The Two-Face of adventure games.
The first Kickstarter project I ever backed was the famous Double Fine Adventure. Back in February of 2012, I got caught up in the buzz and excitement swirling about the game industry enough to pay my way into the credits. The hilarity of it is that with all the cautionary tales and doom and gloom precipitated by video game Kickstarter projects to come, here was a massively successful and optimistic project without even the vaguest idea of the product.
Tim Schafer had gamers swallowing down his credibility Kool-Aid by the cup full, and more than three years after funding had ceased, everyone is still standing, feeling no worse for wear. To be frank, I’ve watched video game trailers more dubious than this uncertain project pitch, so I hold my surprise at bay.
And Broken Age was eventually conceived from the idea quagmire that could’ve been. Its development has survived numerous critical turns — the announcement that the game would be split into two in order to secure more funding, the other Kickstarter project Double Fine started before completion of the first one, and Tim Schafer’s outing as someone who cares about diversity, which burned some fans in a fire of remarkable butthurt and unfounded surprise. On January 28, 2014, the first part of Broken Age finally made its way to gamers, and it was rather glorious.
Immediately, I fell in love with the visuals, which emulate oil pastel illustrations. Every scene evoked a charm that leads the player through a fanciful and colorful adventure, boosted by charming musical pieces to boot. When players start the game, they are given the option of playing as either of two characters, though they’ll have to complete both storylines to finish the first part. Shay is a bored, cynical teenage boy flying endlessly through space on a station, seemingly designed by Fisher-Price. Vella, on the other hand, is an inquisitive and feisty teenage girl, raised in a town of exuberant bakers, preparing to be sacrificed to a legendary creature.
The absurdity of both their situations immediately endears them to the player. Despite any personality quirks they may display, Shay and Vella soon become the straight men (in terms of character archetypes, not sexuality) in their stories, which are replete with kooky characters and kookier scenarios. Shay’s life is frustratingly cyclical—robot arms drag him out of bed to bathe and feed him, and then he is scooted to a fake captain’s bridge to choose among a variety of serious-sounding missions in adorably-named locations. That they result in ice-cream binges, presents, and hug attacks seems precious until it dawns on you that he’s been doing this for the better part of his sentient life.
The predicament Vella is in is also depressing but more life-threatening. It seems that every 14 years, the people of Sugar Bunting, her hometown, and those of the towns around there choose teenage girls to offer to Mog Chothra, a hideous multi-eyed monster with tentacles. Vella’s suggestions of war and even dissent result in condescension from her elders, who believe that the ritual results in less bloodshed than rebellion. Nevertheless, the player is assigned with aiding her escape from Mog Chothra’s maw, and like the moment when they eventually disrupt Shay’s monotony, the real adventure begins for them both.
What follows is a delightful romp through truly imaginative settings with memorable characters. Players have the option of switching between our heroes at any time, which could be helpful during bouts of frustration. During the first part, I didn’t need to use it at all, and none of the puzzles are dependent on information from the other’s location. Once both characters make it through their first halves, an eyebrow-raising, sense-making plot twist is revealed, and players are left salivating to find out how the whole mess gets resolved.
Well, you may want to wipe your mouth and get yourself a snack because the latter half of Broken Age will leave you hungry and slightly frustrated. I’ll do my best not to spoil the story, but I’ll start with this: Part Two introduces essentially no new characters and no new environments. It basically tries to maintain pace off the remaining steam of the first part, but there’s not a ton left. Many of the characters can barely be interviewed like in the first half, and they all seem rather complacent as if a major event did not recently take place. Unless they are the next step in a puzzle solution, they just come off as static.
Part Two also introduces new puzzle types, but a number of these are arduous or tedious. For example, one character has a long, drawn-out puzzle to lure a Hexipal, an adorable helper robot, from the far end of the space station to another; this involves looking through security cameras, opening and closing doors, and overloading circuits for the robot to fix. This and a few other new puzzles require a significant amount of timing not present in the first portion.
The second portion also requires players to switch between Shay and Vella numerous times, a fact I do not inherently object to. However, the puzzles that require this make no narrative sense. Basically, in order find some solutions, the other character needs to come across them. The teenagers, although they have intertwined fates, do not have a telepathic connection with one another. It’s some fourth wall-breaking bullshit like yelling at a character in a horror movie, “Don’t go in there!” and they listen and thank you for the advice. Not only that, but this device is used multiple times for a similar type of puzzle, which becomes rather stale by the end—especially at the end.
As for the story, a super left-field origin story is offered as an explanation for all the events, which is underwhelming. There’s also not much engagement with it beyond “Bad guy is bad, so we must stop him.” The other characters felt more whole compared to the antagonist, who felt laughable more than threatening. The finale’s sense of urgency is also undermined by a frustrating set of puzzles and backtracking, so players may find themselves just happy it’s over when the credits roll. I also wish some more pertinent questions were answered with all the time spent playing.
So I find myself ultimately confused by my experience. This wasn’t a particularly bad game, more like a good one that had points taken away by its second half. Maybe that is a bad game. But the puzzles were not the most convoluted, and the story was not the most meaningless I’ve experienced in adventure games. There’s also the fact that I spent significantly more money on it than someone picking it up now (even with a bundled soundtrack and documentary).
Honestly, though, I’ve forgotten about the money. It was literally over three years ago. I don’t regret contributing to this journey in the least, and frankly, I feel like the first half of Broken Age is very much worth experiencing. And that’s how I’ll rate it—as an excellent first half with a middling second half. What a shame.