Broken Age: Act 1 Review (PC)
Sometimes a game can come into your life, shatter your expectations and remind you that some of the most amazing moments you can ever encounter in the meta-verses of both fiction and entertainment can be brought to you by a video game. Broken Age: Act 1 does this with the one of the least likely of genres -- a point-and-click adventure. While there isn't the overwhelming, frontier sense of exploration that World of Warcraft first gave or the sense of industrial growth we felt with trying Mario 64 for the first time, Broken Age does something else that feels just as awe-inspiring. It reminds us that games can immerse us into their worlds, and the more fantastic the world, the more we get wonderfully lost within it.
Broken Age marks Tim Schafer's return to the genre that got him development fame, starting with The Secret of Monkey Island and expanding out to the likes of Psychonauts and Grim Fandango. Here, we have Tim coming back to the point-and-click control method of gameplay, which he had not done for nearly 19 years. Tim's storytelling, along with a fanbase backing one of the most successful video game kickstarter campaigns ever done, has resulted in a work where Schafer has cemented himself as the Chopin of the point-and-click. There's just something about the way Schafer's plot, a script that warrants both tears and laughs, unforgettable characters brimming with personality and Broken Age's storybook-like art style all culminate in an (unfortunately short) experience that kept us thoroughly engaged in a way that most games never even come close to doing.
Right off the bat, the graphics of Broken Age: Act 1 are unlike anything we have seen in years. Schafer doesn't try to go for the comical, cartoony looks that his previous titles had. Instead, Broken Age looks more like a watercolor paint etched over cel shaded graphics with the character designs and stop-motion animation of Tim Burton's version of 'James and the Giant Peach' brought to the modern age. The resulting effect is that everything looks like an entire ecosystem of art, while still trying to keep the designs and characters simple enough so that we were able to still efficiently work through the game as a point-and-click adventure.
Broken Age: Act 1 depicts the story of two completely different teenagers, Vella Tartine and Shay Volta. While you can switch between the characters on the fly, their journeys are quite separate (for the most part) and different. Shay is a lone passenger on his derelict spacecraft, the Bossa Nostra. Shay has a computer AI that acts as his parental guardian while it keeps him confined to certain areas of the ship, which, of course, he eventually tries to fully explore. Shay's environments and interactions with the bleakness of space and the dank depths he goes to contrast his bright living quarters that were designed for children much younger than he is. The graphical depiction of these two very different areas, and all the small details (automatic showers, robotic gadgets, the lifeforms he encounters) all look amazing in a Pixar animation sort of way.
On the other hand, Vella lives her life on a planet that is terrorized by a giant creature named the Mog Chothra. Vella's village of warriors-turned-bakers now simply cower at the sight of Mog and offer human sacrifices to it every season. Of course, Vella turns out to be one of these sacrifices and decides that she won't go through with it and wants to find a way to fight. Vella eventually runs away (escaping the Godzilla-sized Mog beast) and goes from town to town, finding clues as to what Mog Chothra really is and how the people can fight it. Vella's journey sends her through all sorts of wondrous areas, each being fantastic in how they're designed. These places are all cranked to the extremes of the imagination, similar to the locations in 'Adventure Time.’ Vella's levels, puzzles and characters give an organic, "living" feel to the world which is the exact opposite of Shay's computerized prison and derelict home.
The voice acting of Broken Age: Act 1 builds on an absolutely fantastic script. The script's writing is strong enough to warrant full-out laughter on a regular basis, which is extremely hard for most video games to do. For every laugh that Broken Age brought on based on its clever dialogue, excellent line delivery, circumstantial humor or over-the-top randomness (again of 'Adventure Time' variety), it effectively reels you back in to stay emotionally connected to your protagonists. We can't think of many video games that nearly brought us to tears and had us cracking up in laughter all in the same sitting. With only a four-hour playtime (much shorter if you're quick at solving the puzzles and don't care for exploring every nook and cranny), all we can do is admire just how much of an emotional roller coaster it was that Double Fine had us riding.
