Broken Age Review
There was a time when point-and-click adventures were not only common, but revered. The glorious days of Monkey Island and Myst are looked back upon with a particular fondness, which is precisely why Double Fine’s Broken Age Kickstarter campaign brought in $3.5 million. To many, this proved that the “old-fashioned” gameplay style didn’t deserve to be shelved in favor of fast-action twitch gaming that has no soul and no brain. And now, after a relatively rocky start on PC (the game released across a couple of Acts, which met with some controversy), the full Broken Age experience comes to the PlayStation platform. It’s exactly what you’d anticipate, which is a mostly fantastic result with only a touch of staleness and tedium.
Those familiar with Tim Schafer productions won’t be surprised when I say the art direction in this game is absolutely stellar. The Double Fine team has always excelled in the realm of visual artistry; in fact, one might argue that they remain one of the most innovative and talented graphical development teams in the world. From Psychonauts to Grim Fandango, these guys always deliver a charming, endlessly imaginative visual production. Broken Age is wonderfully designed and presented; that charm is ever-present and the backdrops are meticulously created. They don’t push the envelope in terms of technical photorealistic superiority; they do push the envelope in regards to ceaseless creativity.
The sound is deserving of praise as well. Some gamers may fault the pure adventure games for not really delivering high-octane sound effects and kickin’ soundtracks. Heck, many point-and-click adventures really only consisted of a few effects and little in the way of voice performances. But in some cases, less is more (just ask an art major). The subtlety of Broken Age’s audio and blends perfectly with the overall vision and style. Just because your headphones aren’t rattling off your head doesn’t mean the experience is any less effective. When implemented properly, atmospheric sound, even when downplayed, can be extremely poignant. Welcome to Schafer’s world. But hey, if you need a little star power, how’s about Elijah Wood?
In this captivating little adventure, you control two characters: Shay and Vella. The aforementioned Wood lends his voice talents to Shay, who begins the game trapped in a spaceship. Thing is, the spaceship is fooling him: It’s telling him that he’s setting out on great adventures when in fact, he’s stuck in this sterile, automated environment. The fake “missions” he undertakes consist of all sorts of silliness; i.e., saving stuffed animals from cascades of deadly ice cream. Quick side note— I have to say, I don’t mind cute, but there are some scenarios in this game that just go beyond cute. You almost feel that if you keep playing, you’re going to end up a diabetic. But anyway, the fantastic art direction will keep you coming back for more.
As for the other main character, Vella, she begins by celebrating her part in something called the Maiden’s Feast. Vella, voiced by Masasa Moyo, must endure this rite of passage, which includes offering yourself to a horrid creature. Yep, Vella is gonna be a terrible sacrifice to the Mog Chothra, so what are you going to do? You may not be able to draw any parallels between Shay’s and Vella’s stories but that’s part of the fun: How do these two characters end up meeting? Or will they meet at all? How are they connected? The story unfolds at a good clip and keeps us asking questions, despite the over-the-top cutesy-ness of some of the quests. Remember, this is all about a fantastical world that’s supposed to enfold you in a web of mystery and intrigue.
Okay, so maybe that’s too dramatic for such a charming little story, but you get my meaning. The point is that you bounce between these two protagonists whenever you wish, and sometimes it’s necessary to solve a particular puzzle. This results in a seamless style of cooperative gameplay, which is nice to have. It’s especially nice to have because admittedly, it can be difficult to maintain a good sense of pacing in adventure games. If the player gets stuck on a certain puzzle, for instance, the experience will start to drag. If there isn’t a solid difficulty curve and your progress is erratic, this also has a negative effect on the game’s pacing. Thankfully, Double Fine’s latest is very well paced and intuitively designed.
Granted, one could say some of the puzzles are a little tedious, but it’d be false to say they’re not inspired and challenging. One legitimate criticism, however, arises when we tackle the game’s direction, or rather, lack thereof. There are times when you really don’t have a clear picture of what you’re trying to do. And when the goal(s) aren’t readily evident, you start to lose interest fast. Frustration and indifference mount together as you wander about, trying to figure out where you should begin. I’m no proponent of handholding but in an old-school linear adventure game, I expect a little more direction. That isn’t to say I got totally lost; it’s just that certain segments took too long to get going because of the game’s inherent vagueness.
Even so, this six-hour experience is well worth having. The story is very well done and you find yourself rooting for the characters. You also really enjoy the captivating world you explore and the sense of satisfaction when solving a puzzle is appropriately high. This game has a really unique and wonderful vibe, one you feel from the moment you begin, and one that sticks with you long after you’ve put down the controller. This is Schafer’s milieu; it’s what he’s best at: Bringing you into a hugely imaginative fantasy world rife with crazy sights and sounds. It’s a world you always enjoy diving into, and a world you always regret leaving.
There’s a unique cadence to old-fashioned adventure games. The “point-and-click” description should say it all; the PC games of yore had you pointing and clicking with your mouse, trying to solve a riddle or puzzle of some kind. The only problem is that in today’s gaming world, it could be difficult to convince someone to try it; they might think it’s far too slow and monotonous. It also requires some use of brainpower, in which fewer and fewer people are interested. It’s a regrettable situation but this extends far beyond video games, obviously. We just have to hope that enough mature individuals reward a game like this for being unabashedly and unashamedly “adventure,” through and through. I’ve got no problem with that, do you?
Broken Age is exactly what Schafer fans expect, which makes it an automatic success. The creativity and imagination is here in spades, the strict adventure style is prominent throughout (and it doesn’t deviate; there are no ill-inspired action sequences, for instance), and that atmosphere and charm ties it all together. You could say some of the puzzles get a little tiresome and the lack of direction is annoying at times. These are understandable complaints and again, I wonder if we could ever get the young’uns involved in such a game. If we can’t, I guess it’s up to the old curmudgeons to keep the spirit of this classic genre alive. Schafer and Co. might want to try expanding on the tried-and-true formula just a hair, though…
The Good: Patented Schafer charm and charisma. Excellent score and audio effects. A vibrant, beautifully engaging world to explore. Some great puzzles to conquer. Co-op-inspired gameplay works well. Pacing feels just about right. Solid story and relatively intriguing characters. The length isn’t too short, it’s just right.
The Bad: Some puzzles feel a tad tedious. A lack of direction hampers pacing and enjoyment. Doesn’t build on the standard adventure formula.
The Ugly: “If anybody ever uses the word ‘ugly’ in association with anything Tim Schafer does, that person deserves to be tarred and feathered.”
5/5/2015 Ben Dutka