Back to the Future
Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.
It’s human nature to mythologize the past at the expense of the present. People used to dress sharper. Kids these days are so ill-behaved. Remember how great games were when you were a kid? The good is fondly remembered, the bad is quickly forgotten, and revisiting history—real history—becomes an exercise in disappointment.
So when Double Fine Productions took to Kickstarter in early 2012, promising to bring back the classic point-and-click adventure games of the ’90s that so many gamers cherish, they were playing with fire. Even with Tim Schafer at the helm, expectations for the project, since titled Broken Age, were nothing short of monumental. When donations soared past the $3 million mark, they teetered on the edge of impossible. In July, when Double Fine announced that the project would need to be split into two parts, citing a lack of finances, things looked bleak. There was a palpable worry that whatever backers ended up with would feel like a betrayal—not just of their financial investment, but of their nostalgia.
What if the world really didn’t need another point-and-click adventure game?
Well, feel free to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Broken Age is good. It’s Monkey Island good. It’s Grim Fandango good. It might even be Day of the Tentacle good. But then, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
From a gameplay standpoint, Broken Age will be almost wholly familiar to anyone who’s played the LucasArts SCUMM engine games Schafer worked on in the ’90s. There’s pointing, clicking, an inventory to fill with items you find, puzzles to solve, and characters to converse with. Still not the most complex of formulas but, as ever, one that allows the storytelling to shine.
To say too much of the plot itself would ruin much of its charm, so you’ll have to settle for the barest of bones. You play as two separate characters in vastly different worlds: a young woman named Vella whose pastoral village demands too much of her, and a boy named Shay whose life aboard a spaceship coddled by technology demands too little of him. Like Tim Schafer’s best work, it’s both wildly creative and routinely hysterical.
On some level, then, Broken Age is another dose of the same, but it’s also much more than Schafer’s previous work in the genre could ever have hoped to be. It’s more ambitious, more polished, and more modern in its sensibilities. The visuals are a breathtaking high-definition rendering of artist Nathan Stapley’s distinctive style, with rich detail and a painterly sheen. The interface feels uncluttered and bespoke. Some simple one-off gameplay segments even introduce variety beyond the standard SCUMM-y exploration and puzzle-solving.
But what impresses most is the voice work, where it’s easy to imagine most of that $3 million budget ended up. Full voice acting is nothing new for an adventure game, but the breadth and caliber of the cast puts prior efforts to shame. With talent like Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, and far too many more names to mention, every line lands the way it should. The jokes become funnier, the banter becomes wittier, and every scene becomes that much more enjoyable to watch.
And the volume of dialogue is impressive, something that allows it to be much more functional from a gameplay standpoint. If you try something that’s reasonably intuitive but not the intended solution, you don’t just get the same canned, blanket denial. You get a response, an explanation, a clue in the right direction that somehow never feels demeaning to your intelligence. Repeated failures are a help, not a hindrance. As a result, solving puzzles feels organic, like you’re inside Shay and Vella’s heads, trying to reason out an answer while chatting with yourself.
There’s also little contrivance to be found in the puzzles themselves. You’re never crafting a fake mustache to impersonate a man who doesn’t have one, you’re not using a rubber chicken to cross a zipline, and you’re certainly not standing around for minutes at a time trying to match up every possible combination of items while your character spouts “I don’t feel like it” until you wish you had a gun and a single bullet in your inventory. And if you do find yourself unable to suss out the solution you need to continue, being able to swap stories is a godsend. Whenever I hit a wall—not often or for too long, but it did happen—I merely changed characters, made some progress there, then came back after I’d had a bit of time to mull it over.
For all its advantages, though, Broken Age does sport a handful of minor scuffs on the polish, the sort of things you probably won’t be happy to see in the most expensive Kickstarter game released to date. I encountered one crash to desktop, and there are a few weird, recurring visual glitches, including screen flickering and layers of art that appear on top of something that should be covering them. A scant few sections of gameplay feel like unnecessary bottlenecks, forcing you into situations where you’ll need to backtrack a fair distance to grab an easily missed item or trapping you on one screen with a very specific way out.
In the end, though, the worst thing about Broken Age might be that it’s not finished yet. Unlike the recent and similarly divided Burial at Sea DLC for BioShock Infinite, the first half of this game feels complete enough to stand on its own, with a satisfying break point and a four-hour running time that feels adequately meaty. Even still, though, there’s something sour about leaving the story in the middle and waiting an unspecified amount of time for real closure.
But, you know, as I watched the credits roll on this first chapter of Shay and Vella’s adventure, I had a hard time feeling any disappointment, frustration, or even anticipation. Instead, it just felt an awful lot like the rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle-shaped hole in my heart was finally full again.
Guess they do make ’em like they used to.
|Developer: Double Fine Productions • Publisher: Double Fine Productions • ESRB: N/A • Release Date: 01.28.2014|
For any fan of classic adventure games, playing Broken Age will be like wrapping yourself in a big, comfy blanket made of pointing, clicking, and a whole lot of laughs.
|The Good||The start of an elegant, entertaining point-and-click adventure.|
|The Bad||Just like any adventure game, getting stuck can be frustrating.|
|The Ugly||Having to wait god knows how long for Act II.|
|Broken Age: Act I is available on PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for Mac via Steam.|