The effectiveness of Broken Age's script can also be attributed to voice acting that rivals some of our favorite performances of all time. Given his awkwardness, calm demeanor and his desire to progress forward despite overwhelming odds, Double Fine gave Shay the voice of Frodo Baggins himself, Elijah Woods. This was not your lame, "phoned-in, spit out the dialogue in a couple hours" sort of celebrity performance; Frodo gave it his all. Another standout performance came from Harm'ny Lightbeard, who we didn't even realize was voiced by Jack Black until we read his name on the credits at the end. Jennifer Hale brings her usual Commander Shepard level of quality, but Broken Age's breakthrough performance came from Masasa Moyo as Vella. Masasa is known for playing many background/miscellaneous characters, so it was nice to see that she got the spotlight and was able to show off what she can do. By the end of the story, we felt that Moyo's rambunctious, scared but strong portrayal of Vella outshined the great performances of Elijah Woods, Jennifer Hale and Jack Black by far. We expect that Masasa Moyo is going to be called into the voice-acting spotlight a lot more often after this performance.
The control schemes in Broken Age are relatively simple. You click to move your character, click points of interest to interact with them, click dialogue options to move the conversations in whatever way you prefer and go to the item menu to try to use items where they would seem expected to go. The puzzle mechanics of Broken Age can be as simple as dragging a ladder to a point you can't reach in order to ascend, or it could be putting an inflatable version of Shay in his bed so the Bossa Nostra AI thinks that he's sleeping as he explores the forbidden areas of the ship. An abstract puzzle would be assembling your own spacesuit and using a whip cream gun you bring from the kitchen area to propel Shay in zero-gravity to an area he was banned from.
As stated previously, Broken Age offers the great ability to switch between Shay and Vella whenever you prefer. If you're stumped at a part with one character, just progress the story with the other to help wipe the slate clean instead of staring at the screen trying to figure something out. This mechanic keeps the gameplay continuously going, and many of times we ended up switching back to the character where we were stuck and instantly solving it upon our return.
A minor gripe with Broken Age can be its inventory-filing system. While there isn't a Final Fantasy-like amount of items that you're going to be lugging around, there is still a decent amount. A more player-friendly UI for inventory management/item selection could have been implemented here. While this doesn't break the game, there were a few times where we found ourselves annoyed by trying to select a specific item that we knew we'd need but it always took way longer than it should have.
The only thing that kept Broken Age from being perfect was its length; it is only half the game. The cliffhanger ending of Broken Age: Act 1 marked its halfway point. Unfortunately, this ending left us thinking that this shouldn't have been a place to leave off at, but should have simply been an absolutely amazing sequence in the center of the game. In other words, we felt that this part would have added to the overall game's enjoyably if we weren't abruptly cut-off right at the end.
At only three to four hours long, we were left just sitting there in awe at how we simply wished we could continue but now have to wait almost a full year for the final installment. This isn't the same pacing that we have encountered with the likes of Telltale's The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Those titles were the perfectly paced portions to leave you satisfied and eager to see what's next.
Broken Age: Act 1 made us feel like being a child again. Playing this game is like having a pop-up book read to you for the first time, with your imagination running and right when you reach the center of the pop-up book, WHAM, it slams itself shut. We felt that there were some amazing parts in the plot before Act 1's ending that could have made an excellent send off for Act 1, with the cliffhanger being a great way to reel us in at the beginning. Nevertheless, we wholeheartedly recommend that fans of any form of fantasy storytelling, especially those who are fans of Pendleton Ward's style (who actually is part of the cast), must play Broken Age: Act 1. We have a good feeling that if Double Fine held off for just another year, the full version of Broken Age would have easily been a nominee for game of the year.
This review was completed with a purchased copy of Broken Age for the PC.