I’ve always felt like one of the most important parts of reviewing games is the ability to separate the game from the “backstory” – the game’s development, funding, staff and so on. In my mind, once the game’s fully released none of that stuff really matters; what you’ve got is a game and that’s what you’re looking at. While contemporary views on gaming have pushed toward building up “celebrity” developers and studios, a fact that’s made some of those devs very rich indeed, what’s important is the content that’s eventually produced.
And so it is that we come to Broken Age, previously Double Fine Adventure, a point-and-click adventure game whose development has almost single-handedly led, for better or worse, to the crowdfunding fad that’s saturated gaming culture for the past few years. Whether or not this has actually been good for games as a whole – there’s no question it’s been good for developers – is up in the air. Either way, that’s not what we’re talking about today. Instead, well…Broken Age has been released in it’s final state, so let’s take a look at that without the crowdfunding goggles.
What we’ve got here is a classic point-and-click adventure game, the kind that was in vogue in the 90s or so. The degree of “gameplay” in the 2015 sense on offer is questionable – you’re mostly navigating dialogue trees, picking up items and using those items to solve puzzles. I can’t say I was ever a huge fan of the point-and-click adventure, probably because when they were big they seemed explicitly designed to make money off hint lines, but games like Primordia have shown that it can be an engaging genre when done right.
Broken Age stars two teenage heroes. Vella is a girl from the village of Sugar Bunting, one of several hamlets that pays tribute to the giant monster Mog Chothra This tribute comes in the form of maidens fed to the beast, and Vella is one of the latest to be given this “honor;” something she’s not exactly thrilled about. Shay, on the other hand, is a boy living onboard a starship and coddled by a pair of overbearing parental AI. He lives a life free of responsibility or danger…and it’s boring him to tears.
Of the two, I found Shay – voiced by expensive actor Elijah Wood – to be the more interesting choice. His sci-fi setting was more interesting and his character felt a little more relatable than the Mary-Sue-esque Vella. His dry wit was certainly more entertaining. Don’t get me wrong, Vella’s alright, but her standard issue can-do attitude, stock rebelliousness and generic deep inner strength in the face of an unjust tradition are…well, we’ve kind of seen this done before in about the same way by similar characters for years now, and when it comes to video games this sort of message has been popular lately so it feels even more dry.
As most readers are aware, Broken Age was also presented in two parts. While the developer insists that the two are meant to be taken as one whole, it certainly doesn’t feel like this was the case. There was over a year between the release of Part One and Part Two and the game definitely feels like there was a shift in developmental focus over that span.
Part One is fairly short, lasting about four hours total to play through with both characters. You get a lot of introduction to Vella, Shay, and the world and people that surround them. There’s a few puzzles here and there but they all make sense within the game’s internal logic and shouldn’t take you too long to pass, ensuring that you can keep enjoying the story without getting hung up for days. Of note is that Part One ends on a fairly agonizing cliffhanger – if I were a Kickstarter backer or early adopter, I think I would have been pretty disappointed that I had to wait for a year to see this through.
When you switch over to Part Two, however, things take a bit of a swerve. For once, the puzzles in Part One largely felt like they were there just because old point-and-click adventure games had them. They provided just enough “gameplay” to lengthen the running time of Half Of Broken Age a bit. Part Two, however, is done with that crap. You’ve been coddled long enough, says the second half of Broken Age, and if you really want an old-school point-and-click adventure then that’s what you’re getting. There’s a puzzle involving untying a knot and we’re, er, knot going to talk about it. Ugh. If point-and-click adventure games ever really “died,” this kind of thing is why.
When you’ve finally gotten through all of it and the game’s wrapped up, well…I think views on how things conclude will vary from player to player. I wasn’t especially a fan and thought things kind of petered out, but someone who was really hurting to see the end of the whole game might feel differently. Taken as a whole, Broken Age plays it very safe per modern sensibilities (aside from the puzzles) and isn’t as disruptive as a lot of the early marketing push for it might have suggested. Sure, it’s not yet another military shooter…but those aren’t as common as artsy indie games that lightly touch on social justice issues these days, so Broken Age comes off feeling like a bit of a genre film when it delivers exactly the message you’d expect it to.
Either way, Broken Age doesn’t outstay its welcome and feels like a complete game. There’s one corollary to that, though – while it does feel complete, the slipshod way that Broken Age was developed and released makes the game feel like it came from two different design perspectives simultaneously. The most obvious example of this is how there’s less of a difficulty curve and more of a giant spiked wall when it comes to the puzzles. Things definitely go downhill during Part Two, suggesting perhaps that endless faucet of money wasn’t so endless after all and they had to Just Ship It. Still, what’s good about the game (namely the art, the voice acting and, to a lesser extent, the writing) remains good throughout and that’s why this is worth playing.
In conclusion, there’s two ways to look at Broken Age and I think you’re going to feel differently about it depending on which way you go. First, you’ve got the people whose hobby has been turned upside-down by the trend Tim Schaeffer’s baby has started. For them, this isn’t just a game, it’s a game that’s revealed how people and projects can turn ugly when money’s involved…and, perhaps, how just a little more cash might be all that’s keeping us from something awesome. It’s a game full of names they recognize, not least of which is Schaeffer’s himself, and at a certain point it becomes difficult to disentangle the people from the product. Chances are they’ve got opinions about how the rise of video game crowdfunding, which can be directly attributed to this project, has affected the hobby. It’s going to be difficult to separate the show from what goes on backstage. Frankly, I don’t know if that’s the best way to approach this one.
See, when I showed Broken Age to friends who aren’t really into games, they loved it. They thought it was charming and easy to play. It made sense to people who don’t follow gaming logic and shouldn’t be forced to do so. They didn’t know how it was funded and wouldn’t care if they did. Tim Schaeffer’s name meant nothing to them, and Double Fine was just a logo. They aren’t expecting it to be a disruptive tour-de-force that changes the gaming landscape because they couldn’t care less about the gaming landscape. I think those people will get the most out of Broken Age as a game, because in the end, that’s what we got: a game. In fact, it’s a game with some similarities to the casual-friendly hidden-object style games that point-and-click adventures eventually evolved into.
If you like point-and-click adventures, check Broken Age out. Play it with a relative or friend who doesn’t play a lot of games. Their delight will be infectious. Things certainly get too difficult in the second half and this will no doubt frustrate the very people who will enjoy this game the most. That’s alright, it’s 2015. The landscape of gaming has changed forever: namely, we’ve got walkthroughs now.