Note that this is a review for the completed game instead of the single, incomplete half of Broken Age that was first released. I’ll never understand why other sites are willing to review portions of a game before it’s complete, especially since they invariably run up against the problem of recommending a game that becomes loathsome in its later hours, or fails to deliver on its initial promise. Take Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us as an example: it begins well enough, only for the end to roll around and disregard all of your choices despite its initial claims of reactivity. Double Fine’s Broken Age falls into a similar trap, brimming with promise and potential early on (which caused many sites to write glowing reviews about it), only to drop the ball in its second half and become downright embarrassing.
The story is the worst part of the whole shebang
Adventure games don’t have a great deal to fall back on, so getting the story right is a crucial step. In its opening hours, Broken Age creates some interesting conflicts that hint at a potentially great story lying in wait, giving you two different playable characters in vastly different circumstances. Vella is a young woman from a baker’s town who is selected as a sacrifice to “Mog Chothra,” a monster that arrives every 14 years. Why the sacrifice, you ask? Because that’s the way it’s always been, and the fear is that the nearly-invincible monster will destroy any village that doesn’t oblige. Shay, on the other hand, is a bored boy in a spaceship who’s watched over by what appears to be a “mom” and “dad” computer and given a bunch of fake, safe missions to fill his day with despite his longing for some actual adventure.
Some twists ensue midway through the game, but from there it phones in the story all the way to the credits. It’s never as satisfying or interesting as it originally promises to be, and worse than that, several parts of the story don’t fit together in a coherent way. For example, there’s an elitist group that believes that exposure to ordinary people exposes them to disease, to the point where they shun anyone who has had contact with such people. However, one of their agents is seen mingling with ordinary people, only to end up in the same room as one of these elitist leaders toward the end without any explanation. Little oversights like this that undermine established facts are littered throughout the entire story, but even if these small story flubs weren’t present, the way things end up being resolved is simply pathetic. I can’t explain why this is without delving into some pretty heavy spoilers, but suffice it to say that the game ends on a whimper, failing to provide the player with any sense of fulfillment. In fact, I was left with the distinct impression that the writers came up with the story as they went along, only to run out of money and tie together all of the plot threads as quickly as possible toward the end.
Only Vella is interesting
The two characters don’t really intersect in any meaningful way, and while playing, I was left scratching my head at the purpose behind having two of them despite the game’s awkward attempts to establish that they have some kind of link (which is never elaborated on, unbelievably). Shay’s story ends up going nowhere, to be honest, his sections being filled with fetch quests and miscellaneous tedium and not allowing for any actual growth or change. On top of that, he’s not very interesting or relatable as a character and spends much of the early game being mopey, something not even Elijah Wood’s voice acting can remedy. Vella, on the other hand, steals the show and proves to be much more proactive, creative, and lively, making her sections far more interesting to play.
It plays like a modern adventure game
If you’ve played an adventure game released in the past 20 or so years, you’ll be right at home with how Broken Age plays. As always, you point and left-click to move and interact with the environment, and the game makes things a bit simpler than most by allowing a right-click to bring up your inventory. From there, you can select items and use them on the various people and things that litter the game world. Using random items on random things is the best part of the game, with there being humorous dialogue for just about every possible combination where most games would be content to have the main character mumble something generic about the combination making no sense. This can lead to amusing dialogues about the allegiances of talking knives or the bit with the fruit and the talking tree in the video above, and while not all combinations prove to be that amusing, they’re definitely never generic.
The puzzles are awful, though
When the first half of the game was originally released, many fans complained that the puzzles were too easy. Developer Double Fine overcorrected a bit based on that feedback, filling the second half of the game with vague, annoying puzzles that manage to be difficult for all the wrong reasons. In one notable instance, you have to put one of your characters in danger while ignoring vocal prompts indicating how to escape their predicament. This is mandatory to progress in the game, and it makes no sense that such a sloppy puzzle would be included. That’s saying nothing of the rewiring puzzles that populate the end game, either; in the last few hours, you’ll have a bunch of little robots who have be rewired in different ways depending on the situation. You have three colored wires and six different places to wire each end to, and not only do you have to wire and rewire correctly and in a particular order, but you’re required to remember which wiring configuration produces which outcome. Even then, the direction you place the wires in can end up screwing you over. It’s just needless tedium that exists to pad out the end of the game, and below I’m embedding a video that shows just how awful it can be. However, I’ll warn you that watching the video below will likely spoil one of the little twists that comes at the beginning of the game’s second half.
