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Broken Age

Broken Age

 

Developer: Double Fine The title screen.The title screen.
Released: 2015.04.28
Genre: SciFi / Comedy
Graphics: Cartoon / 2D
Perspective: Third person
Gameplay: Point-and-Click



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Broken Age is a landmark game. Regardless of what the game itself is like, the events surrounding the project completely changed the adventure scene of the 2010s. When the renowned game maker Tim Schafer started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, he had no exact content for the game. Instead, the idea was to create a game project, simply called Double Fine Adventure at the time, and document its development process as video journals. The somewhat modest goal of $400,000 was met in only few hours, and by the time the crowdfunding campaign ended, there were over 80,000 backers contributing over three million dollars. This historical achievement started a wide-spread adventure game crowdfunding haze, where both industry legends as well as newcomers were launching a number of campaigns to gain funding for new, or in some cases resurrected, game projects. Some of these projects were successful, while others were not, and the quality of released games is indeed varying. But many of them wouldn't have ever existed had Double Fine Adventure not been such a surprising success with its crowdfunding campaign.

Tim Schafer certainly has notable games in his résumé. With games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and others, Schafer has established himself as one of the industry legends, and when it seemed like there was a chance to have another Tim Schafer game, which was also going to be a classic point-and-click adventure, fans clearly showed their support by donating generously and making crowdfunding history too. The only thing that was sure, was that the genre was going to be point-and-click adventure. As for the exact nature of the game, the FAQ on the Kickstarter page described: "Other than that it will be an old school adventure, we're not sure."

Vella and Shay, the protagonists.Vella and Shay, the protagonists.

The development process had some alleged problems, and significant delays. The game was originally released in two parts, Act 1 and Act 2, and there was a massive 15-month long wait in between the release dates for the two acts. Having been completed though, the game is now a single game, with a cliffhanger or a plot twist where the act changes. With such funding and long development cycle, how is the final, completed Broken Age game like?

There are two protagonists in the game. One of the protagonists is Vella, a young girl who lives in a town called Sugar Bunting. She is supposed to be competing for the honour of becoming a sacrifice for Mog Chothra, a weird god-creature who appears every 14 years to collect young maidens. The other one is Shay, a young boy who has lived all his life on a spaceship, being surrounded by overcaring living computers and robots. The storylines begin when Vella is starting to question the rationality of the sacrificial ceremony and instead wanting to fight Mog Chothra, and Shay taking the opportunity during nighttime to explore forbidden areas of his spaceship. Both storylines move independently to begin with, and the player has the option to switch from one to another at any time.

A seashore town to explore.A seashore town to explore.

As can be expected, at some point there will be a connecting point for the two storylines, and in the very end it is even necessary to keep switching between the two in order to proceed further. Having more than one protagonist to play with is nothing new as such, but the implementation in Broken Age is somewhat unique. In the beginning, the two stories as well as the worlds they take place in seem completely unrelated and separate. This can be a bit confusing at first, as switching from one character to another also requires immersing into a totally different kind of environment with different supporting characters to interact with. While not something that has never been tried before, it is satisfying to see Broken Age trying be more ambitious with its storytelling than an average adventure game.

Unfortunately the approach with two protagonists isn't problem-free. Especially in the end there are situations where either Vella or Shay has some information that the other character needs, but there doesn't seem to be any logical way in the gameworld for them to actually pass this information. The connection between them is the player who sees everything that either one of them sees, and can use that information when solving puzzles. This is somewhat distracting, and also breaking the immersion, as trying to think and cope with the knowledge that one of them possesses won't solve the puzzles, because the answers are in the other character's surroundings.

One of the characters to meet along the way.One of the characters to meet along the way.

Both the story and the game itself are much more coherent in the beginning. The further the game progresses, the more things start falling apart. In the beginning, the puzzles are easy but get more difficult towards the end. This is how a well-balanced game should work too. Sadly the later puzzles that the player will encounter in Broken Age are well-constructed only in few cases. Many of the puzzles are simply bad, boring, and frustrating. In addition to that, there are some plot holes that don't make things any better either.

To give an example of the bad puzzle design, many puzzles include running around the gameworld. In one puzzle, which is basically a conversation puzzle, it is necessary to go through two accessways in order to have certain conversation options appearing. This as such wouldn't be a major problem, but failing to solve the puzzle will automatically transport the player back to a room which has hints needed to solve the conversation puzzle. This is of course user-friendly in theory, but also somewhat weird, as there is no in-game hint system, so having such help all of a sudden seems out of place. The worst part is though, that the game doesn't automatically return the player to the room where the conversation takes place, and it is possible to go through wrong accessways on the way back, in which case the conversation puzzle won't even (re)start.

