Broken Age is a lot of things. It’s Tim Schafer’s return to a genre he helped define nearly 16 years ago. It’s a gorgeous fairy tale, a pastel wonderland of whimsy. It’s the Kickstarter, one which prompted the revolution that would propel several titles to Internet stardom.
It’s also, perhaps, broken.
There’s a lot to love about Broken Age. To begin with, the twin tales of Vella and Shay — the game’s protagonists — are intriguing and poignant, nostalgic in their challenges and struggles. Vella is a headstrong girl who has unfortunately been selected as the sacrifice in her quaint, confectionery village’s generational ritual to ensure its continued prosperity. Shay is the sole human soul on an advanced spaceship, ward of doting AI “parents” that pointedly attend to his every need and enforce a childish schedule of adventure he has long, long outgrown.
You can switch freely between the two seemingly unrelated stories at will, which does much to alleviate any potential frustration you might encounter when stuck on a puzzle (if you encounter any difficulties at all — more on this in a bit). The distinction between the two is also refreshing — Shay is a sullen youth, exuding a world-weary air that’s contrasted against his naivety, while Vella is a plucky but somewhat self-centered heroine determined to change her world and circumstances, whatever the cost.
The tone of it is surprising, given the genetics of Schafer’s previous adventure games. Full of muted wit, melancholic at times and refreshingly subtle, it at once feels right with the world and its denizens — and you’ll meet a few memorable ones along the way. The voice casting is impeccable, an all-star cast featuring the likes of Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale and David Kaufman — I’m a huge fan of Kaufman’s performance for Marek, a wolf of questionable character with grandiose designs, but there really isn’t a single person who doesn’t fit, and they serve to bring the world to life brilliantly.
Given the above, you might question the artistic style of the game, but Broken Age is a visual masterpiece. Based on the soft, acrylic style of lead artist Nathan Stapely, the graphics give the air of children’s illustrated books. Backgrounds are pre-painted works while the characters are the product of a hybrid rigging system that allows them to gesticulate freely and expressively. Similarly, the characters are dynamically lit throughout, resulting in subtle variations of colours and mood. The game is beautiful – it’s that simple.
Unfortunately, that means that the areas that aren’t as polished stand out a little more. There are some visual missteps — because the characters are made up of individual parts, sometimes certain body parts jut out in unnatural ways. Similarly, Broken Age loves zooming in on conversations, an action which sometimes detracts from the experience — it’s clear that they weren’t able to render the painted backgrounds at a high enough resolution to deal with modern screen sizes, which results in occasionally jarring, jagged backgrounds in relation to the very clean character design.
More troubling is the puzzle design, and this is where Kickstarter backers, who’ve been eagerly expecting a return to the glory days of old with a modern coat of paint, may feel underwhelmed. The interface has been streamlined to a single cursor, and there is only ever one action to perform on any given element. You’ll never know whether you’re going to merely observe some item of interest or immediately interact with it, and it can be sometimes frustrating that all you’ll ever hear or know about some aspect of the world is a single quip — especially when its environments beg for inspection.
Pixel-hunting is all but eradicated, with many of the items you’ll require gained through dialogue with the world’s characters. While it may seem more logical, the game hardly ever challenges you, gently ushering you from one screen to the next with a minimum of fuss or trouble. For fans of adventure games looking for a return to point-and-click adventure staples, Broken Age eschews complexity for narrative. The spotlight is on the stage rather than the gears and pulleys behind the curtain, and your interaction feels directed, as if always being gently nudged by a prompter in the wings.
Part one of Broken Age is also short, worryingly so — I can’t see it taking more than three or four hours for grizzled adventurers, perhaps five to six for those new to the genre. This is not an indictment on its quality, but given the scope and breadth of Schafer’s previous excursions, it is troubling. Is part one indicative of Broken Age as a whole, or merely a gentle introduction to the genre before revealing the real spirit of the game?
If the above does not concern you, and you’re looking for a tale well told, then by all means pick it up. Broken Age, regardless of current length or implementation, is a gem amongst games’ grim palettes and laid-on-a-platter stories. But my recommendation is that you wait. Wait for the complete Broken Age. There is the germ of something incredible here, and I’m eager to see what it grows into.