Broken Age (Act One) Review – Oh So Double Fine

Double Fine is a funny little developer.  Their games are almost always misunderstood in one context or another, adding up to usually poor sales, despite legions of fans singing their praises.  So when Double Fine called upon their fans to fund a game upfront, they were met with the money by tenfold.  Two years later, the first half of that game is now in our hands, and that game is Broken Age.  Was it worth the wait and the cost in the end?

No matter how good or bad Broken Age may ever be, it will forever have a legacy as the first multi-million dollar crowdfunded game.  This has given the game quite the bumpy road along the way, including going a bit over-budget once the funds went out of control.  Developer Double Fine’s solution to this was to release Broken Age in two halves to help bring in more money from those who didn’t originally fund the project.

Expectations are undoubtedly high, with many gamers already claiming  to have some personal stake in the project. With millions of dollars poured into what was originally to be a small project, what we end up getting is not “the greatest multi-million dollar game ever made” but instead perhaps the most polished small project ever conceived.

As a boy becomes a man, he grows ever more tired of the ritual of breakfast.

As a boy becomes a man, he grows ever more tired of the ritual of breakfast.

From the very start, Broken Age is a love letter to the golden age of point-and-click adventure games such as Monkey Island and Full Throttle.  The game features a system that feels a lot like the modern variations of the classic SCUMM engine, relying on simple clicking and dragging and dropping of inventory items to interact with the world.  And boy-howdy, what a world it is.

Broken Age features two parallel story lines about two children breaking out of the molds of their questionable rituals.  In one half of the game, there’s Vella, a young woman who questions the bizarrely grizzly sacrificial maiden ritual of being offered up to a gigantic lumpy monster and instead seeks to break out of cycle and be the first to kill the mighty beast.  In the other half of the game, players take control of Shay, the sole inhabitant of a gigantic space station guarded by an over-protective virtual mother.  Shay grows tired of his sterilized life away from the dangerous truths of the world and a sequence of events teaches him more of these dangers than he had ever hoped to know.

Don't let the soft colors fool you-- there's something truly dark about the events at hand.

Don’t let the soft colors fool you– there’s something truly dark about the events at hand.

The two campaigns are disparately different, with Vella’s quest taking her across a variety of fairytale vistas; and Shay’s staying confined to the cold and mysterious spaceship that is his home.  By clicking a small icon in the corner of the inventory, players can smoothly switch between the two characters at any time.  I found myself often doing this after major dramatic beats in each tale, which helped to highlight many of the subtle connections between Shey and Vella.

Aside from being different narratively, the two characters also offer up different sorts of variations on the core gameplay.  Almost as if Vella’s adventure feels like a hearkening to classic adventure game tropes—a lot of the puzzles are solved with archaic items and that bizarre “adventure game logic” that plagues many of even the best titles in the genre. Meanwhile Shay’s takes many more pages from modern adventure games, such as those put out by Telltale Games—smaller environments, less item management, and puzzles based on immediate surroundings.

In Act One, Shay’s story plays out as the more refined one with less fantastical mysteries and wonderful pacing to give players a grand sense of scale for the environments and characters.  Vella’s story, on the other hand, is constantly changing locations, and characters only get about five or ten minutes of screen time until they are literally never seen again.  It makes it a bit harder to get invested in Vella and her journey, but it does help to punctuate the narrative that her journey is that much different than Shay’s.

Vella's journey will take the player to very edge of Double Fine's imagination.

Vella’s journey will take the player to very edge of Double Fine’s imagination.

But what Vella’s story lacks in substance, it more than makes up for in style.  The whole game does, honestly.  It seems that even after the grandiose funds, the scale of Broken Age itself never changed. All that money simply allowed Double Fine to craft one of the most beautiful games ever created.  The hand-painted visuals look amazing in motion, from the animated movements of each character to subtle wafts of movement from trees and clouds in the backgrounds.  Add on top of that a fantastic orchestral score by mainstay Peter McConnell and you have a satisfying treat for the eyes and ears.

The game is also fully voiced, with Elijah Wood headlining as the voice of Shay, giving a solid performance alongside others such as Nikki Rapp, Richard Horvitz, and Vella’s own actor, Masasa Moyo.  Each of the voices help to add to the world and character and fortunately never lean too close to grating, even with some hilarious cameos throughout.  The only downside is that it’s very easy to exhaust every conversation option with characters within a few minutes of dialogue.  In a straight playthrough, it’s very unlikely that you’d miss any jokes or anecdotes, which is a good thing, but gives little to no reason to interact with a lot of characters after initial encounters, especially when playing as Vella.

Gameplay could use a bit of refinement as well, with a lot of the puzzles in Vella’s story coming down to whether or not players picked up extremely random objects in each area.  At least once in each area,  I found myself stuck because I didn’t pick up a small object five or six rooms back; or I found myself solving random puzzles with items I was lucky enough to figure out I needed to pick up.  While the game does a great job of getting players to even notice these items—don’t worry, no pixel hunting in this game—it still rests on these types of puzzles too much.  Adventure game veterans will move past these hiccups with ease, but I could easily see many new players to the genre getting very frustrated with this; especially in the wake of games like The Walking Dead, which goes out of its way to avoid situations like these.  This is remedied somewhat by the ability to immediately travel to areas by double-clicking on transitions, but still expect a lot of walking back and forth at times.

With love in every pixel, Broken Age is absolutely gorgeous.

With love in every pixel, Broken Age is absolutely gorgeous.

Hopefully, Double Fine is paying attention to a lot of the reactions to Act One for Act Two. While I feel the game achieves exactly what it wants to, there is still a lot to improve on.  The game ends on a surprising cliffhanger that’s sure to have players begging for the next part as soon as possible, especially with the game’s short approximate four hour length.  The story is certainly gripping, but the gameplay doesn’t do anything too wildly new that will surprise fans of point-and-click adventures.  Broken Age probably really isn’t going to make any new fans of adventure games or Double Fine, but the studio knows its audience well and scratches an itch that hasn’t been met in many years for long-time gamers.

If you originally donated to the Kickstarter to fund it, feel safe in knowing that your money went towards making a beautiful game that is truly a product of love.

Final Breakdown

[+Absolutely beautiful game][+Great voice acting][+Good story and writing][-Falls prey to common adventure game problems][-A lot of characters only appear briefly][-Puzzles and objectives aren’t always clear][-A few graphical bumps.  Just a few]

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