My review copy of Broken Age came with a letter from the game’s director, Tim Schafer. This in and of itself was not too unusual, but the contents of the letter did contain a curious recommendation: “Start from the beginning,” because “Broken Age was designed not as two separate episodes, but as one complete story.”
It’s not often that you hear a game’s creator asking players to start at the start, as if we’re all likely to muck up getting the game to even run. But Broken Age is a special case, and, at least for now, inextricable from its singular creation story. It was one of the earliest crowdfunding successes, drawing far more cash from fans than expected. And so its developers found themselves pathfinding, as they learned how to balance the expectations of invested fans against the scheduling realities of a project that could now afford to grow exponentially in scope.
The solution: to release the first part of the game as soon as possible and follow up with the completed work later. That first part came out 15 months ago, and at the time, I suggested that it might be a good idea to wait for the finished game. But at this point, that no longer matters. The game is done, and it needs to stand on its own. It needs to be started from the beginning.
I won’t dwell on the first half of the game here; there’s a whole other review for that. But for those picking it up after a long hiatus, returning to the twin stories of Shay, a teenage boy who seeks to escape the nursery spaceship that is his prison, and Vella, a teenage girl who would rather kill her world’s monster-god than be sacrificed to it, is not too terrible a chore. There’s still an inviting pastel world, and shaking the cobwebs off Act 1 is worth the tedium of walking through the same half-a-story and solving the puzzles again. This is still an adventure game in the old tradition, leaving little room for player creativity. The only thing to do is the same thing again. And the jokes won’t hit as hard a second time, either. That’s an immutable law of comedy.
But it needs to be done, even if just to experience the first part’s ending. Back then I said this was less of a cliffhanger and more of a cliff fall, but now that it no longer has to be an ending, this isn’t an issue. Instead, the scene has a much more suitable purpose; it’s the hinge on which the story turns, putting Shay and Vella in new situations that force them to think about their lives and desires in a new light. It also sets the stage for the game’s real ending, which is understated, sudden, and lovely.
In between those two points there’s a good amount of textured character development and ingenious puzzle design. Characters that were one-dimensional in the game’s first half, like Shay’s over-protective parents, are humanized here. Characters that did hardly anything, like the sacrificial maiden the god-monster chose not to eat, are given new and important roles. And Shay’s insecure talking robot spoon… remains up for anything. He trained hard for all of this spooning. But most everyone else changes, and all of this change better grounds this ludicrous comedic world.
Broken Age’s painterly world is small and low-detail, so it’s possible to keep the whole of it in mind at once. The puzzles use this to grow in complexity organically, trusting the player to be engrossed enough in the little things to figure out the big ones; only occasionally does it trust too much and devolve into “guess what the designer was thinking” obscurity. Often there will be many to solve at once, so getting stuck on one doesn’t mean a dead halt. Beyond that, many of the puzzles subtly develop the arms-length relationship between Shay and Vella. This makes even simple experiences—like one where Shay’s mother has to be convinced that she is talking to Shay—rich and satisfying to solve.
That story—the one between Shay, Vella, and the worlds they’ve touched just by living in them—is sweepingly and lovingly told. The reveal of the backstory that led them to one another is not as strong. It’s surprisingly straight-faced and well-worn given the amount of creativity on display everywhere else in Broken Age. But that’s a minor point. As a complete work, Broken Age holds together tightly. The strengths of the first half—the humor, the nostalgic picture-book art style, the voice and sound direction—flow seamlessly into the second, and the second half reinforces the first with a more fully realized sense of place and even better puzzle work. And the puzzles in the first half were already pretty good.
Broken Age sailed to crowdfunding success on the promise that it would return adventure games to the halcyon days of 20 years ago, when a creative peak for the genre resulted in the creation of many fondly remembered classics. Let us try to imagine a world where crowdfunding somehow still exists 20 years from now. Perhaps then, we will all be invited to pay for a return to the halcyon days of Broken Age. We would probably do it. There would certainly be precedent.
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Platforms: Android, iOS, Linux, Mac, Ouya, PC, PS Vita, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $15 on iOS and Android, $25 on all other platforms