Broken Age – PC
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions & Kickstarter Backers
Release Date (NA): January 28, 2014
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
Reviewed by: Variand
Stop writing that email to the editor. No, that was not a typo. We left the Action out of the genre because Broken Age is an Adventure game. In fact, it heralds back to the days of The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars and their Point and Click goodness. So close that new e-mail window, grab your mouse, and Point & Click your way through this review of Broken Age.
Kickstart this Adventure!
Before we get to the actual review, there is one specific note we need to make. Gamers have the power to dictate the games you want and support those Developers that might have otherwise been booted out the offices of Publishers unwilling to take on something as risky as a Point & Click adventure game. Broken Age is a paragon of this fact.
“This game started two years ago when a modest Kickstarter project to make a documentary about a game company added a small game to the deal. The response to that campaign surprised us all and we knew things were not going to be the same for a lot of people, especially us and our fans.” – Tim Schafer
Double Fine opened a Kickstarter project and set a goal of $400,000 ($300k for development costs and $100k for filming) with the project aimed at making a documentary of the game design process from concept to completion – “Completion” being either a released game or a flaming mass of failure. The pledging opened Febuary 8, 2012, and in just over 8 hours had surpassed the $400,000 goal. In fact, after 24 hours, the project would reach over $1,000,000 – less than 5 hours after Kickstarter’s first million dollar project (Elevation Dock). By the time the closing finished, the Double Fine Adventure project would reach $3,336,371. It currently stands as the 8th most funded project in Kickstarter history. Counting the Slacker Backers (those that pledge after the closing of the Kickstarter period), the total comes in at $3.63M with 95,554 Backers and slackers!
But the buck doesn’t stop there. Developers know very well that those who fund game will try to exert some sort of control over the creative process, but Double Fine WELCOMES this input from those who bankrolled Broken Age. Double Fine developed this game to be played by players, so it should be the players who get to give input on design rather than a publisher worried more about the monetary return on their investment than making a great game. So the crew at Double Fine invited all backers to join the forums and discuss game elements and give feedback during the development process.
The call to adventure
While it’s fun and heart warming to follow the amazing underdog success story of Double Fine’s funding, that’s only the first half of this saga. The other half is the game itself – Broken Age, which will be broken into two episodes. (Be sure to check back when Episode 2 is released for the updated review).
Being an adventure game, story, puzzles, music and art are the focus of Broken Age. These are all present and accounted for along with that cheeky humor that has made other Double Fine games such fan favorites. As with nearly all games in this genre, there is little action, but what it lacks in action it makes up in brain stimulating puzzles and charming presentation.
There are two stories being told in Broken Age, and you can jump freely between the two. This helps if you start to feel bored with one storyline, or just get stuck on what to do next. Your choices of character are a young man Shay or a young woman Vella; both seeking to break free of the lives chosen for them.
Vella Tartine is a teenage girl who has the “great honor” of being part of the upcoming Maidens Feast so she can be eaten by a huge monster. One can understand why Vella might be a bit hesitant with wanting to be eaten. So she makes a daring escape and begins looking for a way to destroy the maiden-devouring monster.
Shay Volta is a teenage boy who is apparently the only person on a spaceship. His daily routine involves waking up, eating, saving knitted automatons, and going back to sleep all under the watchful eyes of a computerized, and especially over-protective, sun and moon – respectively named Mom and Dad.
The two stories are near polar opposites. Where Shay’s environment is static and free from all harm, Vella’s world is full of a real life danger of being eaten. Regardless of the differences, there is one primary similarity – Neither are allowed to live the life they want!
At first, these stories may seem fairly straight forward, but most will need a second playthrough to really catch all the little nuances. It can be easily assumed that these two stories are going to intersect at some point, and kudos to you if you can spot how before it happens. A second playthrough, albeit much easier already having the solutions to the puzzles, was no less fun with all the revelations that players are sure to miss until this second time through.
The gameplay is exactly like I’d hoped. Even though the point and click interface is simple, the puzzles are fun and funny. Several of the puzzles can take a while to figure out, longer if you missed an earlier item, but that’s the very nature of the gameplay for Adventure games. In an open letter, Tim Schayer says of Adventure game puzzles, “And frustrating, sometimes, too. You get stuck, like stuck-stuck, and they’re designed to be that way. Sure, if you keep talking to characters, and examining objects, you’ll probably find the hint you need to get through. But sometimes, when it feels like you’ve exhausted every dialog tree and used every object on every other object, you have to turn away from it, walk the dog, take a break, a shower, a nap. And then, when you return, you somehow solve the puzzle in five minutes. Like magic. Don’t ask me how. I already told you: It’s magic.” Sage advice. I’d only like to add that you should not use walkthroughs or FAQs. This hollow’s the experience, and part of the reason why we remember these games from our childhood is because we spent so long going back and forth, talking to everyone, and clicking on everything for days!
