When the news broke that Double Fine’s Tim Schafer was going to be working on a new point-and-click adventure game, it was difficult not to be excited. After all, this was the man behind the sublime Grim Fandango – a game possibly to be considered the greatest ever made – and his first venture into the genre since then. The eventual product, after launching KickStarter into the mainstream along the way, was Broken Age. Here’s how it went.
As with the best narratives, like, er, Resident Evil 2, Broken Age has two seemingly unrelated storylines. The first focuses on a girl named Vella, who lives in a small village and, on this occasion, has been chosen as a sacrifice to the dangerous Mog Chothra. This creature attacks with regularity and can only be appeased by taking young women, who are given from every nearby village to keep the others safe.
In a much less dangerous situation, we have Shay (voiced by Elijah Wood) whose existence is crushingly dull. He lives on an otherwise uninhabited spaceship overseen by a computer who acts as both mother and father to Shay – literally. The mother keeps watch over Shay to ensure he is kept safe, with the result that he endures the same routine day after day, being set off on fake, easy ‘missions’ and preventing from learning about the world. This, until he throws one of the missions to put himself in real danger. When he encounters a man in a wolf costume named Marek, things begin to change.
Of the two, Shay’s story is much better and is far less predictable. The mother computer captures the same level of eerie pleasantness evoked by HAL of 2001 fame, and while there’s something not quite right about Marek’s missions either, it’s difficult to put your finger on what. Shay for his part has the makings of a Schafer character, being in equal parts heroic, sarcastic and sly.
Vella’s tale has a rather more obvious hint of cliche about it, and while it’s still well-written and emotional, it feels as though it was the more rushed of the two plot lines. The ending will bring up feelings of confusion and a desire to know more, but no spoilers here.
While both stories are enjoyable, not enough is made of some of the characters, particularly the Yarn pals and the ‘father’ side of the computer from Shay’s story. Since the game is only half released, one hopes they might make a return in later scenes.
As always, Schafer’s latest game has gorgeous artwork in its own unique style. A hand-painted look with limited animation provides both an opportunity to show off Double Fine’s aesthetic skills and allows the game to be ported to other devices without too much difficulty. The game feels like a children’s pop-up book crossed with the slightest touch of a Lovecraftian tale and the balance is struck perfectly. Environments, particularly the spaceship, capture the creepy loneliness of
the characters, and don’t so much fall as gleefully leap into the Uncanny Valley.
Character art itself is not without issue, mainly that there could be a lot more detail than there is. It’s all well and good having an aesthetic, rather than graphical focus, but there’s a serious lack of character animation and with the budget that size it might be expected that they’d put a bit more effort in.
Regardless of the graphical pros and cons, there’s no denying that the soundtrack deserves enormous praise. Composed by Peter McConnell, the very same man behind the music of Grim Fandango, it captures the emotion and tension of every scene brilliantly.
The voice work provided by Elijah Wood is high quality, although he does insist on having the kind of voice one can never quite place until one Googles it while writing a review. The rest of the voices manage to capture well their characters’ personalities.
Broken Age’s story has not yet come to a close, but its first installment is an exercise in enjoyable (if slightly easy at times) puzzling, witty writing and a loving sense of presentation. While Shay’s story is by far the most memorable and enjoyable, it would be a mistake to focus too heavily on it in Act Two, since Vella has her moments as well.
The game stands out not just on its own merits, which are many, but because it represents the first step in a new, auteur and donation driven model of gaming, which puts forward projects not just for their commercial potential, but their quality. Broken Age is by no means perfect and does not occupy the same tier of adventure gaming as Full Throttle or Dreamfall, but it’s very enjoyable nonetheless, and well worth the price. 81%.