Broken Age (Act 1) Review
PCAlso available on Android, Apple Mac, iPad and Ouya
Here it is. The first major Kickstarter game project that really got people interested in crowdfunding. Legendary game designer Tim Schafer (Full Throttle, Psychonauts, Grim Fandango) and his company Double Fine asked for $400,000 to make a new point-and-click adventure game and they ended up with over $3 million in pledges. Originally known only as Double Fine Adventure, the project set off a Kickstarter craze and a wave of similar projects. As you would expect, this game - which eventually gained the title of Broken Age - has become something of a poster child and there's a lot of expectation around it. The big question that the gaming community is waiting for an answer to now: is Kickstarter a viable way to make good games that we want to play?
If you backed the project then you will have also had access to an ongoing documentary which has been chronicling the game's development. It's allowed us to see the game take shape from the very start when the outline was nothing beyond "create a point-and-click adventure game". It's highly recommended viewing, demonstrating just how much work is required and certainly one of the most in-depth and revealing pieces ever made about the creation of a game. This documentary also broke the news that Broken Age is going to be released in two parts (a move which caused a lot of people to cry foul and declare the entire project a joke, along with the concept of crowdfunding in general - something of an overreaction, as the full game is still getting made and it’s not costing us anything extra. A major issue with crowdfunding is the sense of entitlement backers seem to think they get). Act 1 has now been released with backers getting an early look and the public release following shortly.
For adventure game fans, Broken Age is a major watershed release. The genre has had no shortage of new games but the majority of traditional 2D releases are now relatively niche and a more “interactive novel” style of cinematic adventuring, light on puzzle but heavy on narrative, has begun to take centre stage. It feels like a lot is riding on this game, not just for Double Fine and Kickstarter in general, but as a means of proving that classic 2D adventure games are still viable in the 21st century. Well, rest assured. Broken Age Act 1 delivers and then some.
The game's story concerns two characters whom you play separately from each other. Shay is a teenage boy living alone on a spacecraft. He's looked after by the ship's computer who has taken the role of Shay's mother and appears to care deeply for him, to the point where Shay feels like a prisoner. Told he's the last survivor of his race he's trapped in a routine, not allowed to explore much of the ship and is never allowed to do anything dangerous. As all teenagers do, he has reached the point where he just wants to get away. Due to an act of rebellion on his part he meets an odd stowaway, a wolf-like creature named Marek. Marek enlists Shay's help in rescuing aliens but appears very untrustworthy - even dangerous - and his motives are unknown.
At any point you can switch to control of Vella, a teenage girl in very different circumstances but someone who feels no less trapped. Vella lives in her home town with her family. Every few years the town comes under attack from a giant creature called Mog Chothra, and the only way to assuage the Mog is by offering young maidens up as sacrifice. Vella is burdened with this task, an act which is regarded as a great honour but one which she has doubts about. She questions why the town can't just fight back against the Mog, but is regularly laughed down. Taking matters in to her own hands, Vella ends up on her own quest (which we won't reveal too much about).
Story is everything in adventure games and this one grabs you and doesn't let go. Both protagonists, which you are free to switch between at any time, are compelling characters that you want to spend time with. Both of their worlds have very different moods and it's a fantastic device to be able to change from Vella to Shay and back (very similar to Day of the Tentacle, although not quite as complex as that turned out to be). It helps no end that the voice acting is top notch. Elijah Wood provides the voice of Shay and does an excellent job of sounding like a moody but inquisitive teenager, while Vella is voiced by Masasa Moyo (Final Fantasy, Bioshock Infinite). They are both a perfect fit and both deliver a wide ranging performance, able to express wonder and fear and sarcasm. The supporting characters almost outshine them, a particular highlight being David Kaufman as Marek whose performance is both sinister and funny at the same time, and Jennifer Hale as the ship's computer. We also get guest appearances from Jack Black and Wil Wheaton, both hamming it up delightfully in comedy roles.
From a gameplay perspective Broken Age doesn't do much new. This is not a bad thing, fans asked for a traditional point-and-click adventure and that's what Double Fine has delivered. The control scheme is very simple, with a one-button-does-all approach. Click somewhere to move, click on an object to interact with it. What sets the game apart and truly pushes it into the modern age is the artwork. Quite plainly, this is one of the best looking games ever produced. Not in the hyper realistic Crysis fashion, this is pure art. It feels like a painting brought to life, or like you are playing through an animated film. Everything is hand-drawn and looks beautiful, but the dynamic camera movement really sells everything. Camera angles shift and change all the time, from close-up cutaways to smooth zooms and pans. It is involving and serves to draw you in further, keeping you emotionally invested rather than letting your mind wander as you would if watching a conversation played out on a static screen. Screenshots don't really do the game justice, you need to see it in motion. Character animation is also stunning. This feels like an evolution of the genre, a visual trick which truly serves to enhance your game experience.
Now for the bad news. The game is quite short and if you have any experience with traditional adventure games then you’ll find it very easy. Bearing in mind that this is only the first half, it's still only in the region of four hours and that's only if you take your time to explore and interact with everyone and everything. While the puzzles are considerably more taxing than say, The Walking Dead, they are not really going to stump you for any serious period of time. There are a couple of headscratchers, but most of the solutions are clear and when they're not you generally need to experiment with what you have in your inventory or make sure you’ve fully spoken to all characters. It's a shame, Broken Age seems to have been aimed at a more casual gamer whereas most of its backers are hardcore adventure game fans. Rather, the developers have made the decision to let the game flow without too many pauses. Patience, it would seem, is not a trait of the modern gamer. With any luck feedback from the community will let Double Fine know that the second half needs to have the difficulty and length ramped up.
Still, Broken Age works. Its story is compelling, very funny and captivating, giving you questions (are Shay and Vella’s stories related?) and clues all the way, and the absolutely stunning ending will leave you desperate to continue. The worlds created are fascinating and diverse, tied together perfectly with incredible artwork and music. Real passion has gone into its creation. Let yourself get caught up in it and enjoy the journey. We feel that the best is yet to come.