Broken Age Review

Written by Rick Lane

April 28, 2015 | 10:30

Tags: #adventure-games #broken-age #double-fine-adventure #grim-fandango #psychonauts #tim-schafer

Companies: #double-fine

When not chatting to the game's colourful cast of characters, your time is occupied by that age-old adventure staple; puzzles. This is where Broken Age struggles most. After fabulous brain-ticklers like Portal and The Swapper, the tradition of using odd items in ways they weren't intended has aged poorly. But at least Act 1 has the decency to imbue its puzzles with a little comic logic, framing them as pleasant distractions rather than infuriating obstructions. The only truly irritating sequence in Act 1 involves a series of teleporters which shrink Shay's head, requiring you to trudge around the ship several times.

Broken Age Review

Although Act 1 of Broken Age is fairly low-key, it concludes on a high. It reveals the connection between the two stories with an excellent twist, and sets up a higher-stakes scenario with Act 2. Unfortunately, Act 2 never gets off the ground. Instead, it's a mirrored retread of Act 1, using the same locales and characters while throwing in some of the most abysmally designed puzzles this side of Gabriel Knight 3.

Most adventure games have one puzzle that completely stymies the player's progress, sometimes two. Act II of Broken Age has at least five of these, conundrums that are either completely alien in their logic, or just terribly designed. One involves untying knots by describing them to another character, who then draws you instructions on how to proceed. But the game only shows you the knot for about half a second each time. If you try to untie the knot and get it wrong, the knot changes, and you need a different set of instructions to untie it. Worse, the descriptions emphasise humour over pragmatism, often only vaguely resembling the knot.

Broken Age Review

Later on, there's a puzzle focussed on rewiring a robot, where the wire connections are represented by abstract symbols that can only be seen when you're not looking at the connections. This is like building IKEA furniture using a Chinese instruction manual which is only legible from the corner of your eye. Worse, the patterns you need are divided between the two characters, which is like building IKEA furniture using half a Chinese instruction manual, after the other half was stolen by your neighbour.

Even the simplest puzzles are idiotically designed. An early example involves guessing a password to open a door, but the guesses are phrased in such a way that they all sound like wrong answers, suggesting you need to find the correct one and add it to the guesses. The game even states you need to "research" the answer. But your research only hints at what the answer is, and never clarifies whether or not you've found it.

Broken Age Review

Act II's puzzle design is utterly dreadful. The Act's strengths remain the same, with superb acting and jokes that hit more often than they miss. But Act II no longer plays to them. Worse, the story that set itself up so well at the end of Act I hardly goes anywhere. I mean that both literally and figuratively. It's difficult to explain without spoiling, but here goes. The central mystery is only fleetingly revealed while the theme of adolescent questioning of norms is pretty much abandoned. Replacing it is a mildly intriguing conspiracy and lengthy string of menial tasks, precisely the kind of monotonous labour a teenager would rail against. Lastly, there are only a couple of new locations to explore, and these are extensions of old locations.

In the end, Act II of Broken Age feels cheap, like Double Fine ran out of both money and ideas, and cobbled it together with what they already had available. It's difficult to believe this is the case, given they've been working on it for fifteen months, but that's what the final product feels like. I would say it's a shame to see the game's potential collapse so spectacularly, but I never thought the idea had that much spark to begin with. At best, Broken Age is a pleasant but innocuous way to spend an evening. At worst it's like wrestling with barbed wire. The Kickstarter craze of the last two years has resulted in some fantastic new titles, but the game that started it all isn't among them.

Broken Age Review

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