Broken Age: Act 1 released - Does it deliver?
When Tim Schafer, of Day of the Tentacle fame, announced his intention to create a new point and click adventure, the true fans who had been starved of good new content quickly made his Kickstarter campaign the most successful one to date. Despite (and in a way, because of) the project's overfunding, development has not been without problems, but Shafer and Double Fine persevered. Initially known by the working title of Double Fine Adventure, Broken Age is being created as 2 acts, with the game's first installment released to backers about two weeks ago and publicly available today, January 28th 2014. So what's it like?
A little bit of history
In the early age of PC gaming, the adventure games were among the most popular type of games. At first those were text adventures, with a sophisticated command parser. It was Ken and Roberta Williams, founders of Sierra Online, who first added pictures to them. Static at first, but later there was animation and the protagonist had the ability to walk around and behind objects, such as King's Quest. Sierra's main competitor in the graphics adventure genre was the LucasArts Entertainment Company, with such great titles as The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle (a sequel to the earlier Maniac Mansion). As the gaming public moved to other kinds of games, Sierra and LucasArts stopped making adventure games (and both companies now exist in name only) and although others have, those were few and far between.
Tim Schafer worked on all the LucasArts titles mentioned before, frequently collaborating with Ron Gilbert. They are among the biggest names in adventure gaming. Therefore, it's not surprising that fans jumped on the opportunity to back this project. It also means Schafer has quite a reputation to life up to. In addition to developing the game, the whole development process was documented by 2 Player Productions and through those videos as well as the backer forums, the fans who provided the funding for the game got to follow along and even influence development through suggestions and early feedback.
As the Kickstarter campaign managed to secure a staggering total funding in excess of $3,000,000 and this expanded the scope of the project quite a bit over the original goal of a $400,000 budget. Perhaps a bit too much. Despite the comparatively massive budget (increased even further later on by the help of "slacker backers" joining in after the Kickstarter and Double Fine putting in a lot of money of their own), the development team did run out of money. Not willing to end up with an unfinished or failed product, the team decided they would split the game into two acts. The proceeds from the sales of this first act would go towards completing the second act, making the game whole. Although this move has been criticised by some, it was widely backed by the fans who just wanted to play the d@mn game!
What's Broken Age about?
Right at the start, you get a choice to either play as a girl named Velouria (Vella, for short), or as a boy named Shay. I don't mean you get to chose who is the hero of the story, as they both are. From the start screen pictured above, you just click on either side to start the corresponding storyline. After a brief introduction in each of the story arcs, you can freely switch between them. Vella's story takes place in a fantasy setting, with the premise being that Vella takes part in a "Maidens Feast" for Mog Chothra a monster that regularly visits villages in the land, devouring maidens offered as sacrifice so Mog Chothra doesn't eat those villages.
Shay's background couldn't be more different. This is a rather more futuristic setting, involving such things as teleporters and fusion orb inhibitors. He's an orphan living aboard a space ship being cared for by the ship's computer, who seems to think she's his mother. As Shay is lonely and bored, the computer tries to keep him occupied and happy by letting him play the hero in scenarios she has thought up. She is overprotective and does whatever she can to keep him safe, but Shay has no friends other than the ones the computer knitted for him (yes, really). The boy's life takes a more interesting turn when he meets up with an unlikely character, who sends him on a mission of great importance.
It doesn't really matter in which order you tackle the stories and the ability to switch between them means that it's unlikely you might get frustrated if you get stuck, as you can always go to the other storyline while you think about the puzzles. At any one time, both story lines tend to have several goals open that you need to achieve and you can do so in any order you like, making sure the game isn't overly linear. That said, you're not actually likely to even get stuck, which immediately brings me to my biggest criticism of the game: it is rather easy. Now, I'm a terrible gamer and I struggle with quite a few games. I didn't have any trouble at all with Broken Age. The solutions to all the puzzles make perfect sense and there are subtle (and not so subtle) hints about solving them. Though the experience was quite enjoyable and it meant progress was swift, if I find a game easy, then it really is and this criticism has been made by many who got to play the game. Because of that, the second act will probably see the difficulty level cranked up. It remains to be seen whether that can be done without going overboard and making the puzzles deliberately abstruse and alienating more casual gamers like myself. Still, kicking it up a notch would be a good thing. As the game was developed, I purposefully avoided getting spoilers about the actual gamepla and I played through the entire game in a little under four hours the first time. That was while I took my time admiring the beautiful scenery and the dialogue, which is both brilliantly written as wel as marvellously performed. It is possible to skip over, or even avoid much of the dialogue and just going through the required motions to finish the game leaves you with maybe half an hour of actual gameplay.
