Broken Age: Act One Review

Arts & Entertainment

Double Fine Adventure, which became Broken Age, released the first of two acts to backers on Steam last week. Is it worth the hype?

Broken Age puts you in the roles of Shay and Vella. Shay is trapped on a cloying space ship that looks after his every need whether he wants it to or not. Vella is a human sacrifice to Mog Chothra, offered up in the hopes that her village won’t be destroyed by the monster; she’d rather not be eaten by a monster, much to her family’s dismay. The developers give players the option of starting with either character, and even swapping back and forth between them. Act One will be released on Steam on January 28th for Windows, OS X, and Linux and will set you back $24.99 after release. The second act will be a free download upon its release later in 2014.

Double Fine’s project put Kickstarter on the map. Starting with a goal of $400,000 for the game and documentary video, it went on to raise 3.3 million dollars in March of 2012. The release of the first act shows where that money, and development time, went. I’m a huge adventure game fan, and obviously a backer of Broken Age. Double Fine has not yet recognized the awesomeness of or The Sandbox News and started sending me review codes, though I expect that to happen any day now. I’m not sure that any game matches up to its hype train these days, but the first act of Broken Age comes as close as we’re likely to get.

The game has a children’s story book art style, and is absolutely gorgeous. Like Schaeffer’s earlier game Psychonauts, it has a look that is instantly recognizable as his and oozes charm. If you’re looking for a more lo-fi Lucas Arts-style look, there is an easter egg that allows you to play in pixelated mode. But seriously, don’t play the game that way. The voice acting is amazing, featuring a star-studded cast including Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, and Wil Wheaton. Despite the artwork, the story has a more mature tone than the old Lucas Arts adventure games. Broken Age is a coming-of-age drama with comedy and absurd characters with less of the comic anarchy of the older games. The user interface is a contentious issue. Gone are the old-style verb commands such as “look at, pick up, use,” everything works with one click. Many critics are decrying this as “tabletization.” I prefer cleaner, simpler interfaces, and many of the people making this claim are looking at the Lucas Arts games with rose-colored glasses. That said, the interface does play a role in the most serious problem in Broken Age.

Puzzles. They are a defining feature of the adventure game genre, and Broken Age’s achilles heel. While the puzzles of the golden age of adventure gaming were weird, and often broke the plot, that isn’t an excuse for removing the tiniest speck of challenge. The puzzles in Broken Age are strictly inventory-based, and either involve using an item or combining an item with another before using it. As terrible as the old Lucas Arts interface was, there were a lot of ways to implement a puzzle, and it made it difficult for players to just brute force their way through them. I am not convinced that having a cluttered interface from the 1990s is the only way to bring challenging puzzles to modern adventure games. The issue here is puzzle design, not interface design. Part of the reason classic adventure games were great is that they mixed it up, and showed real creativity. Throw in some dialogue puzzles to make me switch mental gears, and make use of that amazing voice cast. Give players a reason to go through an entire dialogue tree. This isn’t to say that Broken Age is a bad game, but it is only an old school adventure game for certain values of old school.

The second act of Broken Age will release later in 2014, allowing Double Fine to make changes in response to backer feedback. As much as the gaming community rails against episodic release schedules, they give developers an opportunity to respond to player criticism and fine tune the rough edges of their game. It is my hope that Double Fine uses this time to bring us tougher, and more creative puzzles in act two.

As the game stands at the end of Act One, I think it is worth your time and money if you enjoy great story-telling in games. But if you are primarily a puzzle gamer, someone who preferred Portal over Portal 2, this might not be for you. On the adventure game continuum of story versus puzzles, I’ll always come down hard on the story side of the line. Whether this game is right for you depends on where you sit on that scale.

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