From its genesis as the broadly-defined Kickstarter dream “Double Fine Adventure” to its final realization more than three years later, Broken Age’s development has proven to be as epic a story as any the game itself could hope to tell. Its runaway success ushered in a new era of crowdfunded game development, and its numerous delays and budget overruns drew ire and controversy. Now, when all is said and done, Broken Age is just a game, complete and ready to be judged on its own merits, rather than the crushing expectations that birthed it.
Broken Age not only marks Tim Schafer’s first attempt at a point-and-click adventure game since 1998’s Grim Fandango, but his first project as director and writer since 2009’s Brutal Legend. Much of the project’s initial success hinged upon the notion that Schafer’s writing would offer a glimmer of the long-declining genre’s glory days, and it’s that legacy that has been placed front and center. Broken Age is charming, witty, and genuinely original in a way that justifies much of that initial promise.
Tim Schafer first turned heads with Day of the Tentacle, which offered a unique spin on the adventure genre by giving players the ability to cycle through three characters scattered through time at the same location. Broken Age returns to the idea of character-switching, but this time its twin protagonists are connected by theme rather than a common quest.
Shay is a 14-year old boy, seemingly all alone aboard a spaceship, under the care of an overly-protective computer/mother-figure that has created a whole world of safe, false-achievement that has left him longing for the kind of real danger and adventure that every boy needs. Vella is a 14-year old girl selected as a ritual sacrifice to a Lovecraftian monster in order to protect her village. The two stories are at once both parallels and inversions of each other, Shay a commentary on the “everyone gets a trophy” generation, and Vella’s a critique of the sometimes blind adherence to tradition that characterizes older generations, and Broken Age highlights how these two stories are more similar than different.
At first, these stories seem to relate only thematically, but as the game progresses, they connect in more meaningful ways, with clues to puzzles on one side of the game appearing in the other. I’m carefully avoiding spoilers, and new players are well advised to do the same because of the novel ways in which this works. These stories have some clever plot twists along the way that will definitely be remembered. Unfortunately, the very late part of the game rushes some of its plot reveals and leaves as many questions as it answers, but in the context of a lighthearted comedy, it’s easy enough to forgive.
Everything is presented in a gorgeous, painterly style. While everything may be 2D, there’s a lot going on, with numerous background layers, lighting, reflections, and other effects that make the environments feel like more than flat illustrations. Characters are also hand-painted and animated in a cut-out style (think Yuri Norstein or, if you must, South Park) that blends perfectly with the backgrounds. Nathan Stapley’s character design might not be for everyone, but his use of color and shadow is unassailable. Broken Age is a seriously beautiful game that feels like walking through a lavishly illustrated children’s book.
The core promise of Double Fine Adventure was to bring Schafer back to his old-school adventure roots, and to that effect the game is a resounding success. While perhaps not quite as punishing as some of the genre’s classics, Broken Age sticks with the fundamentals, with plenty of inventory objects to use and combine, and some increasingly challenging puzzles as the game goes on. Schafer and company have done an excellent job of writing subtle hints in the dialog so that the solutions never feel unprecedented, even if they are sometimes comical or absurd. Later in the game a few puzzles get a bit more challenging and even require writing things down and drawing diagrams with real pen and paper – a choice that might be a bit inconvenient to mobile gamers, bewildering to younger gamers, but might get a smile from anyone who ever played through a Myst game.
But it’s really characters and dialog for which Tim’s adventure canon is best remembered. Broken Age is a bit unusual for Schafer in that its main characters are perhaps its least interesting. Their stories may be engaging, but they themselves are meant to be ordinary kids in extraordinary circumstances. They’ll play the straight man to a huge cast of colorful and sometimes hilarious side characters, like Harmn’y Lightbeard, a guru living in the clouds who preaches about “lightness” in all things, and Curtis, a hipster lumberjack haunted by talking trees. These characters are brought to life by one of the best voice casts ever, featuring the likes of genuine Hollywood stars like Elijah Wood and Jack Black, alongside the likes of Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward, nerd-favorite Wil Wheaton, and Mass Effect’s FemShep herself, Jennifer Hale. A role occupied by Harmonix founder Alex Rigopolous proves a low point, but considering he paid $10,000 for the privilege, it’s easy enough to forgive.
Although it was developed with PC as its lead platform, Broken Age has fared better in translation than Double Fine’s previous Android releases. Featuring a new engine based on MOAI, it runs beautifully on a wide range of hardware. The mobile release is virtually identical to its PC counterpart, save for some lower resolution, more compressed textures, and even this concession is really only visible in close-ups and cut-scenes. Not only does the game look identical, it even supports cloud-based saves with Dropbox, allowing you to seamlessly hop back and forth between platforms and continue your progress. We tested the game on PC, on a mid-range tablet (LG G Pad 7.0), and a Motorola Nexus 6, and found the experience to be more or less the same across the board, with intuitive touch controls substituting interchangeably for the point-and-click mouse controls of the PC. This also means that on smaller phones, the game can feel a bit cramped, especially the inventory icons and menus, but it’s the price we pay for a perfect PC port. Given that the Android release is less than half the price of its PC counterpart, this feels like quite a bargain.
The newly launched Android version is free from the burden of the controversial “episodic” release that hounded the PC and iOS ports. Unlike last year’s launch of a half-finished game, this is one, complete, full-length adventure, and bears no scars of the split. Despite the permissions listed on the Play Store, there is no IAP here, no downloadable “second act,” just a single adventure, as it should be. It’s a meaty quest, too, and took this experienced adventure gamer almost 10 hours to complete, longer than even Grim Fandango. Schafer’s steadfast refusal to cut the game down, as he had been forced to with Full Throttle, may have dragged out development, but it’s certainly shown in the game’s size and scope.
Like its characters, Broken Age has had to cast off the unfair expectations set for it. When a game is pitched with almost no concept, it has a way of becoming everything rather than nothing in the imaginations of fans. Now Broken Age stands by itself, a different game than the ones before it, but in every way worthy of its legacy. It’s funny, imaginative, charming, and original in a way few adventure games in recent years have been, and it’s clear that Schafer has created a new classic that will be talked about by fans of the genre for years to come.
In the interest of disclosure, Hardcore Droid wishes to acknowledge that Travis Fahs contributed $15 to Double Fine Adventure’s Kickstarter campaign in 2012.
Is it Hardcore?
Beautiful art, top-notch acting, and lavish production values all buoy the charming and sometimes hilarious writing to create one of the best adventures in years.