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Wot I Think: Broken Age

Kickstarted into life

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Having so recently written about the first hour of Broken Age, it doesn’t make too much sense to overly repeat myself here. So it’s well worth reading that first half of this review first. This one continues on from there. So here’s the rest of wot i think:

It feels useful to state what Broken Age isn’t. Broken Age isn’t a wacky comedy adventure. It isn’t a revisiting of those classic LucasArts games of the 90s. And it isn’t – at least this first half of the story – an all-time classic. What it is, is a deeply charming adventure game.

It’s presented, as I mentioned before, like an utterly beautiful children’s storybook, gorgeous pages lavishly illustrated, each deserving of study and scrutiny. The character design is just wonderful, and the breezy delivery of an imaginary, impossible world as perfectly normal, nonchalant, is very refreshing. Whether it’s Shay’s Playmobil spacecraft, or Vella’s monsters-n-giant birds fantastical setting, neither delivers itself with lazy fanfares. Instead they just are, and you just get on with that.

And they’re worth exploring, too. While they’re disappointingly sparse in terms of interactive objects, and we’ll get to the massive limitations of there being no “look at” option, there are lots of unique responses written for the incorrect application of inventory objects, meaning it’s often fun to deliberately try all the wrong things to see what the characters will say. While this isn’t a game aiming for a gag a second, they’re often wry, silly or sweet.

But to reiterate, this isn’t a “comedy adventure”. It’s funny, in places. When it delivers a gag, it delivers it extremely well, and I often chuckled. But the game just isn’t aiming to be a laugh riot, nor even a laugh peaceful gathering. It’s a drama, I suppose, with funny lines here and there. Not a failing in any sense. A rather lovely thing, in fact. Perhaps one of my favourite things about the game.

Each of the two characters’ stories is played separately, and you can switch back and forth between Vella and Shay at will. While my tendency is to want to see an arc through, to stick with the story I’m playing, I did end up switching back and forth. On the couple of occasions when I became stuck, that proved an excellent time to change over to the other character and progress farther with them. I’m glad I finished Shay’s tale before Vella’s – I think it fits better that way around – but either would have worked just fine. The commonalities between their stories are, for the most part, more esoteric than overt – they appear to share much more in quickly established metaphor than they do in theme. But that metaphor is one I’m delighted to see a game exploring: the desire to distinguish oneself from one’s parents and one’s society.

As charmed as I was, and as interested as I might have been to learn more about each character’s situation, there’s no doubt that I’m also somewhat disappointed by Broken Age. And part of that really is because it’s created by Tim Schafer. Although that’s not because I wanted this game to be something it was never intended to. While I want more Day Of The Tentacle as much as the next sane human, I didn’t want it from this game. I’m so delighted that Schafer has developed this doleful tone, a desire to ask more difficult questions of the universe than how to get the fake barf from the ceiling. Questions about identity, purpose and the trappings of circumstance. My disappointment comes from the shallow level into which Broken Age’s toes dip. From this game I wanted much more.

Of course, we’re also trapped in a mid-point – yet another developer who’s made the mistake (for whatever justification) of breaking a narrative game conceived as one whole into two parts. It is, inevitably, stopping short of every ambition it has, abandoning itself midway through any progression it hoped to make. The first half of a story should be giving us a reason to care about the characters, before we’re given cause to put that care into action in the second half. Taking away that second half is incredibly problematic, especially with its ambiguous release date somewhere in 2014.

But still, Broken Age Part One’s characters don’t reach deep enough. Both Shay and Vella are immensely likeable archetypes, but not yet really people. They express attitudes that make me want to like them, but there’s no personal reflection on those attitudes. Vella, asked by her society to be a victim, chooses to be an aggressor. That’s fantastic – that makes me like Vella right away. But I still don’t know why that was Vella’s choice. I still don’t know who she is beyond this, why she was the sort to make such a decision. I’m asked to like Vella because of that choice, and little else. In the end both characters are mostly vessels for a notion, and that doesn’t seem fitting in what this game is reaching for. Laverne was crazy because DOTT says she was crazy. Vella is rebellious and brave because Broken Age says she’s rebellious and brave. As much as the tone has changed, the depth hasn’t.

I’m well aware that these words could be applied to pretty much most gaming characters. But not all. Not The Longest Journey’s April, nor Beyond Good & Evil’s Jade. And not Grim Fandango’s Manny nor Psychonauts’ Raz. And for me, Broken Age cried out for more background, more exploration. Yes – I’m pretty certain that’s to come for Shay’s story in part two – his personality is far more complex, but as yet entirely mysterious – but again, I’m only able to write about the game that’s been released.

