Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions / Nordic Games (Retail)
Release Date: April 28, 2015 (Retail)
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux (Steam), Ouya, iOS, Android, PS4, PS Vita
Reviewed On: PS4, PS Vita
A review copy was provided by the publisher for this article.
Vella woke from her restless nap with a grim disposition. Tradition stated that her time had come, hadn’t it? Tribute had to be paid, and that meant she, along with other such “worthy sacrifices”, would be gussied up and presented in a festive row of bombastic hues. Young girls gathered up like freshly frosted cupcakes for a denizen of the deep to consume. Mog Chothra – what a silly name for the harbinger of doom. Mom has gone crazy with the cake for the celebratory dinner before the ceremony begins, no doubt. She’s told me, over and over again, what an honor it is. What other choice is there, though? Fight back? Do that and the entire village of Sugarbunting is done for. She dusts herself off, adjusts her crooked smile and treks back home for the inevitable horrors to come.
Somewhere in the depths of space, a teenage boy awakens to the same spiel from the computer for what has to be the seven hundred-millionth day in a row. She always insists he call her Mom. It isn’t actually possible for his eyes to roll any harder.
Let Me Tell You of the Days of High Adventure
There was a time that, well, feels so very long ago. The days of space combat, point-and-click epics, the burgeoning RTS scene, early computer RPGs, and more that helped to define gaming outside of what Nintendo and Sega were doing. The adventure game, in particular, was booming for a while thanks to top-notch work from studios like LucasArts, Sierra, and Cyan Worlds. They pushed not only the visual presentation of the medium forward with ever-evolving art direction, but they also challenged the notion of what a video game could be. The classic archetypes of fantasy worlds explored, combat to be engaged in, and fantastical flights to be flown were fine and all – but some developers had different ideas.
The stories that were told from Gabriel Knight to Grim Fandango were something special. They helped to define a golden age of adventure gaming that was a big part of what comprised “gaming on the PC” back then. They showed that not everything was mindless entertainment. Not everything that came out of the medium was for kids. Story-driven titles that dominated this timeframe were unique in their emphasis on character development and creating an immersive single-player experience. Characters didn’t grow according to abilities acquired but, rather, evolved according to far more literary norms. It was, to sound really up my own ass for a second here; the closest games had come to that point in being an artistic medium that deserved real analysis. Stories of real worth were being told in all sorts of genres that weren’t necessarily seeing games made about them. It is when names like Schafer, Jensen, Lowe and Williams made their mark on the industry.
The rise of home systems like the Playstation and the supplanting of 2D by 3D graphics – along with the growth of action games – would bring an untimely end to the halcyon days. There are, however, still those studios that follow the “old ways” – those that continue to craft adventure games in the traditions of their predecessors. They also adhere to the same sort of mechanics and puzzle-solving that defined the gameplay of those older titles as well. Some view that as a must, while others could do without it. I’m finding myself unsure of whether I want those obtuse clues and trial-and-error puzzles in my narrative-driven games anymore. It is in that vein that Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Studios made a game known as Broken Age.
The Rocky Road To The Finish
The copy of Broken Age I received was the retail version that included both Acts I and II. Thus, my experiences with the game differ from those who, say, backed the game via its Kickstarter campaign. They got their hands on the first Act way back in January of 2014. It was, initially, hailed as major milestone in crowdfunding and, no doubt, showcased that it was possible for projects to rake in over a million and more.
Delays happened, though, and Act II came out on the 28th of April, 2015. That’s a long wait to finish the tale of Vella and Shay, and it certainly rubbed people the wrong way. Cries of “taking the money and running” were afoot, and it wasn’t long before Schafer and company were being viewed not as the former virtuous golden boys of the industry but, rather, money-grubbing wretches. It isn’t surprising – as we are in an age of instant reaction, and everything being either “amazing” or “awful” – that people were impatient. The early days of Kickstarter taught something to potential backers in the future: you are not pre-ordering a product, and you are not technically owed a single thing. Backer Rewards are added in as a way to sweeten the deal, sure, and get more funds in to complete the project. But ultimately, the first truth wins out. Kickstarter is not a service to pre-order a game. It allows the very consumers that these niche projects are trying to serve the ability to find these products and offer their support. Nothing more, and nothing less.
Oh! So this is a review of a game, right? I should get down to reviewing Broken Age!
