Wot I Think: Broken Age Act 2
Over a year since the first act was belatedly released, Double Fine's seminal Kickstarter project Broken Age is now complete. Act 1 was bursting with potential, if a somewhat flawed PC adventure. Obviously this review is of the second half of a game, so will contain some light spoilers for the core plot (but avoids most). Can it live up to the potential it suggested in its first half? Here's wot I think:
Broken Age was never meant to be in two parts. It was a necessity of the way the game was produced, but it was never intended. It's hard to say how much of a role this plays in Act 2's being quite such a poor experience. Where so much was forgiven of Act 1 with the expectation of delivery, Act 2 is its failure to arrive. It is the gaming equivalent of the air being slowly let out of a whoopee cushion. The vast majority is spent retreading locations that had already out-stayed their welcome in the first half, negotiating obfuscated puzzles solved in the arbitrary order of the designer’s mind, building to a climax that could only ever be a damp squib thanks to the entire failure of this closing part to do a single interesting thing with the plot. It’s very pretty though. And the voices are great.
Choosing not to start, a year on, with a previously-on is an odd choice. Unless you’ve got a superb memory you’re either going to have to replay the first part, or read a summary of what happened, as there is no effort made in this second edition to remind you of anything that’s happened, or who anyone is.
Instead the game picks up as if it stopped only yesterday, with the two central characters having swapped locations. Shay is now in Vella’s realm, Vella on Shay’s ship/monster. And in doing so, don’t expect to be quickly whisked away to new, exciting locations. Nearly the entire game is spent in old ground, with the previous cast, just now with the other kid. And despite never having met, nor having any given motivation for any of their actions, both Shay and Vella appear driven by an implausible need to rescue each other. You’re apparently supposed to believe that and go with it.
So much that was wrong with the first part has been entirely untouched. The PC build still behaves exactly as if it were on a tablet, having to drag items from your inventory and let go of them over objects, as if guiding them with your finger. Its graphics options are still a confusing mess. And no, as expected, there's no addition of the vital "look at" interaction that is so core to the genre.
The cursor is still clumsy, enormous – again as if for a tablet, not a PC – and so you’ll still mis-click conversation options all the damn time. Oh, and the ridiculous eight save slots the game came with? Not only does that remain, but you'll have to use the same eight for this one. (Head into your Steam directory for the game, the saves are in there, so copy them to a back-up folder if you want to preserve them. This obviously shouldn’t be necessary.)
Worse, this time so much is so loose. This is exemplified in each half's opening moments. Right at the start of Shay’s adventure, there’s the green mayor dude choking on a pipe. The spoon in your inventory comments that he needs to be squeezed to be helped with his struggle. But there’s no option to just help him. Shay won’t even try. He’ll just talk to him, stand there watching him choking. The 'correct' solution of course being utterly ridiculous. At the start of Vella’s portion, she’s floating in zero gravity, unable to move, but next to a grabby hand about which she observes, “Wow, it seems really interested in boots.” There are boots in Vella’s inventory! This must be a solution. Use them. “It doesn’t seem interested.” (My emphasis.)
And so it goes on, with obvious solutions unrecognised, and the correct paths obfuscated, inevitably requiring traipsing back and forth multiple times across expanses of the game. (They added a double-click to leave a scene, but because nearly every screen scrolls, it’s utterly useless. You will spend huge amounts of time just watching Shay run up and down a hill.)
Logic is so often absent, too. You’re on the ship, you discover people in direct danger of starvation, and it doesn’t occur to anyone that Vella might discuss this with an adult authority figure with whom she has direct contact. Conversation options rarely pop up for major discoveries, making you feel distant from the game. What you're seeing and realising isn't reflected by the characters. And the sheer agony I felt when I apparently incorrectly ‘solved’ that particular puzzle and found some sodding food, and Vella refused to touch it “in case it’s poison” pretty much sealed my feelings for the game.
The story, the dominant and warm factor in the first half, here has become a thin tarpaulin strung over the awkward frame of the puzzle structure. Where asking someone a question or directly approaching a challenge would make far more narrative sense, its absence is not even excused away. Instead you must trawl through trying everything on everything, or stumbling upon the few pixels of the sole interactive region of a location that you’d missed, until you can brute force your way past the issue.
