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Broken Age Review: Masterful

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Broken Age: Act 1
Price: $24.99
Platform(s): PC (Also coming to Android, iOS, and Ouya)
Release Date: January 28, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Double Fine Productions
ESRB Rating: N/A

Before it had an official title, Broken Age was an important game. Originally referred to as Double Fine Adventure, the title was intended to be both a revival of a beloved genre and the assured continuation of Tim Schaffer’s video game career after the much anticipated metal homage, Brutal Legend, failed to meet expectations. To fund their new venture into the realm of independent development, Double Fine took to Kickstarter with the hopes that their following would help support the development process.

They asked for $400,000 in funding. What they received was over 3.5 million dollars at the hands of nearly 100,000 backers. It was clear that people were not only interested in the adventure genre, but in the auteur, Tim Schaffer’s vision.

With such record breaking numbers, and with the weight of substantiating Kickstarter on their shoulders, it was clear that Double Fine needed to produce something breathtaking.

To that end, have they succeeded?

“We Admire Lightness in All Things. No Extra Baggage, No Extra Letters”

Broken Age isn’t a cash-in on retro; it’s proof that quality storytelling is timeless. The script in Broken Age shines on every level. On the surface, the game is lighthearted and comical in a manner that we’ve come to expect from the folks at Double Fine. But somewhere underneath the decadence lies a poignant and sometimes unsettling exploration of themes and social commentary.

The hook of Broken Age is that it tells two seemingly separate narratives that players can switch between at any moment. Knowing that the male protagonist was voiced by Elijah Wood, I decided to start as him because, in the unlikely scenario that I got bored, I could easily change my mind. But I never did switch. Once the bustling and charismatic world hooked me on a cognitive level, I didn’t want to pull myself away. The same would’ve been true had I started with Vella, as both narratives are independently strong. Their juxtaposition is what makes the game so very potent, though.

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In Shay’s tale, the player takes control of a lonely cosmonaut aboard a vessel void of all human life. Everything around him appears to have been set up for his benefit, and the coddling and monotony seems to be making the young teen a bit stir crazy. Consequentially, Shay seems to have a wanderlust that motivates him to deceive the computer/warden/overmother AI that stifles him in order to follow the orders of the shady, sycophantic wolf, Marek.

Shay’s world is brimming with an absurd cheerfulness that contrasts starkly with his melancholic nature. Almost everything seems to have a smiley face attached to it, and sometimes, a personality. For these reasons, Broken Age sometimes feels like a hyper-surreal episode of the popular children’s shows, Blue’s Clues, without the fourth wall breaks that made that program especially obnoxious. This contrast between realism and festivity is also readily apparent in the story of the female protagonist, Vella.

Toddlers in Tiaras, But Deadlier

Vella of Sugar Bunting has the misfortune of being one of the few children chosen for the Maiden Fest — a sickening display of pageantry disguising what is, at its core, a ritualistic human sacrifice. For reasons unknown, the towns in the game’s world see these maidens as being in an enviable position, even though everyone knows intellectually that these children will suffer horrible deaths at the hands of the Mog Chothra, a lineage of beasts who visit once every 14 years.

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Vella, and her Grandfather, are apparently the only ones that take issue with the tradition. Where the other maidens resign themselves gratefully to their fate, Vella chooses to fight. In a moment that seems to mirror events of Shay’s narrative, Vella is able to escape on the wings of a bird and continue her adventure. Along her adventure, she will meet a cult of obscenely happy and misguided cloud people, a lumberjack afraid of trees, and trees sickened to the point of vomiting at the thought of his arborial carnage.

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The imagination in both these campaigns is astounding. Shay’s ship, for example, is navigated by a creature known as the Space Weaver. His job is to chart Shay’s course through the stars, and is able to take the boy anywhere he desires, so long as the place is deemed fittingly safe. To do this, he weaves and processes star charts through mechanical logistics that I choose to accept as plausible, and near instantaneously transports the vessel to where it needs to be. The machine takes a few moments to warm up, though, so if Shay had the right tools (a crochet hook) and the proper motivation (a request from Marek), would he be able to redirect the ship against the Space Weaver’s will? Hmmm….

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“You Want To Be A Grown Up? Get Used To Making Tough Decisions.”

Broken Age exudes so much charm in its narrative, that it finds no need to reinvent the mechanics of the classic Adventure Genre. In fact, compared to previous Tim Schaffer games like the beloved, Grim Fandango, the genre seems to have undergone a distillation process in the interest of accessibility.

Puzzles are straightforward and will be second nature for adventure game veterans. Players will be combining items within menus, using said items on the environment, and bargaining with eccentric denizens of the world in order to progress. The puzzles feel incredibly intuitive, perhaps as a result of the writing. At no point does the game beat you over the head with a solution, but instead seems to insist on a relaxed exploration of dialogue with the game’s AI in order to garner a solution.

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And with the charismatic starpower of actors like Jack Black, Elijah Wood, Will Wheaton and Pendleton Ward, it makes good sense to direct players towards spending time interacting with the characters. While I imagine the voice acting contributed to a healthy chunk of the budget, the effect is well worth the assumed cost. The actors breathe life into words that are compelling in their own right, so that when they speak them, they resonate with personality. Every time Jack Black’s character, Harm’nyLightbeard spoke, I was inclined to wonder how much input the Hollywood actor had in the shaping of his character.

Pacing is well-executed in Broken Age, so much so that affording the players ample time to breathe seems like it was a central pillar of Double Fine’s design philosophy. If you rush, or if you’re replaying the game, you can reach the final boss in 2-3 hours’ time, easily. It’s very possible to do that, but that would be pointless. Broken Age doesn’t present a considerable challenge, or an experience that rewards skill or practice. What Broken Age does is that it makes you want to slow down. It establishes very early on that taking your time is integral to the experience, so take a moment, smell the roses and enjoy as your paperdoll-esque character traverses a vivid storybook environment that is decidedly suitable for all ages. It just so happens that there are some puzzles along the way. Just enough to make you feel sorta kinda clever.

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But of all the puzzles Broken Age poses to the player, the most intriguing by far is piecing together the relationship between the events of the two separate narratives. One of the game’s greatest strengths is in its gentle encouragement for the player to find meaning in the tales of Vella and Shay. In fact, figuring out how the two relate and affect one another is, perhaps, a more rewarding puzzle than the actual riddles that a game like this typically asks you to solve.

Verdict

So, has Double Fine Productions succeeded? Yes, and admirably so. Where they could have simply relied on the draw of nostalgia to recoup expenses, they instead, painstakingly crafted an experience that players will want to revisit for years to come.

Broken Age masterfully pontificates on themes of loneliness, coddling, monotony, tradition, and what it really means to grow up and become your own person and it does so without ever coming off as preachy. Like a literary classic, the game offers the kind of take away that will stay with you, maybe even change you.

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