up book. In the age of the Internet walkthrough, a really tough challenge might have been more engaging.
Also problematic is a lack of innovation. Broken Age fails to implement even the great advances of the current gaming era. For instance, dialogue options are spelled out in full, despite the great example set by RPGs like Mass Effect, which kept players much more enthralled by teasing at the core message or intent in the menu system, making the spoken responses fresh and interesting once acted out.
The real shame is that there is so much to be praised here. The writing is mature, witty, satirical, and at times deeply emotive. This is still a fantastic storytelling experience, with characters that stick in the mind beyond the short playtime. Look out for the hipster lumberjack – played by nerd-elder-god Wil Wheaton – during Vella’s quest in particular. To add to this, each hand-painted location feels expertly crafted. It’s just such a colossal shame there isn’t more of a game going on in these great locations.
Hopefully Act 2 will rectify some of these issues – issues which by no means make Broken Age a bad game. It may be that the Act 1 is the lead up to a much longer and more difficult conclusion anyway. Broken Age Act 1 is definitely worth your time – even if it won’t demand enough of it.