Indie Wonderland: Broken Age (Act 1)

Okay, okay, no joke this time: The Banner Saga‘s impact notwithstanding, the real major Kickstarter impact I was alluding to last week is obviously the long-awaited release of Double Fine’s Broken Age, to those who backed the Kickstarter that launched a thousand ships. Or, rather, its partial release: Broken Age as-is is considered ‘Act 1’, with the concluding ‘Act 2’ finding its way to computers near you “later this year“.

While Broken Age’s release was obviously a Big Thing, capitalization non-optional, I opted to give precedence to The Banner Saga for a couple of reasons. First, there was that business with the reviewing embargo that accompanied Broken Age’s initial launch. While I know it was lifted fairly soon after, the whole thing left a rather sour taste in my mouth… plus, by the time it was officially lifted, I’d already started doing the preliminaries for The Banner Saga anyway.

Second, notice that I said Broken Age was released to Kickstarter backers. At time of writing, the game is still off-limits to regular prospective customers: stores don’t open for those lacking Double Fine faith until January 28th. And while I understand the value of advance reviews, postponing a column on a game that people could actually buy immediately for one they’d have to wait another week for felt a little weird to me. Not to mention that this way, this column and Broken Age’s unlock date sync up rather well. I can even start pretending I timed it like that on purpose!

And third… well, third is that Broken Age is an adventure game. That classic genre of games that I can’t really review the way I like to review games, because giving a brief overview of the first half hour of gameplay effectively ruins the first half hour of gameplay. Which, in a game as relatively short as Broken Age — I clocked about five hours for the whole thing — is a fairly significant spoiling ratio.

I’m still writing about it, obviously. But as before, expect a shorter, more mood-and-experience-focused Indie Wonderland after the break.

Broken Age: What It’s All About

Act 1 of Broken Age is a visually and aurally engaging trek through two seemingly disparate stories, concerning two seemingly disparate people. It’s good-looking, well-written, and generally fairly engaging to interact with. I would call it a little light on gameplay and challenge, and there are a few instances of Adventure Game Logic Syndrome, but the overall experience is a positive one.

First things first: as with The Banner Saga earlier, I’d like to go out of my way to point out that me complementing the game’s looks means I think it looks extraordinarily good. For instance, here’s one of the first screens you’ll encounter:

A good encapsulation of Broken Age’s split nature, in many ways. Also, pretty good-looking.

Understand that this is gameplay-level, not cutscene-level. There are ‘cutscenes’, in that there are parts in the game where things play out and you watch them, but they’re all in-engine. Or at least, they all look in-engine. It doesn’t really matter either way: the point is that this level of visual quality is what you get throughout.

Though there are some graphical anomalies, sometimes. In particular, I’ve had character necks gain weird prominence more than once.

This is not just me, right? This is honestly a weird thing to look at, and not just my brain making something out of nothing?

More than most other genres of games, adventure games tend to live or die by the strength of their story. Unsurprisingly, Double Fine knows this very well, and Broken Age’s writing and storytelling are easily the game’s strongest point.

As mentioned before, Broken Age’s interesting approach to storytelling is that it presents you with two seemingly disparate stories in parallel. On the one hand, there’s Shay, a young boy living as the sole human being in a spaceship seemingly designed to watch over, care for and train him. Shay spends his days being coddled by the ship’s artificial intelligence computer personalities — ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ — and travelling the galaxy performing dangerous missions.

The large plastic ‘controls’ really help sell the idea of critical intergalactic mission-fare.

On the other hand, there’s Vella — sorry, Velouria — a young girl from the coastal town of Sugar Bunting, who’s been selected to partake in this year’s Maiden’s Feast. The feast, which is apparently a tradition of sorts, involves selecting several young women, dressing them up as appetizingly as possible, and then sacrificing them to a giant monster

Surprisingly, Vella is actually the only person in this image *not* okay with that idea.

Both stories start off independently, and their order is not actually set: players can switch between stories at more or less any time, via a button in the inventory. Doing so stops the current story at the most recent checkpoint, which isn’t always the most recent thing you’ve ever done… but on the whole, it works okay. There isn’t really any mechanical reason to prefer either sticking with one story completely first or switching to and fro a lot, and consequently, Broken Age leaves that decisions solely to you. The only time you are forcibly switched out is when you hit the end point for whatever story you first hit the end point for. And when you hit both story ends… but let’s not get into that too much.

Pay this image no heed.

This dual-story technique gives Broken Age a lot of leeway to experiment with different tones, styles and gameplay conceits, which ends up making the game more interesting and expansive than a single-story treatment would have allowed. Shay’s story, which is (by nature) constrained to his spaceship, explores a fascinating picture of a for-toddlers design stretched beyond its logical conclusion: sapient Yarn Pals, talking dishware, plastic controls, and a literal Space Weaver, who knits star charts in order to control the ship.

It has a sweet Fu Manchu, too.

Vella’s story is less locally constrained and more of a journey, an attempt by one girl to overcome seemingly hopeless odds. Consequently, it trades the in-depth exploration of Shay’s tale for a broader look at some of the parts that make up Vella’s world: a cult-like city in the clouds, towns named and themed after baking, fishing and preening, sleeping gods from beyond the stars, and trees that start talking after you use an axe to chop them a mouth.

Which is pretty horrifying for a *lot* of reasons.

