Broken Age ReviewPrice:
PC, iOS, Android, PS4, PS Vita
Perhaps it was inevitable that Broken Age would be remembered more for the swathe of changes it triggered in game development than the quality of the final product. Before Double Fine appealed to the gaming community to fund its new graphic adventure, kickstarting was something you did to motorbikes, not videogames. The success of this combined with the studio's approach to developing Broken Age; hiring a stellar voice cast, splitting the game into two parts, and then taking three years to finally release it, has only kindled that sense of anticipation. Meeting such expectation was a big ask, even with three million dollars in the company's pocket.
That said, I didn't expect Broken Age to flop like a squid on a bouncy castle. Those backers hoping for another Grim Fandango or the next Psychonauts are going to be sorely disappointed. Broken Age doesn't reach anywhere near the heights of those games. It isn't even a good
adventure game. It's supremely acted, moderately amusing, and the first act has some heart. But almost everything else about the Double Fine adventure is a tangled mess of half-baked ideas and poorly thought through puzzles.
Broken Age's story is centred around two characters. Shay is a teenage boy who lives on a spaceship which doubles as a giant nursery; one that he outgrew long ago. His daily routine of rescuing "aliens" from hug attacks and ice-cream avalanches has worn thinner than an amoeba's thong. He craves real adventure and finds it in the form of a mysterious stowaway who isn't remotely suspicious in any way, no sir-ee. Meanwhile, Vella lives in the saccharine town of Sugar Bunting, and prepares for her first and only Maiden's Feast, a euphemistically named sacrificial rite where adolescent girls are served up as well-dressed dinner to a hungry sea-monster.
The twin tales are initially separate from one another, but can be switched between at any point. It's an interesting idea - certainly different from anything Double Fine have tried before, and I enjoyed frequently changing perspectives to match the pace of the plot. The downside is the first act can feel a little disjointed. There is a thematic link; both characters are adolescents rebelling against the boundaries set by their parents and broader society. Yet otherwise their situations are wildly removed, and they remain that way for a long time.
This distancing effect is compounded by the lack of coherence in the setting. Places like the cloudy sanctuary of Meriloft, and the Lumberjack's cabin below it, don't feel especially connected with the more plot crucial areas. Instead, they exist more as the basis for a joke. This isn't a problem in and of itself, but it feeds into a larger issue. Broken Age is lots of little ideas threaded loosely together, rather than being born from one great concept. Schafer's best efforts as creative director all have brilliant hooks that are easily summarised. Grim Fandango is a crime saga in the land of the dead. Psychonauts is an action-adventure that takes place inside people's minds. I'm still unsure of Broken Age's hook. Two teenagers have problems? It's a Tim Schafer game? Frodo Baggins is in it? I'm stumped.
While Broken Age isn't conceptually arresting, it does sport Schafer's humourous flair, lent an extra edge by the exceptional voice-acting. Broken Age isn't outrageously funny, but it is sharp, warm and lively, like a baby porcupine. And there are deeply amusing moments. I suspect the interactions with the talking tree will be remembered most fondly in years to come. (It's a bit of a backhanded compliment to say that the best character in the game is a tree, but it's true!) Other highlights include the lumberjack who is worryingly obsessed with his stools, and a pair of female druids who are just desperate to worship something. There are also several great one liners that come out of nowhere: "The ribbon is there for your protection!", "You might have a delayed fracture!" "I'm sorry, I thought you were a tree."