Long-time fans of adventure games know the name Tim Schafer and hold his work in high esteem. For years, they’ve been pining for him to provide another of his creative, humorous, well-written efforts in the underrated genre. When “Double Fine Adventure” showed up on Kickstarter, this corner of the gaming audience collectively squealed with glee. We could only hope that Schafer hadn’t lost his touch, that his new foray would live up to expectations.
I can confidently say to fear not: so far, Broken Age is exactly what we were hoping it would be.
Act 1 begins by outlining the presence of two parallel narratives — a sleeping girl is leaning on a tree, while a boy dozes on a bed in a spaceship. You’re free to start with whomever you like, as you’ll be experiencing both sides regardless.
The art instantly struck me. Broken Age is teeming with the unique style of the talented Nathan “Bagel” Stapley. The painted-canvas backdrops set the tone, and the characters speak with the charm of stop-motion while still enjoying smooth animated movement.
Thus, the title’s personality is established, and is concurrently reinforced by the beginnings of many excellent characters. Start with the boy in the spaceship and be treated to the voices of Elijah Wood as Shay and Jennifer Hale as his ship’s protective artificial intelligence. Masasa Moyo introduces us to Vella’s half of the adventure which includes the likes of Wil Wheaton and Jack Black. It’s a star-studded cast, but the performances of the lesser-known names are of equal quality.
Adventure games can’t rely on presentation value — no matter how attractive it may be or how good it sounds, it’s the writing that makes or breaks it. The experienced crew of Double Fine is up to the task with Broken Age. This is a light-hearted story with just enough darkness and mystery to make it as compelling as it is friendly.
The young boy Shay suffers from chronic boredom. His ship exists only to entertain him as it travels the universe in search of a suitable homeworld — but he grows weary of the same food, the same mock-missions, the same conversations with computer programs. Shay craves real drama, and finds it in a mysterious creature named Marek who gives him the thrill of the unknown.
Elsewhere, the teenage Vella is dealing with the reality of the Maiden Feast, a peace offering to the giant creature known as Mog Chothra. Vella is to participate in her hometown’s Feast and potentially be eaten by the monster, earning the “honor” of protecting her village. Not satisfied with this perpetual tradition, Vella sets out on her own to find a solution to this problem that appears to plague the entire world.
The overarching storylines take our protagonists to many places. But thanks to the excellent script, even the most mundane tasks along the way can be hilarious sidenotes. Whether it’s an AI spoon that is overjoyed to be used in the ship captain’s cereal, or a lumberjack making pretentious musings on modern art, Broken Age is inundated with characters that never ceased to slap a grin on my face. I never imagined it would be that much fun to make a tree vomit.
Even the puzzles themselves seem to hit all the right notes. They’re enough to give you pause and require some thought, but they’re always logical. It’s a difficult balance to offer up challenges that aren’t so abstract as to be dumbfounding, but also not so obvious as to be simply putting the player through the motions. Broken Age manages to tease your brain just enough so that solving the puzzles elicits a feeling of accomplishment — but it’s unlikely to stump you to the tune of looking up solutions on Internet forums.
For good measure, Broken Age also allows you to swap back and forth between Shay’s and Vella’s narratives at will. So if you’re stuck, it’s a great way to virtually step away and get your mind on something else for a while.
There’s little in the way detractors. I did experience several crashes to desktop, but the save system made these moments void of stress — re-opening the game always put me exactly where I had left off. Beyond that, nary a bug was to be discovered.
The other issue is that it feels quite short, clocking in at about four hours depending on your success with the puzzles. But it’s important to remember that this is Act 1 of two, and the second will be added as a free update later this year. Besides, with the quality of those four hours alone, there’s no question of value.