Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Original Release: January 28, 2014 (public release, act 1), April 28, 2015 (North America, Act 2/complete pack)
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Publisher: Double Fine Productions
Platforms: PC, MacOS, Linux, Ouya, iOS, Android, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Played on: PC
So I’ll admit upfront that my experience with Broken Age is kind of…colored by a Let’s Play I watched when the game initially came out. I remember enjoying parts of it, but it lost my full focus in the second half. There’s also the fact that it was crowdfunded twice across both acts, but I was not party to either of these campaigns. I remember that some of my friends also had some trouble getting the game to even run on their ends, but either their hardware was out of date or that’s since been fixed because I didn’t run into any sort of performance troubles when I played it recently. So as a baseline it works with little issue!
“But wait, Jazzy,” you might be asking, “you try to remain objective in these reviews, right? Why wouldn’t you give it some time to let the memories fade?” That’s a good question. And I’m loathe to answer a question with a question, but have you ever heard of game limbo? It’s kind of like the show hole (do not look that up on Urban Dictionary), where you finish a show and just don’t know what to do with yourself, except for games. I’ve been pretty good about avoiding it thanks to this project of mine, but even with a collection that now sits at 1483 games across all of my systems at time of writing, it still crops up from time to time. Following Marvel’s Spider-Man, I just didn’t know what to play. I had mentioned that I might play Broken Age at the end of the piece, but I didn’t know if my heart was fully in it. So I saw Welcome to the Game as well and it occurred to me that I’ve never beaten it because I get so scared every time. But ultimately it came down to the fact that I really did not feel like having dark web-related anxiety keep me from sleeping when I’m already struggling to get a solid night’s rest as it is, so I opted for Broken Age. And at first it was a good time!
When you start the game, you’re given the choice between two characters, a young girl named Vella or a young man named Shay. Each of them has their own story, but the mechanics don’t really change all that much between the two of them. Really it’s more a setting change than anything. You see, Vella comes from a small village of bakers called Sugar Bunting, while Shay is the captain of a spaceship traveling the stars in search of a new home. I couldn’t really tell you which one I like more because they’re pretty similar in personality. Vella is to be offered up as sacrifice to a creature known as Mog Chothra in a ceremony known as the Maiden’s Feast, and Shay, while captain of a ship, is overcome with ennui from constantly being treated like a child by the ship’s computer. There’s no excitement in his life and he’s trapped in a routine he hates. You can switch between the two at any point if you’re so inclined, but I started with Vella and finished her story before moving on to Shay. So! Let’s talk a little bit about Vella.
As I mentioned, Vella’s story begins just before the Maiden’s Feast begins in Sugar Bunting. A handful of maidens that best exhibit the town’s best qualities have been chosen, Vella included, and they are to be sacrificed to Mog Chothra, a somewhat eldritch creature from a species known as the Grand Mogs who come once every fourteen years, bringing prosperity to the villages in return for the maidens. Vella has some doubts about whether or not it’s really necessary to appease Mog Chothra. Why not just kill it? She’s not alone either, but the feast coordinator, Levina, stresses the importance of said feast.
Obviously there wouldn’t be much of a game if Vella just up and accepted her being sacrificed (although you could go a sort of Banjo-Kazooie route a la Clanker’s Cavern that way), so just before she’s devoured like her fellow maidens, Vella escapes and we’re into the game proper.
The first act of Broken Age is fairly linear. You’re basically confined to the first area until you solve the puzzles needed to find a way out. This is true of both Vella and Shay, though in this case Vella is literally carried right back because it’s in the clouds and there’s a security system in place that results in birds swooping down and catching you, then dropping you right back in town.
Like I said, this part of the game is loaded with so much personality. It made me smile so much that I drew a feather in my notes and labeled it “a single F’ther” after a character of the same name. I just couldn’t help but smile so much! And the puzzles didn’t require an excessive amount of back and forth. At least at first. There were a few that I found myself stuck on that resulted in my wandering aimlessly, but after a little while I realized that there were places that I hadn’t explored fully and before long I found what I was looking for. It didn’t take all that long, so I didn’t mind.
Of course, a lot of my getting stuck comes from my habit of overthinking things or just being too literal for my own good. Like I would be one of the grunts in Spaceballs combing the desert with a giant oversized comb. It works in some situations, as seen in Strangeland, but Broken Age requires you to be a little more abstract in your thought process. Not King’s Quest I levels of moon logic, mind you (I don’t think anything will ever come close to that one puzzle), but puzzling that took me a little bit of time to process before things clicked. Again, this is all in the first act. I’ll get to the second act in a bit. All in all, Vella’s half of act 1 was about what you would expect of a game like this. A few different locations, characters that all need different things that you can then exchange for other things you need to move the story forward, and some weird, weird moments.
So now let’s talk a little bit about Shay’s side of the first act. Honestly, I felt this part was a bit shorter than Vella’s, but that might also have been because of my better understanding of how the game works and remembering more of this section. Regardless, I relate to Shay something fierce. Stuck in a seemingly endless loop, every day feeling almost identical to the last, it’s enough to make anyone feel cooped up. And this was six years before the pandemic hit.
