Many gamers may not be aware of it, but Tim Schafer makes some of their favourite games. Monkey Island, Brutal Legend, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts; his games have not always become raging commercial successes, but they have certainly always made an impact on the industry and illustrated a calibre of writing that was often above and beyond any of his contemporaries.
Broken Age is a crowd funded return to his roots, a classic point and click adventure.
A quick note, for the purposes of this piece I will reviewing the game as a whole, and not as some other sites have done, as two separate halves for its two instalments, my aim to give readers a cohesive understanding of the complete game.
The narrative itself is split between our two protagonists, Vella Tartine and Shay Volta, both of whom exist in entirely different worlds but weare able to switch between the two heroes at any point.
For a large portion of the story, they each act out their own coming of age rebellions before their tales become more closely entwined near the games midpoint.Vellas story is a grand tale of defiance in a society enslaved by an all powerful beast, while Shays smaller scale sci-fi story takes place in a space ship ruled by an overbearing parental artificial intelligence. The two stories artfully mirror each other on important themes on radically different stages and switching between the two is smooth and satisfying.
What Broken Age does so exceptionally well is what Double Fine have become renowned for, combine brilliant writing with a beautiful visual aesthetic. The celebrity heavy voice acting cast is impeccable and makes the most of the already excellent script.
Whereas Tim Schafer’s classic games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey island certainly had their own distinctive art style, Broken Age equals and even surpasses them in perfectly blending the game’s tone with a soft pastel story book design, balancing darker themes with a lighter presentation, creating a sense of cinematic cohesion that is probably the best I’ve seen come out of this studio.
Emotionally dense subjects are picked apart and conveyed with a blend of warmth, humour and underlying gravity that is reminiscent of Pixar at their best.
However the actual gameplay mechanics themselves are not always as rewarding as the narrative they progress. There must be a word of warning to the uninitiated, this particular puzzling genre relies on a kind of whimsical logic that can be off putting to the outsider, the problems here are rarely completely nonsensical in the way that they are solved but there is certainly a level of mental contortion-ism which may not be familiar to the average Call of Duty fanatic.
Particularly in the second half of Broken Age’s story, we begin to expose the worst elements of this style of game, forcing you to wander aimlessly through panels and panels of screen attempting to pick up on the most maddeningly subtle of visual cues on how to solve your next puzzle.
This can lead to a jarring sense of pacing within the overarching narrative, once you reach a crucial story moment but can’t progress because of a seemingly arbitrary combination of items that you had not yet considered. The first half of the games pacing is excellent but begins to peter out in the closing acts, leading the game to end with a drawn out sigh as opposed to a bang.
The story itself is consistently excellent, unfortunately moving through it grows frustrating in the games tail end.
It is times like this where I am forced to wonder if even a perfectly executed example of the point and click genre is still just treading water in a game world that’s moved on.
The point and click adventure was pioneered through writers creatively overcoming the technical limitations of their platforms and finding non hardware intensive methods of helping the player meaningfully engage with a wonderful story.
Now we live in a world of gaming that is constantly pushing boundaries and finding new and inventive ways to express narrative in a playable format with hardware that offers almost boundless opportunity for fresh and exciting experiences, perhaps it’s time for this style of adventure to let go of some of the restrictions in its roots and embrace new possibilities.
Broken Age is still first and foremost a wonderful story that is lovingly told and at its best, reminds us why Tim Schafer is one of the greats in game design. Despite being held back by some pacing issues and frustrating Level design, Broken Age is emotionally nuanced, excellently written and beautifully presented; certainly worth more than its asking price.