Review: Broken Age

Double Fine’s Broken Age is an episodic point & click adventure game. In it we play as Vella and Shay, a girl seeking to escape her fate as a sacrificial maiden and a boy looking for real adventure. They both get far more than they expected.

Genre(s): Adventure (Point & Click)

Developer: Double Fine Productions

Publisher: Double Fine Productions

Release Date: January 2014 | April 2015

Played: Main Story (2 Episodes)

Platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita, OSX, Linux, Ouya, iOS, Android.

Purchase At: Steam, GoG, Green Man Gaming

Good:

  • Beautiful visual style.

  • Interesting characters.

  • Plays with your expectations.

Bad:

  • Cutscene conversations.

  • No Fast-Travel.

  • Villains lack punch.

Review

At the start of each of Broken Age’s episodes, you get to choose whose story you’ll play first. I am a firm believer in “Ladies First” so I picked Vella. She lives in the baker town of Sugar Bunting and when we first meet her it’s the day of the Maiden’s Feast, when she and other girls in town have the honour of becoming sacrifices to appease the dreaded monster Mog Chothra. According to the elders, the Mog appear once every 14 years and if they don’t have any sacrifices, they’ll ravage the town. Her parents and sister are proud but her grandfather hates it and wishes they fight the monster instead of submitting, and that’s exactly what she does, escaping her fate and starting a journey to kill the beast.

Shay’s life is the exact opposite. He wakes up every day to his mollycoddling Mom and Dad, faces on the monitor. He doesn’t even refer to them as parents but as “Computer,” realising he’s alone in his spaceship. He’s outgrown the knitted animatronics around him as well as the different and predictable adventure ‘scenarios’ he plays every day. But when, out of boredom, he decides to go off-script and let a scenario literally derail, he meets Marek, a strange person in a wolf costume. He tells Shay that while he’s been playing around, the galaxy was at war. Wanting to help, Shay joins Marek in rescuing helpless creatures, refugees of war.

If you're planning on visiting Meriloft, pack your cloudshoes!

If you’re planning on visiting Meriloft, pack your cloudshoes!

Each of the character’s first episode plays out independently, though you can freely switch between them. At the end there’s a big revelation and their paths cross momentarily before they switch places. I won’t go into the details so as to not spoil anything though. The first episode sets the first pieces of the story in place and the second deals with truths, about the characters, the world and the story.

While it’s true their first episodes are independent, you’ll need to switch between them at times during the second episode, as information presented to one of them is useful to the other. An example is a tune Shay hears during this episode. It’s useless for him, but it’s the clue for one of Vella’s puzzles. As the episode advances, the need to switch between characters becomes commonplace and in fact the last segment’s central puzzle revolves around it.

Prima Doooooooooooooooooom!

Prima Doooooooooooooooooom!

Vella is strong and decisive, but with a devious streak that comes to play when she needs to get things done. She’s likeable and relatable, but deeply flawed, as her determination often makes her ready to do and sacrifice anything so long as it advances her goals. She’s not above lying and breaking things to get ahead, but it’s all to save the world from having to sacrifice more maidens and to save her family from the monster’s ire. Adventure game protagonists always toe the line between likeable and despicable because of the sometimes horrendous actions they take and how they hurt others, but you can never really fault Vella for what she does, as perhaps we’d all do the same in her place.

Shay on the other hand speaks to the desire of independence we’ve all held at some point in our lives. The need to prove our mettle, to show the world and ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing everything we set our minds to. In Shay’s case, whatever harm he inflicts on others is due to pure naïveté and ignorance. In many ways he’s still a child and as he learns of the world, we learn with him, but he’s never a faceless avatar.

Shay can be very resourceful when he needs to be, just as Vella!

Shay can be very resourceful when he needs to be, just as Vella!

What I’m trying to say with all of this is that characterisation, for the protagonists, is outstanding. The characters don’t only have depth but they’re capable of growth and understanding and they come out the other end of their journey forever changed, stronger and better.

Secondary characters are just as well developed. Vella and Shay’s families are phenomenal characters, as are the priestesses of the Dead Eye God, minor characters with a surprising amount of depth and a relationship that left me smiling, as I didn’t see it coming. Whil Weaton plays a hilarious hipster lumberjack/metalworker and he’s a joy to talk to and sometimes manipulate.