Gorgeous graphics, great voice acting and intriguing story
As I just mentioned, and you've no doubt seen on the screenshots dotted around this post, the game has a highly polished feel to it, with both Vella's magical world and Shay's technological world being shown through beautifully painted backdrops by former LucasArts artist Nathan Stapley. These aren't just flat backgrounds, though. There is real depth to them. The characters themselves have a similar mix of the 2D artistry and 3D animation and movement, blending in with the backgrounds truly seamlessly through smooth animation and clever lighting. Every still frame you could make of this game seems like a work of art in and of itself. This sometimes makes it a little non-obvious to see which items on screen you can interact with, although the mouse cursor will change appearance when you hover over those items. This isn't a really big problem, as there are no instances of pixel hunting and it seems the designers have taken into account pretty much anything you might want to try doing, rewarding you with specific and often humourous dialogue.
The dialogue isn't just well written and witty, it is also brought to life by a very impressive voice cast. Broken Age features voice talent such as Elijah Wood (Shay), Masasa Moyo (Vella), Jennifer Hale (the ship's computer), Jack Black (the lightheaded guru) and Wil Wheaton (as Curtis the lumberjack who's afraid of trees) among others. My personal favourite has to be David Kaufman's performance as Marek, giving the man in the wolf suit a personality where you can't quite tell whether he's sincere or just plain creepy. Even the most minor characters have been perfectly cast. I would also be remiss if I didn't at least mention the unobtrusive yet haunting musical score written by composer Peter McConnell. Not once did the music feel out of place. In all, the amount of care and attention to detail that has gone into this game is staggering.
As both story arcs unfold it becomes more and more apparent that these worlds, seemingly polar opposites, are connected in a way. Schafer's story telling talents really do shine in this game. This is quite an achievement, as there was no way for the developers to predict how players would progress through the game's two sides. While playing this first act of the game, I felt like I was continously discovering a little bit of the backstory at a satisfying rate. As the game drew to a close, the climax felt entirely logical, yet still came as a surprise. I'm deliberately not posting any spoilers here and can only recommend that you play through the game yourself. The ending makes sense, yet leaves you with a whole lot of new questions. In all, a perfect set-up for Act 2, which should be out later this year as a free "upgrade" to everyone who bought the game.
Not everybody will like this game and it is impossible to please everyone. Some will say it is aimed at children, rather than adults, but I'm not sure such is fair. Most of the fans were kids when the adventure games we now so fondly remember were created. And while Broken Age is still kid-friendly, if you look a little beyond the surface you'll notice that the storyline incorporates themes like child abandonment, virgin sacrifice, suicidal depression, religious cults and even emotional torture (of trees, but still). My main gripes are the game being too easy and a tad too short. Though the latter is, I suppose, to be expected as it is basically only the first half of the game, it is not so easy to overlook the former. In my opinion, the game has a gripping storyline and all the visuals, music and sound effects befitting a modern game. While perfectly enjoyable for a casual gamer such as myself, the hardened adventurers won't be left satisfied. Because of that, I can't give Broken Age a higher score than 7.5 out of 10 (just under 4 stars, or 3.75 if you want to be pedantic). That is by no means a bad game though and it still remains to be seen what the second act brings. I'm definitely looking forward to it and can certainly recommend this first act to adventure game fans.
If you haven't been a backer through Kickstarter, you can now get Broken Age through Steam at the regular price of €22.99/$24.99 (or €27.99/$29.99 when including the downloadable soundtrack). If you were a backer, you will already have received access to the game and you shouldn't be reading this review, but playing through the game with the satisfaction of seeing your name in the credits!