“Cute”. It’s the best word I could describe Broken Age with. It’s not great, but it’s not really bad either. It has its heart in the right place and while it is more or less devoid of sarcasm or irony, it’s not without some dry wit.
I guess I have to warn you – this post will contain Spoilers and will be a rant – so that might already tell you which direction this piece will take. So don’t tell me you haven’t been warned.. ;)
The Game We Got
(If you’re more interested in the project status and whether or not Double Fine kept their promises to backers, skip ahead to “The Game That Was Promised“).
Broken Age is a game that has an ending. I also remember that it had a beginning, yet I played that one a bit over a year ago. And after watching the end credits late last night, I felt this strange disconnect from the things that happened on screen.
And this says as much about the first act of the game as it does about the second – the first few hours of Broken Age introduce both protagonists of the game – space-faring Shay (a boy) and rebellious human-sacrifice-to-be Vella (a girl).
Both characters have been groomed all their lives for a specific purpose and both are uninterested in that pre-destined path. Both try to rebel against the system they’re caught up in and – revealed through the ending of Act 1 – both succeed in disrupting the status quo.
Interestingly Double Fine chose to package that story (that turned out to be much more dystopic than maybe anyone had expected in Act 2) in a cute way. The game looks like a well-illustrated children’s book thanks to hand-drawn backgrounds and animation that looks like it’s made of paper cutouts.
The celebrity voices (Jack Black, Will Wheaton, Elijah Wood, Harmonix CEO and super backer Alex Rigopulos) do not stand out but find their place within an ensemble of many fine voices. And thankfully once again a proper orchestrated soundtrack lends the game an aural sense of texture as well.
Yet the biggest critique of Act 1 was how light it was in the adventure game department – puzzles where deemed too simple or their solutions practically spelled out for the player. For this reason many players also found it to be over much too quickly.
Double Fine went on to assure its fans and backers that puzzle difficulty will increase in Act 2 and that Act 1 should be seen as an introductory chapter of the game.
So does the second and final part of Broken Age keep that promise?
The answer would be “not really”, which is unfortunate. The puzzles do become more complicated, but they have more in common with the single-minded solutions that late-90s adventures were known for than the beloved Lucasarts classics.
More than once I had a quite clear idea of what I was supposed to do and what to achieve, but needed to wrap my head around the weird way that the game designer expected me to get to the solution. That alone prolonged the time I needed to finish the game, clocking in at around twice what Act 1 took me a year ago.
But sadly, all those puzzles are integrated in the same locations that we fully explored in Act 1 already – thanks to the parallel nature of Broken Age, Shay and Vella just switch places, so they can explore each others’ worlds in the aftermath of Vella’s “rage against the machine”.
Which is sad as I would have loved to see Vella explore what was really behind the fake space adventure that Shay was kept in, unveiling the truth through exploring new locations and meeting new people (with “new” also meaning new for the player).
Instead most of that unveiling is done through explanatory dialogue. Just a click with the mouse and you get all that info dumped on you. Here’s the truth. Now ignore it and do the stuff that the game designer wants you to do.
So if Act 1 was too light on puzzles, Act 2 is too light on story – while you spend more time solving the puzzles, story-wise the game grinds close to a halt and parts that might have filled the bulk of the “adventure” of Act 2 feel rushed or like an afterthought.
And this is where starting with Act 2 becomes the apparent mistake that I might have made – Broken Age should be consumed as one whole game, not split up in two parts, as both do not make the whole game. I haven’t replayed Act 1, instead continuing my save game from a year ago.
But this also meant that I wouldn’t get to experience the light-hearted first act which introduced the characters to me and set-up the rest of the story. As the second act doesn’t try to develop most of its characters any further, you’d want that connection to still be “fresh” during all those puzzles.
So when that final puzzle was solved and the ending started to happen, I felt nothing. Neither a sense of joy nor a sense of achievement. It’s like I expected the game to expand beyond the limitations of its first half and instead it did everything it could not to.
All that is unfortunate, as several minor characters and the artwork display during the credits suggest a universe that is more interesting and complex than what is on display.
The idea that knitting or playing instruments can be things that “drive” a machine (whether it’s supposed to be a space ship or some anti-gravity propelled fake monster) and be a manifestation of a mother’s love to their isolated child are quite compelling.
Also the dystopian idea of a society that needs to “integrate” the physical and psychological impurities of outsiders to keep itself alive is quite dark especially in combination with the cute presentation of the game world. Just think what the second act could’ve been if it had been more “Beneath a Steel Sky” than “Broken Age Act 1 (More Puzzle Edition)”.
In that sense Broken Age Act 2 is unfortunately not more than the sum of its parts. The parts are all lovely, but the resulting game is very much driven to be enjoyed on a tablet in a much more casual way than what classic adventure fans might have expected over 3 years ago.
It is – to repeat that word again – “cute”. It’s the best word I could describe Broken Age with. It’s not great, but it’s not really bad either. It has its heart in the right place and while it is more or less devoid of sarcasm or irony, it’s not without some dry wit – in essence it’s hard not to like this game, but the feeling that even with those 3.3 million dollars and Steam Early Access money the second act feels rushed and unfinished is hard to ignore.
The Game That Was Promised
(If you don’t really care about the project status and just want to know what my take on the actual game is – jump back to “The Game We Got“).
Let me start with a number: 250. That’s the amount of dollars (excluding shipping fees to Europe) that I’ve backed on this project. And with all the kerfuffle about broken promises on Kickstarter lately (cough Molyneux cough), it is fortunate that Double Fine has kept all their promises so far and for my part I have received all rewards on time.
But there is the issue of the “exclusive access to the Beta on Steam” – it wasn’t very exclusive was it? As the 3.3 million dollar budget that backers pledged for wasn’t enough for Tim Schafer’s ideas, the game had to be released on Steam Early Access to bring in the additional funds to finish it.
So “Act 1” of Broken Age became the “Beta on Steam” that was available for all existing backers but also to new players that just wanted the game without all those rewards. With “Act 2” Double Fine didn’t seem to care anymore – backers received access to the full and final game they pledged for one day prior to the “rest of the world”.
But the sad truth of the matter is that backers should consider themselves lucky that they got a full and final game at all – friends of mine wouldn’t have been surprised if Double Fine had asked their backers to pay again just for the second act. If that’s the public perception of your crowdfunded project, you must have done something wrong..
Personally I’m not disappointed by the game I got, but I’m not overly excited either. As I said in my take on the second act and the game as a whole, I’d describe the final product as “cute” – it’s a nice little story that I would like my 8-year olds to play, but the adventure game fan in me is underwhelmed a lot.
I pledged for a classic adventure game experience, with some extra money on top as a show of support for Tim and his team, yet what I’ve got is a well-done documentary about the game’s development (that alone is worth a lot) accompanied by an adventure game for tablets.