A Tale of Two Souls
Broken Age seeks to weave a rich tapestry involving two main characters. Vella Tartine (voiced by Masasa Moyo) is one of the select few to serve as her village’s tribute to a deadly monster known as the Mog Chothra. She has other ideas. Shay Volta (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a the only passenger aboard an incubator vessel called the “Bossa Nostra”. The two characters live in entirely separate realms with seemingly disparate tales going on simultaneously. It isn’t long before the seams begin to show, though, and the two characters’ stories smash into one another. The “cliffhanger” at the end of Act I, especially if forced to wait for more than year to see its resolution, is a doozy.
The second act brings more twists and turns along with it, but a heavy amount of backtracking. Players will be trudging through the same environments as Act I though with new dialog options and differing quests to complete. The quality of the writing throughout is so uniformly excellent that it manages to make the backtracking feel far less tedious than in other lesser adventure games.
Vella Tartine is a headstrong young woman that seeks to go against the flow and challenge the antiquated systems that would offer her and other girls as sacrifices. Shay Volta is a cooped-up teenager who wants to see what the universe holds for him. He is, however, stuck aboard a ship equipped with a chirping matronly AI, plastic toy controls, and missions to ice cream avalanches.
The artistic direction is second to none here, with a very painterly children’s storybook whimsy displayed in every environment and character, major to ancillary. The aesthetic pairs wonderfully with the dialog that is both typical Double Fine chicanery with the good-hearted adventurous spirit that helped to define an entire era of gaming. It is, after all, made by the same team that made one of the finest adventure games ever crafted, Grim Fandango.
I Do What? With What?
It is in Broken Age‘s near slavish devotion to the old ways of adventure games that it nearly stumbles mightily. Act I’s puzzles, compared to the back half, are a far easier affair with more of an emphasis on world-building and pushing towards that cliffhanger. The mechanic of being able to switch characters on the fly helps when things start to get obtuse – or mind-numbing. Act II has far more challenging puzzles to solve, including one involving knots that made me take a forced break from the game for about a day.
One of the tenets of point-and-click adventure games are that puzzle-solving usually goes hand-in-hand with story. That is well and good when it comes to games of the 1990s, but in 2015? Maybe I’m just past the point in my life where I feel like I need to write down clues to keep track of them to solve a puzzle. Maybe I’m just lazy and entitled in my 30s. Maybe I never really liked the gameplay of those classic adventure games I love so much after all. Grim Fandango Remastered reminded me of the trial-and-error required to solve challenges in these sorts of games replete with downright cryptic clues and a necessary mental inventory to keep track of.
I don’t necessarily expect or want the Telltale formula of adventure game to win out, where all it is is presentation and story – not that there is anything wrong with that. I am, in fact, a big fan of Telltale and their titles, but, perhaps, in this modern day of adventure gaming, we can drop some of the old problems that come with these puzzles. Sometimes it felt like a player needed to be on the exact same wavelength of the designer to ever figure the damn thing out. Broken Age never quite gets to that point, but it certainly had me scratching my head a few times in the second half.
That character switching toggle becomes far more important later on with certain characters needing to progress far enough to get clues that could, in turn, help the other. It is a nice bit of design that works quite well overall. It could have become tedious – even laborious – in lesser hands. Double Fine’s ability to craft great dialog and generate interesting characters, however, make for switching often a worthwhile endeavor.
One quick note though regarding technical difficulties: if playing on PS Vita, expect delays when loading in and switching scenes. It is far more noticeable than when playing on the Playstation 4 or PC, for example, where scene transitions are seamless and movement between areas happens with little problem. The Vita version loads far slower and, instead can take between 5-15 seconds per load screen. It might not sound like much but when your game is mostly composed of moving from screen to screen? That’s a lot of time loading.
Broken Age is a great example of a return to the aspects of adventure games that made them truly great. It features a story with two main characters that intertwine in interesting ways. The storybook art direction works well with the game’s fantastic story. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel but presents a compelling fish-out-of-water meets hero’s journey feel that just works. The mechanic of character switching allows for changes of pace that would typically require much longer transitions to take place. This switching does its job admirably – though sometimes, isn’t quite enough to make up for the obtuse clues given for puzzles or the classic way of approaching puzzles in an adventure game. It will be a mild challenge to the most seasoned of adventure game veterans, but for everyone else it should be quite a fun journey. Classic adventure games don’t come around often these days, and Double Fine made a great one.