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Broken Age review

Coming of Age

While the first half of Broken Age was released over a year ago, this review treats the entire game as a single entity. As such, we’ll be avoiding spoilers for the first half of the game. Please do the same in the comments.

Talk about suspense. Broken Age, Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter-funded return to the point-and-click adventure, has been stuck in limbo for more than a year, with a tantalizing first-act cliffhanger. Its two protagonists and split setting—Shay, the boy bored at being coddled in his futuristic spaceship, and Vella, the girl rebelling against the backward traditions of her pastoral village—were reframed in a surprising new context that would make anyone desperate to find out what happens next. And then? A long, long wait.

Playing through the now-finished product, it’s quite obvious that Broken Age was never meant to linger unfinished for so long or even be split in two at all. You won’t find any of the hallmarks of a typical episodic release here: no recaps, no slowdown in pacing that lets you gradually get reacquainted with the world when you dive back in. There’s no way to skip to the end of Act I if you don’t have a save file handy. In fact, there’s no indication that the game was ever halved at all.

More practically, the back stretch of the game assumes you remember a fair amount of what went down in the first half, with running gags and character developments that pay off best if the setup is still fresh in your head. Even some of the puzzles are particularly clever inversions of those encountered earlier on.

If you were eager enough to play through the first half when it was released back in January of last year, that might be something of a disappointment. I know it was for me. I didn’t remember Act I in enough detail to feel comfortable skipping it entirely (and since my save file was on PC and this review covers the PS4 version, I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to). But as I repeated that first half, the puzzle solutions were still fresh enough in my mind to make getting to the new content a bit of slog. I envy anyone who waited patiently and can now play through Broken Age as it was meant to be experienced—without a 15-month gap in the middle.

Nevertheless, most of my praise for Act I remains just as true about the game as a whole, even if I’m sour on its piecemeal delivery. The humor, bolstered by a strong voice cast that includes Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, Wil Wheaton, and Jack Black, is textbook Schafer—always amusing and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. The art, true to lead Nathan Stapley’s characterful visual style, is gorgeously different and bursting with depth and detail. The story, always a vital part of any adventure game, brilliantly fleshes out its world and spins a tale that’s surprisingly full of heart.

In fact, the biggest change to my opinion of Broken Age comes from the gameplay. To a veteran of SCUMM titles like me, Act I’s puzzles were pretty straightforward item-plus-item-plus-environment tasks, admirable for the absence of Insane Adventure Game Logic but never that challenging or complex. I’d assumed that Broken Age, like most games released episodically, had reached peak complexity by the time I made it to the split and the second half would be a comparable experience.

Not so. Instead, the game just builds up the challenge from there, throwing in more elaborate multipart sequences and some non-traditional puzzles that force you to do some actual thinking. At more than one point, I had to grab a pen and paper and start making diagrams and notes. If you were worried that part of the old-school point-and-click experience was gone, rest assured, Broken Age keeps it very much alive.

Even with the added challenge, there’s still precious little Insane Adventure Game Logic on display. I will admit that, in one portion of the game, I did get stuck—painfully, excruciatingly, two-hours-of-using-every-possible-item-with-every-object-on-every-screen stuck. But even then, the game had communicated everything well enough that I’d quickly pieced together what to do, just not how. Without giving too much away, the segment in question required a great deal of patience, and I was thrown off by dialogue from my character explicitly stating that I shouldn’t keep waiting around. Not exactly fair in my book, but maybe I’m just too gullible for my own good.

Still, that one hangup was surrounded by a phenomenal selection of puzzles ranging from simple and amusing to head-scratching but ultimately intuitive, with as many rewarding eureka moments as Monkey Island or Grim Fandango. Near the end, the game even starts making full use of its two-character conceit, forcing you to find clues in one world to help you solve something in the other. These moments aren’t quite as involved or clever as Day of the Tentacle’s ingenious time-travel puzzles, but they’re enjoyable for the exact same reasons—even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense for Shay or Vella to know what the other is seeing from a narrative standpoint.

Minor gripes and inexplicable psychic links aside, classic adventure-game fans should be thrilled to see Schafer once again doing justice to the genre that made his career. Though the adventure game has endured in various forms thanks to the indie community, Telltale’s odd hybrids, and the entire nation of Germany, it’s never been quite as magical as it was in LucasArts’ heyday. For my money, games like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle were as close as gaming has ever come to the works of Pixar, with wildly imaginative stories that are accessible to any audience without ever being condescending. Broken Age successfully recaptures that sense of whimsy and originality, making it the perfect antidote to the cynical, grim, and samey landscape of modern gaming.

★★★★☆

In its finished form, Broken Age is every bit the modern point-and-click classic its strong first act implied it would be. With an entertaining story and clever puzzles wrapped in a modern sensibility and impressive production values, Tim Schafer’s return to the genre that made him lives up to the high standard of his earlier work.

Developer
Double Fine Productions
Publisher
Double Fine Productions
ESRB
E10+ – Everyone 10+
Release Date
04.28.2014
Broken Age is available on PS4, Vita, PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Double Fine Productions for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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