There are also many timed sequences, where you need to perform certain actions in a certain order within a limited time, and which were going out of adventure game fashion back in the 90s. In that regard the game truly is like an old-school game, whether this is a pro or a con, is another matter. Certain puzzle types are overused too, such as rewiring robots to perform different actions. To make things worse, sometimes it is necessary to reuse some of the old wiring patters, for which there is no automatic cheat sheets or memos, so the player should take notes during those puzzles. Reading a walkthrough won't help much, as the wiring puzzles are randomised for each playthrough.

One of the several (randomised) wiring puzzles.One of the several (randomised) wiring puzzles.

The final puzzle in the game is a good candidate for the worst adventure game puzzle of all times. (This should be a relatively spoiler-free description of it, but in case you want to avoid even minor spoilers, jump to the next paragraph.) During the final puzzle there are few gadgets that need to operated, all in different rooms, and by the two protagonists simultaneously in their own locations. This sequence is not only time-limited, but also requires doing certain actions in the correct order, including switching between the characters. To make things much, much worse, there are three adjustable things that can and will reset if the order and the timing is not right. Preparing all the settings and saving game won't help either, as loading saved games seem to place certain things in a different way than what they actually were while saving the game. Even if one is using a walkthrough to go through that puzzle, the internal logic of it is simply not working, and the entire purpose of the puzzle seems to be extending the playthrough time, and it is easy to spend some 30-60 minutes just to get this one puzzle done. After successfully completing it, the following cutscene is not rewarding enough to justify the puzzle - especially as many questions about the gameworld are simply left unanswered.

The game is not without its merits though. The graphics are quite charming in their own way. The animation is a bit jerky, and there is some sliding when walking, but this is probably a choice rather than a glitch, given the artistic style of the game, which is a mixture of childish and naivistic. The voice-acting is great, as the characters are voiced by real actors, including Elijah Wood who does the English voice for Shay. The music is also good and is performed by a real symphony orchestra. Some have speculated that much of the game budget was spent on audio, and it is easy to see, or rather hear that.

There are also some very serious underlying social themes within the game, which are seldom present in games. Among these themes are (literally!) blindly following religious cults, inhumane traditions, bad and good parenting, fascism and so on. While there are several of such themes present, none of those are explored to their full extent. In the end it is hard to tell whether the game is trying make a statement about these issues, or whether they are just vehicles used to deliver a random joke here and there. Either way, while Broken Age is not the craziest collection of gags, some of the discussions with the in-game characters are extremely funny and entertaining, such as druids whose desire to follow a religion is much greater than their actual willingness to commit to any religion. There are also some puns here and there, such as having a discussion with a carpenter, where the joke is the double meaning of the word "stool".

Druids are entertaining side characters.Druids are entertaining side characters.

As for the overall technical quality of the game, there are no major issues, but the game has some minor annoyances which really could be better executed. One of these is a pointer which does have a hotspot indicator, but doesn't have any descriptions or labels for the hotspots. Another one is the weird way to skip conversations. If one tries to click during conversation to skip a line, there will be an on-screen text telling to use spacebar to skip dialogues. Using space will skip the conversation entirely, so there doesn't seem to be a way to skip parts of the conversation while still going through the rest. And one more thing is that Broken Age uses a slot-based save system with eight slots available. This is of course enough for most practical purposes, but as the game has some length to it, limiting the saves to only eight is a bit disappointing, as the player must either limit the saves to eight or start saving over previous saves at some point. One last thing to mention is that for some reason there were a couple of scenes with Russian Cyrillic writing. This was most likely some strange bug, as the gameworld is supposedly not the Earth as we know it, and presumably languages such as English or Russian are not spoken there. To give an example, there was the text "поздравляем" on the wall when Vella's family was celebrating her upcoming sacrifice, even though the game had its language settings set in English.

There is much to like about Broken Age, but there are unfortunately many things to dislike as well. Double Fine developed exactly what it promised though, an old-school point-and-click adventure game. Many of the best and worst traditional qualities of the genre are present in the game. Given the production values and the scope that the game became to have, it is undeniably one of the major adventure games of the 2010s. As such, it is also worth playing for any adventure game fan who wants to experience the most notable games of the era. The way the puzzles work toward the end of the game will not be to everyone's liking though.

As an experience Broken Age is certainly unique. Naivistic graphics combined with top-class audio work within a game that has a setting that deliberately makes no sense at all, there aren't many games which have those qualities. If a strange gameworld is something to go by, then Broken Age is truly a spiritual successor for Grim Fandango. But whereas many of Tim Schafer's earlier games are very often included in the all-time best listings of the genre, it is hard to see Broken Age ever gaining such a cult status. For a game that got started without any real plans, the end result is simply put brilliant. With more planning the many things which are good in Broken Age might have been turned into a spectacular game. As things are, however, the game is known more about the things related to its development, rather than the game itself. All things considered, Broken Age is not a bad game, but there's also a lot of potential that is simply wasted.

The door is locked.The door is locked.

 


 

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