“Every truth has two sides; it is as well to look at both, before we commit ourselves to either.”
I owe The Timely Mage a great, big thank you for allowing me the opportunity to play this game and share my thoughts on it! He wanted me to play it so he bought it for me! To have! What a guy!
Broken Age is another quirky, imaginative, modern classic by Double Fine Productions and director Tim Schafer. It’s an adventure game in ye olde point-and-click style of which we were all so fond several decades ago. A dying breed, to be sure. One of the best funded Kickstarter projects of all time, Broken Age was released in two parts known as Acts, first in 2014 and the second in 2015. It’s success on Kickstarter has since established crowdfunding as an effective means of getting video games out to the world.
The game follows the point-and-click gameplay formula pretty much to a T. The objective is to solve a series of contextual puzzles and advance the storyline. Moving the cursor across the screen directs the playable character to speak with members of the cast or interact with items such as combining them or giving them away. However, as opposed to many early adventure games there’s no huge list of verbs at the bottom of the screen, which streamlines a previously tedious style of gameplay. Thank Schafer for that.
Similar to some of the old LucasArts adventures, there are multiple playable characters that must be switched between in order to complete all of the puzzles. Some of these are really tough. This is an example of a game that I’m convinced is impossible to complete without a walkthrough, though with the accessibility of the internet today compared to 20 years ago, it’s easier to find a walkthrough than ever. That’s not to say that Broken Age becomes “easy”, though. It pulls an old adventure game trick from its sleeve: some of the puzzle solutions are unique to each individual copy of the game. The only way to complete them (the hexipal wiring puzzle) is to figure out the mechanism of the puzzle first and then figure out the unique solution for your own copy. That’s a genius way to circumnavigate guide abuse to get through the game.
A new game will prompt you to choose between two characters with separate storylines which eventually converge: a girl in a fantasy world and a boy in a science fiction world. You can switch between the characters at any point during the game.
Vella is a young woman from the baking town of Sugar Bunting. She’s to partake in the Maiden’s Feast which is essentially an accepted form of virgin sacrifice every 14 years. If you’re thinking Clash of the Titans and the Kraken, stop thinking that. In Sugar Bunting, the offering up of maidens to the monster Mog Chothra is celebrated, even by the girls who are to be devoured themselves. The only one to question the tradition is Vella and she soon makes an escape to Meriloft, a floating village in the air, where she begins to plan a way to take down Mog Chothra.
Shay is a young man who lives on the spaceship Bossa Nostra. His days are spent in lackadaisical obedience to routine under the babying protection of the ship’s computer A.I., Mom. Everything on the ship seems like it’s designed for toddlers and babies, with even the controls looking like something found in a nursery, and Shay has already grown tired of the meaningless “missions” Mom sends him on to “rescue” toy playmates from the same old “danger”. His world falls apart when he meets a stowaway of sorts on his ship, Marek, who claims to be a man in a wolf costume that has watched Shay grow up. Creepy.
In fact, beyond that there’s a lot of creep factor beneath the storybook visuals of Broken Age. The plot which eventually unravels is even a little disgusting at points and there’s plenty of dark comedy which reminds us that this isn’t exactly a game for children, despite it’s appearances. Yeah, there’s nothing adult about it but it is complex. The combination of black humor and fairy tale works so well because of talented direction and writing.
The characters, after the fashion of Grim Fandango (which I greatly enjoyed), are memorable and funny in their own unusual way. It’s hard to forget the shifty-eyed Marek, the talking Spoon straight-man, the aggressive Knife, the enlightenment guru Harm’ny Lightbeard, the ultra-stereotypical hipster Curtis, the nauseous talking tree, Dead Eye Courtney and Dawn, and the Space Weaver.
The cast is brought to life by whimsical, clever and often hilarious dialogue, a Double Fine staple. Comedy can easily fall flat but there’s wit in droves in Broken Age, enough to bear up the fantastical characters and darker undertones.
There is of course the work of the exceptional voice talent which makes the dialogue pop. I remember talking with Harm’ny Lightbeard, leader of the ascetic Meriloft cult, and thinking he sounded a heck of a lot like Jack Black. Turns out it was Jack Black, doing an impression of Jack Black.
The soft-spoken Shay is voiced by Elijah Wood himself! Vella by Masasa Moyo, Curtis by Wil Wheaton, Mom by Jennifer Hale, Marek by David Kaufman, The Space Weaver by Richard Steven Horvitz. Yep, that’s Invader Zim.
Broken Age is the kind of game that feels cinematic, though the difficulty of some of its puzzles counterbalances that by ensuring you get stuck and have to wander around or seek out a guide. I’d consider it another triumph to Double Fine’s name. I played it on the PS4 and felt it translated well as an original PC title and throwback to the adventure games of yore.
The 8-bit Review
Broken Age is visually gorgeous.