And yes, there’s still no option for highlighting interactive objects. That’s fine when such things naturally stand out from the background, or when each screen is so bursting with things to look at or explore than you’ll enjoy the process of finding them. But Broken Age’s locations remain as interactively barren as before, with no obvious difference between the many non-interactive interesting items you can’t look at, and the dull thing you can.
It remains as beautiful as the first half, but that’s mostly because it is the first half. The same locations, some slightly redressed, most left identical, with the same characters, often in the same places. By the end there are a few new screens, and again, they’re beautiful. The animations are wonderful, the pastels-drawing style utterly sumptuous.
And the voice work is, again, incredible. Some of the best ever. Wil Wheaton’s lumberjack is properly funny (one of very few characters to actually do jokes in an extremely sombre game), Elijah Wood is once again unrecognisable and superb, and as with last time, the best actor is the bloke who paid enough on Kickstarter to take part. Jack Black is more disappointingly Jack Black this time out, and his character’s arc is particularly awful, but this is top-of-the-range voice acting throughout.
So often, I found myself infuriated not because I couldn’t solve a puzzle (I finished the game in two sessions (before Double Fine produced a walkthrough for frustrated reviewers), occasionally flipping to the other character when too annoyed at a series of logical dead ends), but because finding the solution required a tedious process of eliminating incorrect routes. The climactic puzzle, which I obviously won’t spoil, was by far the worst example – having to negotiate multiple stages of distraction/repair/location/action in the “right” order, with two characters, where switching between them arbitrarily resets the progress of the other. (To the utterly ludicrous point where a carefully distracted character in a different location mysteriously teleports back to undo your hard work if you have the temerity to switch characters when the backward-designed puzzle doesn’t want you to.)
So often solving the puzzles wasn’t about moments of inspiration and twisted imagination, but about attempting to reverse engineer the thinking of the designer. If it’s not X, and it’s not Y, and it’s not Z, then perhaps they were intending you to do Q? F? Oh, it was P. Sure, great, move on.
Oh, and one particular bloody puzzle involving abstract descriptions of knots deserves its own book to properly break down just how utterly dreadful it really is.
For me, what’s most sad here is the absolute flop of the plot. What had seemed like a build-up to a really smart exploration of coming-of-age moments, the struggles of teenagers in abandoning their childhood to accept their adulthood, is revealed to be an extremely patronising adult perspective of an adolescent outlook. The big reveal about Shay is particularly bothersome (and definitely makes little narrative sense when properly considered). Vella, who had already been granted with Magical Adult Wisdom Her Parents Didn’t Possess, was always going to struggle to go anywhere interesting. But Shay’s situation, being held back by his childhood and oppressive parents, had so much potential. It’s pissed away.
The final moment is so emotionless, so utterly devoid of pathos, that when the credits rolled I just thought “Oh.” That really wasn’t anything I was expecting after hopes raised by the first act.
In the end, Broken Age Act 2 is a retreading of Act 1, with limited new aspects, convoluted and deeply flawed puzzles, and seemingly no learned lessons in the last year’s extra development. It’s still a tablet game awkwardly placed on PC, with little extraneous detail to interact with in any scene, no ability to “look at” anything and as such losing so much of what makes graphic adventures so endearing, and this time out, the addition of being an extended anti-climax.
Broken Age Act 1 was often frustrating, but extraordinarily charming. Two endearing leads, and this apparent interest in deeply exploring the awkwardness and challenges of the transition from childhood to adulthood, of becoming who you are and not who your parents intended you to be. Act 2 feels like a betrayal of that potential. It just unambitiously rolls toward its nothing conclusion, that perhaps answers narrative questions about why there was a monster/ship (in a clumsy way), but fails to address anything that actually mattered about the characters themselves.
Bah. That’s what I say. Bah. I had hoped that Act 2 would be the addressing of Act 1's shortcomings, and deliver on its strengths, what had seemed so heartfelt and novel. Instead it's an incredibly pretty, superbly voice acted, crap adventure game.