Broken Age (Act One) Review for Mac OS X

In the two years since Double Fine essentially kickstarted Kickstarter-funded games development, I’ve come to realise something: I just don’t enjoy point-and-click adventure games any more. Maybe I’ve become less patient, or maybe I just expect more from gaming, but the result is the same every time I sit down to play one: eventually I get bored. There have been exceptions, for instance I’ve greatly warmed to TellTale’s recent story-heavy, gameplay-light glut of games, but nothing released lately that conforms to the traditional point-and-click recipe has grabbed me, despite being perhaps the best vehicle for pure storytelling in a game.

With that in mind, I had high hopes that Double Fine could break me out of my adventure game rut, and remind me what it was I enjoyed about them in the first place. With so much attention on the game thanks to its dramatic sales pitch and resulting no-strings-attached millions of dollars to spend, it’s easy to forget that the end result is merely a game, and an old-fashioned one at that. Still, Broken Age has a lot going for it, namely a great deal of creative and voice talent, and not to mention spirited discussion and dissection of what made the genre great with the people who helped fund it, as well improvements to tools and practices in the intervening years since Double Fine last paired pointing with clicking.

The very first screen presents an interesting conceit: there are two main characters, Shay and Vella, and you can play them in parallel. There’s no lead-in narrative to either storyline, you simply pick one of them and discover their world for yourself. You can switch between the two at any moment, although the game only hints at this possibility via an icon that’s tucked away, and it’s not clear from the outset how the two storylines are related.

Indeed, the two storylines barely intertwine for the most part (although there’s absolutely a moment when you realise just how brilliantly they do, and thankfully the game lets you figure that out on your own), with Vella’s story concerning her attempt to put an end to a ritual sacrifice, and Shay’s attempt to break free of his “mother”‘s over-protective nature.

The writing is superb, and absolutely to the standard you might you might expect from the makers of Psychonauts. The same can be said of the art direction, which lends a children’s book feel the whole thing, as if it were made with poster paints and crayons. But that said the game feels targeted towards younger gamers, and as such I suspect many backers of the Kickstarter will feel a little cheated that it doesn’t tend towards more mature themes or complex storylines, coming off more like a children’s game first, but one “adults can enjoy too!”

It’s abundantly clear that somewhere between writing scripts and doing concept art, and actually producing an executable game, something went wrong. Reportedly the production was suffering from financial problems mid-way through the development, and that does go some way to explaining the lack of polish and not-quite-there-yet feel to it all. For example:

  • There’s zero effort to explain the interface at all. The only affordance seems to be that the mouse cursor changes from a crosshair to a clock-face when you can click on something. The cursors themselves look like placeholder graphics.
  • Many animations, particularly those that should signify some performed action, are simply missing (this means for example, just having the inventory icon flash when your character picks something up, rather than showing them pick anything up on some occasions).
  • Using something from your inventory requires first clicking to open the inventory (which uses no real screen estate as-is, so there’s no reason why it couldn’t just be shown all the time), and then dragging the item onto the spot you want to use it. Dragging anything in an adventure game just feels wrong, there was no good reason not to let you just click the item and then click it again on the spot you wanted to use it.
  • At least some of the background art appears to be up-rezzed. The art in general has a painterly look to it, which is lovely, but is then uglified by the soft jaggies of stretched pixels.
  • On a similar note, there’s no clear sense of depth to the scenes. It’s not ever obvious what in the scene serves as a point of interaction, and what’s background (at last, until you wave the cursor over it).
  • There’s far too much repetition. Dialog is repeated when you click on the same thing again, which I suppose is to be expected, but there are also cutscenes that repeat unnecessarily, seemingly to waste your time rather than clue you into something. You can skip most of this, but not, as you’d expect, by simply clicking. Apparently you have to click and then press space, again seemingly ignoring well-established conventions of the genre.
  • The characters throughout the game have a nagging quality to them. They’ll constantly yell at you to get on with doing stuff, which is cute the first time but becomes a bore very quickly. The game doesn’t let you enjoy it at a leisurely pace, which is probably fine if you’re burning through it for the hundredth time, but not so great when you’ve booted it up for the first time. On the plus side, it’s remarkable how much attention has gone into providing dialogue to everything. Seemingly every possible combination of clicking something on something else has a unique, rather than generic response, some of which are rather entertaining.
  • Text sometimes appears partially off-screen, even during cut-scenes.

All of these points are minor, and I feel would have been addressed given more care and attention (or if you prefer, time and money). If it were some other independent developer, all of this might simply have come across as part of its charm, but we are talking about a group of veteran designers who basically made the most fondly-remembered games in the genre, and so the end result is mild disappointment, and actually makes me wonder if the development might actually have benefitted from a publisher’s overbearance.

More disappointing still is that the gameplay comes across as utterly pedestrian. There’s nothing that shines as brilliantly as some of the moments from Grim Fandango or Day of the Tentacle. We get to visit some fantastic places, and meet some colourful characters imbued with extraordinary zaniness (although each of them echo those found in previous Double Fine games in one way or another, as if the studio is slowly running out of archetypes), but there are none of those wonderful moments born out of finding the solution to a problem; it more often feels like bumbling towards a dull solution.

None of the puzzles are particularly tricky, again reinforcing the idea that perhaps this was intended for a younger demographic; and I made my way through the whole thing (at a leisurely pace) in under four hours, which felt about right given that it’s really only the first half of the game. The writing was enough to motivate me to play through to the end, otherwise I think  I wouldn’t have bothered. I also think it helped that you could switch between the two characters at will, otherwise I’d likely have reached a point where I was stuck or bored, and perhaps not returned to the game at all.

At this point I have to reiterate that this is only the first half of the entire game. It’s possible that the second act will be entirely different, but that seems really unlikely. I think it’s safe to assume the second act will be more of the same: some excellent writing in a mediocre game.

I suppose in the long-term, Broken Age might be remembered not as the game that re-ignited a genre, but rather as a footnote to a significant change in the way games are made. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a brilliant game Double Fine can make that showcases their talents, but I just don’t think this is it.

Performance & Quality

With all the flaws in the interface, I actually can’t fault the Mac version of the game. It ran fine, and I experienced no issues whatsoever that could be attributed to it being the Mac version. The voice acting is of an extremely high standard (possibly this is where they blew their budget) and the music is well-suited throughout.