Exploring dialogue and interaction choices are what help make Broken Age great, and where the real charm of Broken Age’s writing comes out. There were several instances where the offbeat humor had me laughing at the innuendos, rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness, and even staring at my monitor in stunned shock as realization finally struck. An expanse of simple gameplay that is a joy to explore.
The downside is that this slower style of gameplay may not sit well with every gamer, especially those adrenaline junkies who fall asleep if they’re not making 360 airborne cross-map knife kills. The game is a bit short as well. If you get stuck, you can really rack up the hours, but it is entirely possible to make it through this first episode in one evening. I didn’t find this upsetting, though, as it never overstayed it’s welcome. And we’re told that Episode 2 will download for free after purchase, so that makes the $24.99 list price much more tolerable – Though you could have gotten both episodes for $15 minimum if you were a Backer/Slacker for the funding process.
Point and Click – It’s just that simple. You point to select and click to walk, talk, interact, or use anything and everything. When so many games have pages and pages of controls that you can map, Broken Age has only four controls to map, and all but one are just convenience based controls. The “Use” button, defaulted to left-click, is the requisite control needed to play the game.
The only possible annoyance with the controls is found when dealing with the inventory. In order to use items, players will need to drag them from their inventory and drop them on the object or person on which they wish use them. No issue there, however, most computer users are used to being able to grab and drag at the same time. In Broken Age, if your cursor is moving, you can’t grab the items. It will be a bit of a learning curve to slow down, and grab the items before trying to use them. This is only a minor inconvenience and doesn’t hurt gameplay at all.
UPDATE: The release build of the game has updated the control scheme to allow click and drag interaction styles. This corrected the above-mentioned inconvenience. Be sure to set this in the options!
Art & Visuals
One thing can always be said about Double Fine games, their visuals have always been unique and full of character to the point where even the backgrounds and environments are just as memorable as the characters and events. Broken Age is no different. Using multiple layers and scaling of the 2D elements, they’ve created a quasi-2.5D game style. When first playing, it was vaguely reminiscent of walking through the forest in the early portions of Playdead’s Limbo.
On closer inspection of the character models, you can see that the edges are not as sharp as they would appear from a distance. Instead, they look as if they were drawn in crayon, but this actually helps the visuals. In fact, this gives a less rigid edge to the characters so that they almost meld with the world, and making them feel that they are actually in the world rather than just a sprite layered over a background image.
The few instances when conventional effects are used feel all the more impressive as they differ from the overall style of the game. In fact, where something like an explosion might seem mundane in other games, that same explosion stands out in stark contrast against Broken Age’s art making the effect seem all the more dramatic.
Animations are fluid and expressive, lending themselves to help bolster the already colorful personalities of the characters. Due to the 2D nature of the sprites, it feels a bit like watching a paper marionettes at times, but this often adds more to the charm of the gameplay.
The music of Broken Age is engaging, and fun. At no point does it become distracting, and it goes far to increase the immersion. Plucky, offbeat tunes really help to accentuate Shay’s tedium, and light, mellow melodies really helps you fall in love with Vella’s home.
Broken Age also features full voice over dialogue with some very notable names. Shay is voiced by Elijah Wood, and Vella is voiced by Masasa Moyo, however, there are several other names attached to this project. Jack Black, Jennifer Hale, and even Wil Wheaton help fill out the roster. One of my favorite inclusions in the game is Pendleton Ward, the creator of Adventure Time.
My only one complaint about the sound was deliberately done. At one point, two maidens will begin to practice singing, and it is absolutely cringe-worthy on purpose – even the subtitles state it’s out of tune. However, It was at this point when I got stuck and heard that song WAAAAY too many times. It was at this point when I began thinking that maybe fully-voiced adventure games might not be all they’re cracked up to be and made me pine for the days of silent games.
Reviewer’s Note: Will older gamers be thought of the same way I thought of my grandparents when she started talking about silent pictures? “Back in my day, games didn’t have voice overs. We actually had to read the dialogue. And we walked through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways, to get to the Babbages.”
Broken Age was a gamble, even from the very start when seeking funding, and the gamble paid off in a big way. While it’s doubtful we’ll be seeing the Action removed from the side of Adventure in genre lists, it’s good to see that the games are still viable. However, the real win here is for gamers and developers. Publishers were completely ignored, and the over a decade old blockade broken. While Broken Age was a great game, getting my highest score to date, I believe its legacy will be that of the Kickstarter story rather than the renaissance of a genre.
A final note:
There have been outcries in forums and blogs that this will begin a trend of pushing publishers out of the mix, however, this just won’t happen. With AAA games taking more and more resources to create, only publishers will be able to afford to bankroll these larger game productions. However, Double Fine was able to show that if you offer what fans want, we’ll pull a Philip J. Fry. Hopefully, this will open up publishers’ eyes to take a close look at what the market actually wants. If things continue as they are, then we as a community know that we can take matters into our own hands.
What do you think of Broken Age’s rags to riches story of funding? Do you think Adventure games are back to stay? Let us know what you think in the comments below, and don’t forget to tell us your favorite Point & Click adventure game.
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