It looks like a children’s storybook brought to life with animated pastels and heavy brush strokes. That Disney-esque hand drawn appearance and charm instantly makes the game recognizable and memorable. Double Fine has termed the graphics used in the game as 2.5D Animation. It’s easy to see why. They appear to be 2-dimensional like the pages in a picture book yet at the same time they move and shift in perspective as if they’re 3-D. Is it 2-D? Is it 3-D? It’s both.
The visuals are at times so lovingly detailed that it can become hard to pick out a single object that needs to be retrieved or inspected. I got stuck more than a few times because I simply bypassed some items I was supposed to pick up because I didn’t notice them among the other saturated details. That’s a gameplay problem and not a visual one, however, and it does a lot to say how rich these visuals in fact are.
Peter McConnell, who has worked with Double Fine before on Psychonauts and with LucasArts on Grim Fandango, wisely went with a fully orchestrated soundtrack for Broken Age. Driven by strings and wind, the music fully supports the cinematic nature of the game. The music is full of personality with more a sweeping, classic symphony sound for Vella’s tracks and colder, electric keystrokes and chimes for Shay.
While there was nothing wrong with the stellar soundtrack, it seemed to me like its presentation was a bit off sometimes. How so? Well, I started the game with the default settings putting both music and voice acting volume at 100%. By the time I finished the story, my setting for music volume was somewhere around 60%. The dialogue was almost impossible to make sense of at some points because of the power of the music, when a bit of sound editing could’ve helped tone that down. I didn’t play with subtitles because there was voice acting and I didn’t want to turn on subtitles. This was a shame as the dialogue was so witty a lot of the times but it was just too hard to hear over the music, in Meriloft especially.
But of course there’s still the exceptional voice cast. Because of the interactive conversations, not all of the dialogue could be delivered as personably as I felt it could have. The protagonists constantly shrugging is a good indicator of the general tone of the line deliveries, but that isn’t at all to say they’re horrible. This is an exceptional cast with some big names.
As far as adventure games go, this is a really good one. The point-and-click schema has been refined here and streamlined without the necessity to keep dragging the cursor back and forth between verbs and objects in a trial-and-error fashion. The puzzles make sense and it has the self-awareness to make some of its puzzles immune to internet solutions. More on that under Accessibility.
I have a lot of jumbled thoughts about the narrative but I’ll try to get them out as clearly as possible. I think the story works best in retrospect. It’s strongest right at the beginning of Act 1 with the start of Vella’s rebellion against the feast, her escape from Mog Chothra and her war against the monster, and the start of Shay’s break of routine, and the creeping realization that he’s living in an artificial world.
Then the mid-stuff sort of seemed to muddle everything for me as time stretched to a crawl between puzzles and conversations with minor characters and inevitable trial and error. Then it become its absolute strongest when both our heroes were at the Plague Dam in their respective places, and Vella triggers the final, revealing dialogue with the leader of the Thrush.
He explains that (spoiler: highlight to reveal) his race is into highly advanced genetic manipulation in the attempt to reach a purified lineage. However, carefully manipulating their bloodline has left their bodies brittle, which necessitates that some “inferior” genes be introduced from the normal human beings living in less civilized towns beyond the Thursh colony of the Plague Dam. This is the explanation for the Maiden’s Feast as this was a method for the Thrush obtaining young virgins for their genetic manipulation. Which is really gross. The maidens were selected by Shay, at the behest of Marek, on the assumption that he made the better choices on who would be saved, though this was probably only because he too would take part in serving the Thrush bloodline. I may have that wrong, but such as it is Shay and his family under the guise of Operation Dandelion were actually captors for suitable young women and Shay was to be raised as part of their genetic project. Alex may have also presumably been a part of this except he was marooned for 300 years and in stasis. Alex also mentioned a talking cello who told him to capture maidens in the same way as Shay’s Marek. This makes Broken Age a pretty dark story about a set of dystopian societies ruling the world for generations under the pretense of lies, hence the title “Broken Age”. It is literally describing an era wherein society functions like a horrible machine broken by the Thrush to serve the Thrush.
Beyond the science fiction premise, Broken Age has a series of themes that seem to fluctuate in their effectiveness and presentation as the game progresses. It very much seems to be a kind of coming of age story (which may again play into the meaning of the title), since both Vella and Shay go against their parents and discover for themselves what the world is like beyond what their fathers and mothers tell them it is like. I think that theme is most apparent in Act 1 but it doesn’t seem to be as much in the forefront by the end of the game.
Then, there’s this theme of discovering the truth through this massive conspiracy of lies, a theme of questioning traditions. Vella discovers because of her actions that the Maiden’s Feast (spoiler: highlight to reveal) is a scam being perpetuated by the regional beliefs of her own family and society. This is also underscored by the situation in Meriloft where Lightbeard rules under a doctrine of “lightness” against material possessions, but even there the theme of false traditions ends up coming into play. It’s nearly irreligious but not entirely so.
