Review: Broken Age (Act 1)

It’s official. We can now count Double Fine among the developers who have stolen from Broken Sword wholesale – or half-sale, if you want to be fair and also accurate. With Broken Age Act 1, Tim Schafer has unapologetically copied exactly half of Charles Cecil’s title, half of his two-part episodic structure (and I’d wager he’ll copy the other half soon enough), and the entire concept of selling a traditional point and click adventure that was funded through Kickstarter. Some might argue that Schafer launched his campaign half a year before Cecil, and that in fact Revolution might not have tried to Kickstart at all if not for Double Fine’s success, but this is balderdash. Revolution Software went to market a whole two months ago, and since a game only exists once it’s being sold, all who followed them must be imitators. QED.

Still, we must judge each game by its own merits – even if it’s made by a cabal of reprobate plagiarists – and though it pains me to admit it, Broken Age is comprised almost entirely of merit. This game is delightful, charming, bordering on magical. It’s difficult to come up with any complaints about it; so difficult that a reviewer might be tempted to facetiously accuse the developers of some outrageous breach of ethics in order to fill space and affect an air of even-handed criticism. There’s just too much about this game to love.

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At this point in his career, I think it’s safe to call Tim Schafer a master of storytelling. His wit when it comes to character writing is unparalleled, and he has a remarkable knack for taking unique, zany concepts and giving them a sense of logical cohesion. In Broken Age, he’s used his talents to tell two very different stories about two very similar kids: the fantasy adventure of ex-sacrificial-maiden Vella, and the sci-fi odyssey of starship captain (in title only) Shay.

You can pick either of the stories to start, and you’re free to jump between them at any point. Not only is this a neat structural idea, but it serves as a nice alternative to a hint system. Whenever you’re stuck in the one story, you can go and make progress in the other one while giving yourself time to think. Surprisingly, there’s no direct connection between them – they’re literally set worlds apart – but there are references throughout that indicate they take place in the same universe, and both stories are fundamentally about breaking free of the bonds of childhood.

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Vella (played by Masasa Moyo) hails from a lovely little baking town called Sugar Bunting. It used to be a village of warriors by the name of Steel Bunting, but the world is so idyllic and peaceful these days that they all changed vocations. Today is a big day for Vella, since she’s been selected for the Maidens Feast. This means she gets to eat all manner of baked goods, before having the great honor of being offered up to the giant monster Mog Chothra in order to preserve all that idyllic peacefulness. For some baffling reason, though, Vella isn’t entirely content with this arrangement, so she takes flight when Mog Chothra tries to eat her and sets out on a quest to kill it.

Shay (Elijah Wood) is the captain of a massive starship, although a more accurate descriptor might be “playpen.” Each day, under the watchful eye of his ship’s computer Mom (Jennifer Hale), he sits at his fake plastic controls and sets out to help those in need of his heroic expertise. Sometimes he saves Yarn Pals from hug attacks, sometimes he saves them from an ice cream avalanche. He is, understandably, bored with these safe, literally candy-coated “missions,” so when a dark and mysterious stowaway named Marek (David Kaufman) makes contact with him, he’s all too eager to sneak away and do something dangerous. Before long, he’s conspiring to wrest control of the ship from Mom.

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The stories differ not just in their setting, but in their fundamental structure and design. Vella’s is a more linear, dialogue-driven journey in the vein of Grim Fandango, whereas Shay’s has a more open and exploratory “three trials” setup a la Day of the Tentacle. These structures make sense for the given scenarios – after all, there aren’t many people to talk to in space – and help to make them feel distinct from one another. They also draw on fundamentally different thinking patterns, so when you jump from one character to the other you can take your mind off of whatever had you stumped and mull it over subconsciously. This, in turn, helps keep the overall pacing tight.

Puzzle design feels solid and intuitive, with the game giving you just enough information to point you in the right direction. It’s a sign of good design when a game can expect you to wrangle a giant seagull with a corset and you understand it almost immediately. A clean, simple interface streamlines the puzzle solving, and you can get from area to area quickly by double-clicking on the exits, so the game never feels like a grind. Adventure game veterans shouldn’t have much trouble sorting everything out in short order, while more inexperienced players should be able to get through so long as they explore thoroughly and take a bit of time to think.

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Of course, it’s not just Tim Schafer breathing life into these worlds. His lung capacity isn’t that great (have you seen the guy?) and besides, he has suck-er-valued employees to do most of that for him. For instance, Double Fine houses some of the best artists and animators in the business, all of whom work tirelessly to ensure we aren’t subjected to games that look like this. As a side effect of their preventative efforts, we’ve ended up with a string of titles with gorgeous, iconic art styles. With its hand-painted graphics and paper-cutout animation, Broken Age is no exception.

All the clever dialogue in the world amounts to… well, not nothing, but significantly less without a talented cast of actors to perform it. For Broken Age, Double Fine were able to bring in two full-blown movie stars (and they didn’t even make a huge deal about it like some people). Elijah Wood does a fantastic turn as Shay, lending him a youthful naivety with a slight sardonic edge, and Jack Black is hysterical as Harm’ny Lightbeard, a cult leader with his head (literally) in the clouds. It feels unfair to let the more famous cast members outshine the rest of the game’s stars, however. Psychonauts veterans Nick Jameson and Richard Horvitz are highlights, but just about every cast member turns in a Hollywood-caliber performance. David Kaufman’s Marek is clearly one of the game’s principle characters, but he’s only credited as a cast member, while Wil Wheaton and Pendleton Ward are listed as stars. Both actors are hilarious as a hipster lumberjack and bumbling acolyte, respectively, but neither is in the game for more than a few minutes.

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Closing Comments:

Joking aside, there’s a valuable comparison to be made between Broken Age and Broken Sword: The Serpent’s Curse. Both are throwbacks to the golden age of point and click adventures made by creators who helped define that era. Both showcase phenomenal artwork, music, acting and writing, and both are high-water marks in terms of puzzle design. Both also happen to be broken up into two acts, and in that, Double Fine have succeeded where Revolution failed. Broken Age tells a concise, clever story and, more importantly, knows exactly where to leave off. There’s a sense of accomplishment and closure in the final moments of Act 1, but it still leaves you itching to know what’s coming next.
score4.5
Platform: PC