The villains on the other hand lack polish. Their personalities are one-dimensional, just evil bastards with no other traits. I’m not against a purely evil character, but when everyone else has so much depth, they feel bland in comparison. Their motivation, central to the plot, is a bit weak and the explanation isn’t really satisfying, which is perhaps the most negative thing I can say about Broken Age’s story. There’s a lot going on, and the journey is terrific, but the main conflict lacks punch. The pacing is also a bit off, with the reveals and exposition rushed near the end, to raise the tension before the big climax, but without giving it the proper time to develop.

What the game and its writers did wonderfully is play with your preconceptions and expectations. When you first experience each of the protagonists’ worlds, you’ll make assumptions on genre and where the plot might go, but then the game flips those around and it keeps doing that until the credits roll. They’re subtle reveals, no exposition needed, just things happening that make you reconsider what you held as truth a few minutes before. It’s quite amazing how the game and its developers play with you as much as you play their game.

Puzzles in the game are varied. You have your typical fetch & inventory puzzles, some logic based and others based on timing. The latter are predominant in Vella’s 2nd episode. Broken Age might be the first game in a long time to make me pull out a sheet of paper and pencil to draw and make notes, as there are often so many tiny clues you need to remember to finish puzzles. It’s not something I’m used to seeing in modern adventure games and I felt happy for the challenge, to test not only my deduction skills but my memory as well. With perhaps a couple of exceptions, such as a roundabout Heimlich maneuver, there aren’t any puzzles that are too outlandish and there’s mostly a definite logic in place or a clue somewhere around you. Puzzles can be challenging but they’re never frustrating.

Some puzzles are simple, like the eggs, but that ladder on the other hand might stump you!

Some puzzles are simple, like the eggs, but that ladder on the other hand might stump you!

While puzzles are central to a point & click adventure game, I do have a couple of issues with some gameplay elements. First is the position of the inventory, located at the lower left side of the screen…right where you’re going to be moving and clicking most of the time to explore the environment. I lost count of the times I opened the inventory instead of moving to where I wanted to go. What makes it even worse is that you don’t even need to click to open the inventory but just hover over it, so it gets in the way quite frequently.

Secondly, this game could’ve used a fast-travel option. The spaceship partially addresses this with teleporters in a couple of locations, but outside the backtrack trips from one puzzle to the other will get long and tiresome, especially during the later stages of Vella’s first episode and all of Shay’s second one. A simple map would’ve done wonders to make the game a bit more fluid.

Finally, I thoroughly dislike how conversations handle in Broken Age. Unlike other titles in the genre where you can skip individual lines of dialogue—if you’re a fast reader like me—conversations in the game handle much like old-school FMV adventures. Each conversation is a cutscene so if you decide to skip ahead you’ll miss an entire discussion.

Before he answers make sure not to skip!

Before he answers make sure not to skip!

Wil Wheaton’s voice might be one I instantly recognise but the voice talent in Broken Age is outstanding. Even the tiniest and seemingly insignificant character sounds convincing, even the Maiden airheads you meet throughout the game. You can feel in their voice how convinced they are that they’re better than others by being sacrificial maidens. It’s the same with the soundtrack, there’s a piece for every location and screen and it perfectly sells the mood for the place and situation. There’s a particular chime tune at the end of the game that I found extremely memorable, even though it lasts a short time. It’s beautiful and relaxing and successfully conveys the message “This is the end.”

One of Broken Age’s most striking features is its visual design. A paper-like texture that makes it all seem straight out of a children’s pop-up book. Most of the places you explore and the people you interact with are bright and colourful, vibrant and alive and they offer a striking contrast with the villains, who are grayish and faded, with darker colours and purposes. The use of colour, much like in other forms of art, helps transmit ideas and feelings as effectively as words.

Conclusion

Broken Age is perhaps one of the best adventures games I’ve played in the past years. It has a wonderful journey, terrific characters and it offered me something many adventures have failed in the past years: a challenge!

TMA SCORE:

4.5/5 – Amazing!

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