However, saying all this, it’s worth noting that Broken Age’s background narrative, the subtle, gentle details of its overarching plot, go far deeper than you’ll see at first glance. There is clearly a huge amount of thought taking place here, and come part two I suspect my feelings will be far more positive as these pieces fully come together.

A problem that certainly doesn’t find excuses in the split is the nature of the puzzles. They’re fine. They’re solveable, not based in tortuous processes of clicking everything on everything – the logic is twisted, but it’s there. But they’re nothing special. Not a single moment made me think, “Wow! That’s clever!” And I was really hoping to think that. Things can be cute (use the innocuous item in a silly way) but never ingenious (put the jersey in the washing machine 200 years in the past). They were workaday, perhaps even perfunctory – they advanced the potentially lovely plot, so I was grateful of having solved them, but weren’t anything special themselves.

And I need to repeat my strongest criticism from the first part of this review: the controls. Broken Age is a game designed for tablets. There’s no getting around that. The PC controls are compromised by this. A single-click interface strips out so, so many options for imaginative ideas. It’s a game designed to be tapped on by a finger, not clicked on with a two-buttoned mouse, and with that goes an enormous amount of potential. And most problematic is the loss of “look at”. Taking this away, and replacing it with a single cursor that might pick something up, use something, talk to it, or perhaps look at it, is very detaching. It takes away a big part of what point and click adventures are about, and it’s a loss I felt heavily as I played.

The cursor itself is clumsily huge, and far too often I accidentally just missed clicking on conversation options which meant abandoning the conversation entirely. It’s a good idea to map the inventory to a mouse button, so you don’t have to use the iPad-necessary clicked icon bottom left to open it, but you’re still forced to click and drag items out of it, and then “let them go” over the object with which you want to use it. Makes perfect sense on a tablet, makes no sense on a PC. It means rather than being able to use the same item on lots of elements in a scene, you have to laboriously drag it again and again if you want to explore all the hidden lines. (It’s worth adding here that, yes, sure, Amanita’s games do an amazing job with a single-click interface. But crucially they’re not narrative led adventures, and they do an awful lot more with that single cursor.)

I can’t decide if the game’s short. It took me just under four hours to finish it. And yes, that is short. But it’s only half the game. Eight hours for an adventure is probably just fine. (People ploughing through this in under three hours really need to learn about roses and how they smell.) Again, the sense of its stopping when you’ve only just gotten started is a result of the misjudgment to break the game in two.

Despite that, the voices are universally stunning. Elijah Wood is just exceptional as Shay, modest, and ideally under-played. And blow me if Jack Black doesn’t also manage the same. Quite why on Earth they felt the need to hire him to play a quiet, calm character I’ve no clue, but that’s who he plays, and he plays it without a glimmer of tiresome bluster. Following the theme, Wil Wheaton also plays completely out of character – a deep-voiced woodsman, stoic and folksy. And Pendleton Ward is brilliant in a tiny, throwaway (literally) character, G’s. The rest of the cast are from the big league of voice artist talent, like the splendid Jennifer Hale, David Kaufman, Masasa Moyo and Nick Jameson. And then out of nowhere, with no previous acting credits, one of the best voices coming from Harmonix boss and super-backer Alex Rigopulos as Alex. Whether it was worth splashing out for big names doing unrecognisable voices I’m not sure – it was their money to spend. But the results are unquestionably superb dialogue, written by someone who has clearly carefully crafted every line, and delivered by people with the talent to capture it.

I’m quite certain that were Broken Age to have come out as a complete game, many of the criticisms above wouldn’t even have been mentioned in a review. Where it falls short it seems very likely to make up for as the story continues. But the game is split, and that means things like character development feel unfinished, and thus unsatisfactory. And will remain feeling that way for months to come. That they are unfinished sadly becomes a poor argument when this is all the game I’ve got, and will be for the next long while.

But as much as I’ve griped, again I say, you have to read the first half of this review too. It’s a dreamy, gentle, melancholic game, created with tangible passion. It’s utterly beautiful, and while not nearly challenging enough, it’s entertaining to play. I wanted much more from it, and perhaps I’ll still get it. I desperately hope revisions will be made to the PC controls, but know that it’s far too late for that to comprise re-establishing the vital “look at” that underlies adventure gaming. But what we have here is the first half of a gorgeous, loving story, and honestly, that’s good enough.

The first half of Broken Age is with Kickstarter and Slacker backers, and can now be pre-ordered on Steam for £17, due on the 28th Jan. The second half is included in all purchases.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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