The save system is okay, but limited
Broken Age limits you to just 8 saves. One slot can be used as an autosave (and you can change which slot fulfills this role), but I found it better to rely on manual saves. That said, 8 saves is few enough that you’ll be forced to overwrite several of them unless you back up your save folder into an archive outside of the game. Some more slots to save in would have been appreciated for those of us who like to keep a lot of saves chronicling everything significant that happens, but being able to save whenever and wherever is nonetheless appreciated given how many developers don’t allow such freedom.
There are all kinds of nagging little problems I had with the game, ranging from questionable design decisions/omissions to outright bugs. Starting with design decisions, I feel the need to mention that this game doesn’t have any kind of hotspot indicator. I suppose I’ve been spoiled by newer games that show which areas of the screen are interactive, and the absence of such a feature can be a drag at times, but that’s a very minor concern. A slightly more serious concern would be the movement speed; while double-clicking area transitions automatically loads them, making movement a bit faster that it’d be otherwise, the default movement speed of Vella and Shay tends to be pitifully slow. They occasionally run at a more reasonable pace, but this only happens in certain areas and doesn’t seem to be an option in most places.
Then there are the bugs. I had a few crashes to the desktop, but those were nowhere near as annoying as the occasional graphical glitches that appeared out of nowhere and persisted until I had moved to a new area. Here’s an example of one of the rarer glitches, while this is one that showed up in multiple different scenes throughout the game and ruined a bunch of screenshots.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. One puzzle teleports you into a different room if you answer a quiz incorrectly, forcing you to trudge back across several different screens every time you make a mistake. Another puzzle requires that you alter some navigational coordinates for the spaceship, and while doing so in an early-game puzzle was simple, this late-game incarnation requires switching to the other character to find these coordinates. What makes this so stupid is that all the while, you have someone on the ship who wants to leave as much as you and who has intimate knowledge of all its systems. You never have the option to ask her about a destination, though, despite how much sense it would make to do so.
I could write 20 more paragraphs about similar stupidity this game subjects you to, but I’ll let the twitch-based puzzle be the last thing I mention. There’s only one such puzzle, and it requires that you beat a little robot to a room to throw a bomb into a disposal tube before said robot locks it. Problem is, the robot’s position isn’t consistent. You can run ahead of it and you’ll enter the next screen neck-and-neck, and it’ll almost always be faster than you to the chute. This means running back and forth to reset the whole thing until you get it right. Even once I set things up to solve the puzzle the “right” way by putting an obstacle in the robot’s place and using the teleporter to get to the room faster, I failed several times before succeeding thanks to sheer luck. Putting a punishing puzzle that relies on quickness in a point-and-click game is perhaps missing the point of the genre. (Update: I’ve heard some people claim that there’s no timing element to the puzzle, so it’s possible that what I experienced was some kind of obscure bug.)
For all its money, it’s depressingly small
This game had over 3 million dollars put into it, over 8 times what the developers asked for on Kickstarter, and for all the talk about expanding the scope of the game, the end result isn’t very impressive. There are really only four main areas that you’ll spend most of the game in, each only being made up of a few different screens. First you have Shay’s spaceship, then you have the cloud village, the woods that said village eventually links to, and the fishing village a little bit farther than that. That’s 99% of the game, basically, and while this does allow you to see the consequences of many of the things you do as part of the story, the areas quickly wear out their welcome. There’s just not enough variety in the game.
The graphics are great, but the music is boring
Graphically, I’d consider Broken Age the most visually sophisticated game Double Fine have ever made. It’s like the characters are made of paper, but with a surprising kind of depth to them. It’s difficult to explain in words, but suffice it to say that I really enjoyed the visuals. The music, on the other hand, doesn’t do the game any favors. It’s performed by a real orchestra, and while that would be a good opportunity to have them play something interesting, the music is mostly just passable background fluff, none of which ever manages to be memorable or steal the scene. It’s a waste of a perfectly good orchestra’s talents.