Of the two, I don’t really have a clear favourite. Shay’s oddly yarn-focused ship world was fascinating to explore, but I think I liked Vella as a character more. What can I say, she speaks my language.

You need to understand that I mean this literally. I use the ‘85% sure’ phrasing *so much*. With that exact number, too.

Both worlds are full of top-notch writing, though. As a mostly comedy game, the wit is particularly sharp. Or maybe it’s fairer to say there’s something for everyone: sharp wit, observational jokes, the occasional pun… here, have a three-screenshot exchange I particularly liked.

Dear Double Fine: can your *next* next game just be Yarn Pals Adventure?

And, okay, one more of the slightly sociopathic talking knife.

Sociopathic knife *might* be my favourite character.

The good writing is supported by quality voice acting, which… I don’t really have anything particularly observational to say about, I guess. It’s good. I think Harm’ny Lightbeard might be voiced by Jack Black? Obviously, full voice acting has potential downsides… but done right, in a small game like Broken Age, it definitely lends to the experience.

Gameplay-wise, Broken Age is… okay. If you know adventure games, you know what to expect: walk around a lot, talk to everyone, rub the correct items on the other correct items, rinse, repeat. It doesn’t really break any new ground here, but I don’t think it ever set out to do.

To paraphrase Yahtzee a little: some adventure games give you a small set of items that you use often, and some adventure games give you a whole load of items each with exactly one correct application. Or, to extend and generalize that: some adventure games have puzzles that make intuitive sense, and some adventure games apply Adventure Game Moon Logic. Broken Age falls between these two extremes a little: some of its puzzles make intuitive sense and use items in situations that you yourself could have come up with, while others…

The worst offenders in these cases are, in my mind, puzzles that allow you to get their nonsensical items far in advance. Example: as Vella, you can ‘borrow’ a piece of stained glass from a woodcutter. There’s no reason why you’d take it, and no immediate solution that the glass presents itself as the answer for… until you get access to a certain temple, where the glass is the solution for a puzzle you don’t even get to see until you’ve solved another one. And yes, you better believe I tried rubbing that glass on everything else as the possible solution for other puzzles I got stuck in.

“Time to show this piece of glass to *everyone in the world*.”

Broken Age is mostly a strictly linear experience, with one current objective and one way to get to it. Each story has a few larger areas of relative freedom and several sub-objectives, though, which are good and bad things: while these areas do allow you to play and more around more and give you room to think, they are also the worst offenders for this kind of ‘I found a thing that I know will be needed later’ gameplay. It can also take a little while to hop on the particular logic trains needed for the set of puzzles you’re currently tackling.

And that’s not even taking into account the red herrings.

What do you mean, I can’t get back on the train? NOW I HAVE TO.

The open areas also exacerbate a few of the mechanical shortcomings Broken Age has. Loading times can be long, especially when moving to entirely new locations. And while double-clicking is supposed to make you run instead of walk, that shift only seems to take hold in certain areas. Sometimes. Luckily, double-clicking on an area transition does always immediately move you to the next area… though this does put you at the risk of accidentally skipping an area transition cutscene.

And finally, there’s the ending. I can’t say too much about the ending, of course, but do let me say this: the people who were worried about Double Fine ‘just cutting Broken Age in half’ when the act structure was announced can rest a little more easily. Broken Age Act 1’s ending is clearly deliberate: it’s in a logical place, it at least attempts to tie certain parts together, and the final shot in particular is so immediately reminiscent of the establishing shot that it can’t not have been planned this way. The ending leaves a lot of questions unanswered, obviously, and it raises a whole new set of questions of its own… but what we get at the end right now was never intended as ‘just’ a half-way point.

To showcase the shot symmetry, but to also protect against accidental spoilers, I’ve posted a shot of Broken Age’s end here… in *secret 8-bit-mode form*.

At the end of the day, should you get Broken Age? Depends. If you’re into good-looking, well-written, but gameplay-light and non-challenging adventure games, I’d say, go for it. And understand that I’m not saying this disparagingly: Broken Age’s story, world and environments are all top-notch, and whatever gameplay barriers it puts in your path relatively light and never skill-based. For people looking for an interactive storytelling experience mixed with decent puzzling, Broken Age probably scratches a lot of itches.

If that’s not your cup of tea, though… If you’re not into adventure games to begin with, don’t expect Broken Age to change your mind. It’s a great example of the genre, but it doesn’t really cross any boundaries. It’s clear the 3.4 million dollars raised for its creation were spent in singular focus, aimed at creating the best-looking, best-sounding, best-animated, best-written story Double Fine could go for. Don’t expect any major mechanical innovations here. It is what it is, and it’s really pretty good at what it is! But it isn’t anything it’s not.

True, Broken Age is a little pricey right now. The twenty-odd dollar price tag can be justified by claiming that you’re essentially buying two games for the price of one. Whether or not that’s a deal-breaker is really up to you. On the other hand, apparently there’s a whole bunch of additional jokes on the Steam store page, which should keep you entertained even if you decide not to buy the game! Assuming you’re okay with having the end of Carrie spoiled for you.

2 comments

  1. For future archive-divers: as of 4th January 2015 Act 2 is still nowhere to be seen.

    Anyway, I’ve finally read the whole Indie Wonderland series, so you’ve got one more regular reader from now on, Jarenth.

    1. Welcome to the gang! Very excited to have you here.

      It’s a shame Blue Screen of Awesome is no longer online, because that would have represented another three years or so of Indie Wonderland for you to work through.

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