Broken Age Act 1 review: Small worlds
The age of point-and-click adventures is beginning anew. We’ve been saying it for over a year now, and while mainstream successes like Telltale’s The Walking Dead are great exceptions, one common factor is playing a major role in their revival. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are proving that cost is now a small obstacle: What gamers want, no matter how niche, they can get — so long as they pay up first.
Broken Age is one Kickstarter baby; Tex Murphy, Republique, and Moebius are others. But Broken Age Act 1, officially available on Steam on Jan. 28, is unique: Over $3 million in backer donations wasn't enough to make the humble graphic adventure for PC, Mac, and Linux (and iOS and Android later). Double Fine has split the game into two parts so Steam sales will help cover additional development expenses.
I can’t help but feel that the developer blew too much of that money on acquiring big-name actors like Elijah Wood, who plays one of the two protagonists (a boy named Shay), and Jack Black, who appears briefly as a harmless and weighty cult leader named Harm’ny, except that these cameos are, well, cool. There’s no counting out Hollywood performances from these tiny games now. Point-and-click is hip.
The story will make you forgive the developers for needing so much cash — if you love this sort of game, of course. Double Fine’s humor is always smart and witty and accessible. Its characters are always memorable and likeable and fun. It’s unfortunate, though, that most of the more recognizable talent only play small roles, like Wil Wheaton, who portrays the lumberjack Curtis, and Pendleton Ward, who appears as the thieving Gus. Jennifer Hale’s (FemShep from Mass Effect) involvement is bigger as Shay’s “mom,” the ship’s chipper computer who manifests as a smiling face in a small yellow sun, but she's one of the few characters who gets a long enough stay.
The two protagonists occupy very different worlds, but neither is altogether happy. On the one hand, we have Vella, a young girl who’s forced to sacrifice herself in the Maiden's Feast to the many-eyed sea monster Mog Chothra. Only she escapes, which brings shame to her family … and possibly kills them and her entire town of Sugar Bunting. It’s easy to love her — and them, even. Their priorities are so ridiculously backward: They admire the monster that terrorizes their town every 14 years. They praise its “majestic” form and bake pastries in celebration. The maidens, outfitted in poofy dresses that read “Fun size” or “Up for grabs,” compete amongst themselves like girls at the prom for the honor of becoming its next “dinner date.”
Then there’s Shay, who lives on board a space station, where his overprotective mother-computer literally treats him like a baby and is constantly worried about his safety. Life is dull. He eats kids’ cereal every morning with a training spoon, consumes dinner in a pill, and goes on “serious” missions where cute yarn people are stuck in an ice cream avalanche he has to eat or made victims of giant hug attacks, which he then suffers. Shay never experiences anything remotely close to danger until he meets a mysterious costumed wolf stowed away on the ship who gives him a taste of adulthood.
Players can switch between these two tales anytime, in case they get stuck or bored. There’s no pressure to play them any set way although eventually, Shay’s story comes to a halt and you’re forced to see the rest through on Vella’s side. These stories ultimately intertwine, and the cliffhanger at the end is what gives this 4-5 hour adventure its curious name.
The formula, though, is far from new. Broken Age can’t quite overcome the problem that’s plagued the adventure genre for decades: obscure puzzle solutions that force players to use every item in their inventory in as many ways as they can think of.
Double Fine does a lot to temper this issue, which makes for a streamlined and enjoyable experience. The interface is barely there at all, disappearing when you’re not using it so you can take in the full beauty of the gorgeous painted visuals. Scrolling the mouse pointer over the bottom of the screen makes this inventory menu reappear. The simple cursor assumes two forms: a plus sign to make your character move when you want him to and a dandelion-esque circular outline that signifies you can talk or interact. Using items is as simple as dragging them from your inventory (which also hides the settings) onto another item or object onscreen, which glows if you can apply something to it. It’s all very clean, with a kind of simplicity that’s a huge step forward for the genre.
Broken Age also keeps the item collecting to a minimum. Rarely do you have to combine objects or manage more than a handful at once. This prevents the puzzles from becoming too complicated, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get stumped and end up chatting endlessly with characters or trying random solutions to progress.
In that way, Broken Age is primitive. It’s not making leaps in gameplay. It’s not turning point-and-click mainstream even though it’s certainly getting huge amounts of attention and money. That makes the $3-plus million hard to justify.
But that sum also shows that the genre can improve. That it still has a place in the industry and that we can make it feel larger than the words “niche” or “indie” with top-notch performances and more sensible interfaces. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Broken Age land on other platforms.
Another stretch goal in the works.