Shay is less aggressive in character, and the revelation of his own set of lies happens to him rather than him causing it to happen. Marek finds him and begins to unravel for him the narrative he’d been fed. Furthermore, in Shay’s case, there doesn’t seem to be any reaction to the sudden discovery that his parents (spoiler: highlight to reveal) are in fact not computer A.I. but real people, or conversely why they aren’t apologetic or in a hurry to explain why they hadn’t interacted with him in person for what must’ve been years, and why he didn’t remember them as real from their youth or why this doesn’t shock him to his core isn’t clear. But it does become immediately apparent to the player just why Shay’s ship is crowded with nursery-like toys and controls as his mom continues to coddle him from a distance.
I remember when (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Vella shoots down Mog Chothra and Shay steps out of its mouth, when I said something like “Mog Chothra is Shay’s ship” right before it was revealed on screen to be so. It wasn’t cliché-level predictable or anything. It’s just that you begin to see how everything matches up. It was still a great scene.
It must’ve been rather difficult telling two parallel stories simultaneously and I think a symptom of that is the fact that some of the themes aren’t entirely consistent throughout the whole game. It must be remembered as well that the original game was released in segments.
I’m sure that more could be said and investigated. I have unanswered questions, such as (spoiler: highlight to reveal) why did Shay’s Mom go to such an extreme to seem as if she was a computer and never interact in person with her son? I am also curious about the concept of Vella and Shay leading parallel lives what with the visual cue of the both of them relaxing, one against a tree and the other in bed. Perhaps that’s indicative of their starting conditions being identical?
They both begin their stories totally accepting of (if disappointed in) their circumstances in their respective societies, but then their paths diverge as Vella frees herself from duties of a cult but cannot free the cultists she later meets in the clouds and under the dead eye god while Shay is kept prisoner for his own safety and later captures prisoners for their own safety, until they both discover what is really going on in their own ways. The primary difference between the two is Vella causes her story to happen by questioning and rejecting, and Shay’s story happens to him through his experimentation and boredom. And in Shay’s case, he isn’t actually living “in a lie” so much as he never questioned what was happening to him unlike Vella, so he has no righteous indignation to stand on.
This is in stark contrast to nearly every other character in the game who has long ago accepted the status quo (the main exception being Vella’s grandpa). The Spoon and Knife, almost everyone in Meriloft, the talking tree, the Space Weaver. They’ve each resigned themselves to the rules of their own choices or nature and accepted that life is the way it is without question. Vella and Shay throw a wrench into their way of life.
By the time the story swaps our protagonists, some of the momentum is lost and because of that the conclusion felt somewhat anti-climactic to me. Still, Broken Age thrives on a strong sci-fi premise that’s slowly revealed in a very complicated and clever way, and social commentary that’s precise without being preachy.
If you played any of the classic adventure games of the past, there’s nothing here to really surprise you. I hold that this adventure is more accessible than Grim Fandango, where the puzzle solutions were nearly incomprehensible combinations of items that I’d never think of. Such as punching holes in a playing card to use as an air vent to steal your coworkers mail. In Broken Age, however, I always felt like the game gave me enough clues and cues to figure out its puzzles. Even when I absolutely needed to turn to a walkthrough out of necessity, I almost always said “Oh yeah. Of course.” There are no leaps of logic. Calcium carbonate is in sea shells and egg shells. Sure some of the hints were extremely vague or you had to have the ability to notice details like some kind of super-sleuth but ultimately the game renders enough info to be comprehensible. I’d say that Broken Age is a great starter for anyone wanting to try out a point-and-click adventure.
This game is hard if not impossible to complete without getting some help. Whilst on my own hunts for good walkthroughs, I came across more than one individual commenting on forums about how they simply gave up. No matter how much they wanted to complete the game, some puzzles were just too difficult to complete. I never want to see a hexipal again.
Once again, this development team delivered something that’s demonstrably unique. While it doesn’t do much to further the adventure game genre, if at all, Broken Age is a game worth playing through. It already seems to be treated like a classic. It’s no wonder that it reached its Kickstarter funding goal so quickly.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Tim Schafer and Double Fine delivered again. This one took a little longer to grow on me than did the previous game I played by the studio, Grim Fandango, but it eventually hit its stride with lovable characters, an involved plot about lies and conspiracy, a swell voice cast and music direction. Though it at time strains a bit on presentation, I’m glad to have played Broken Age. In some inexplicable way I would’ve been sad if I had missed out on experiencing this one. So thank you, Timely Mage. You’re a hero in my book. You and Grabbin’ Gary…
~In Lovin’ Memory of Grabbin’ Gary
“He wanted to grab that”
Aggregated Score: 8.3
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Categories: Game Review