Like I said, Shay is captain of his vessel, but the motherly nature of his ship’s computer leads to him being patronized…a lot. You know how your parents tend to think you’re not an adult even when you’re nearing your thirties? It’s kind of like that. Granted, Shay is in his teens, but the idea is the same.
So yeah, Shay is basically stuck in a routine of underwhelming “missions”, cereal geared more toward kids than young adults, and every day is basically the same. That sounds a lot like depression to me, speaking from experience. Anyway, at one point he gets approached by a wolf named Marek who offers him something more. So of course Shay needs to find a way out of this routine in order to take Marek up on his offer. Luckily, said way appears in short order.
As I mentioned, Shay’s story is a lot more linear than Vella’s. Everything he needs to do takes place across various parts of the ship, so it’s just a matter of unlocking those parts of the ship and that happens over time. I like it partly because it feels just different enough from Vella’s story to make each character feel unique. Yeah, being in space as opposed to being on a planet with talking trees or up in the clouds with Richard Horvitz (and Jack Black) is already different enough, but also changing up the gameplay flow between the two of them? I like that.
Sadly, I didn’t end up taking a lot of notes here. Maybe five entries worth in my notebook. However, that basically sums it up. Two teenagers of similar age in similar situations, yet in radically different environs. Sadly, that also marks the end of what I found most enjoyable about the game. Act 2 didn’t release for another year and while I don’t remember the precise timeline, I do remember that either prior to or in the middle of its development, Double Fine ran a second crowdfunding campaign that was then supplemented via the sales from other Double Fine games at the same time. Again, I am very fuzzy on the details, but I know that the crowdfunding campaigns took place in 2012 and 2013 subsequently and raised over 3.3 million dollars. It’s very confusing to me, I won’t lie.
Anyway, Act 2 reuses the locales from Act 1, but switches the main characters around so that they have fresh interactions with everyone else in the world following events from the first act.
And this is kind of where the game lost me. It’s at this point that you’ll need to start switching between Vella and Shay more often in order to grab clues from each of their environments. Shay has access to a code that Vella needs to progress, and Vella has access to a diagram that Shay will need in order to rewire electronics, for example. Nothing in the game really tells you this outright (in fact the wire puzzle was really complicated, I had to write it down twice because I made a mistake the first time) and there’s not really much in the way of clues or in-universe reasons for Shay to have that information. Even just a throw-away line like “I remember seeing this somewhere before” would be fine, but I didn’t hear anything of the sort during my time, at least for this puzzle. So I ended up consulting a guide. More than once. I don’t like doing that for a lot of reasons. Mostly because, as I’ve mentioned before, I tend to overthink a lot of things, and seeing the solution laid out so clearly kinda brings that home and leaves me feeling like I have egg on my face. Is there anything wrong with using a guide? No, not at all! Some people like to just experience the story and might not have the time to think things out. Others might need the occasional hint. Going back to Strangeland, that’s why I was so glad that they had a hint system in place. Broken Age didn’t have anything of the sort, so there were points where I ended up trying to brute force a solution by trying everything in my inventory on everything and everyone I came across. It kind of took the fun away for me.
I’m not entirely sure what it was, but there was a lot more back and forth in this act. If I got something wrong, Vella and Shay would retrace their steps back to where I needed to be and then I would have to walk back myself. And if I got it wrong again, I’d have to do it all over again. Finally, I got tired of it and just consulted the guide again. It was just really tedious and there were a lot of moments where I had to do things over, or wander the same path because I missed one small thing and it just…took forever and a day. I dunno, the pacing just got bogged down with so much back and forth and took while I enjoyed the first half immensely, it feels like they dropped the ball the in the second half.
And then there’s the ending. Hoo boy that ending is…well it’s not much of an ending at all. The story reaches a climax, but rather than see any sort of payoff, this is what we get:
I wish I knew more about the development history of Broken Age. Psychonauts was my introduction to the studio proper and that game was (and still is) amazing. Costume Quest, while I’ve never played it, looks incredibly cute and I look forward to covering that eventually, maybe closer to Halloween. What I’ve seen of Stacking has looked ridiculous and I want to play it as well! So what happened here? If I ever have the chance to meet Tim Schafer myself, I’ll ask about it. And it’s definitely still an okay game, but I don’t know that I can honestly recommend it. Yes I am fully aware that I’ve recommended janky games like Superman 64 in the past, but in those cases there’s been something that stands out to me and makes me laugh, whether or not it was intended that way. It’s a kind of earnestness that I didn’t really get from Broken Age, sadly. There’s energy and the voice acting is excellent (Elijah Wood as Shay is not something that I had expected, but it was nice), but the gameplay itself feels rushed and the puzzles in the second half don’t feel as reasonable as they did in the first half. So while it’s a shame, this is the first time that I get to break out this bad boy:
Obviously don’t take this as a condemnation or my saying “this game sucks.” Rather, just take it at face value as my saying “I didn’t care for it.” There’s definitely a lot to like about Broken Age. It’s just not my cup of tea.