It’s hard to imagine anyone could have predicted the recent resurgence of point-and-click adventure games – that old-school relic of early PC gaming – within the mainstream industry. Even before The Walking Dead managed to capture the hearts and minds of millions, that surge of popularity was strong enough for industry legend Tim Schafer to crowdfund a brand new IP of his own in the style of his old games (Grim Fandango, Monkey Island) through Kickstarter. Finally, after almost two years of multiple delays and re-configuring those funds, the first act of that now two-episode release, Broken Age, has finally graced the Steam store to considerable fanfare.
The most logical question to ask in regards to this particular title is whether Schafer still has the clout to make a game of this style that can appeal to the modern gamer. After all, it’s been nearly fifteen years since Schafer has made any forays into this genre, even if he is the most popular name to ever come out of it, and the possibility that it may have evolved beyond his own skills is not all that unlikely. If Broken Age is a litmus test of Tim Schafer’s own prowess, however, it can safely be said that he is still a major contender in the scene. There may be a few issues here and there as he clearly struggles to adapt to a very different gaming audience and community than he was used to in his heyday, but Broken Age is a major testament to the fact that the man can still produce a game and story of nearly unmatched inventiveness, wit, humor, artistry and charm.
WHAT WAS GOOD
Broken Age tells the story of a teenage hero and heroine, each struggling to find freedom as they clash against life circumstances far beyond their control. The male protagonist, Shay (Elijah Wood), is a lonely young boy raised on an isolated spaceship by a Mother-like AI, and who yearns to be free of her and her over-protective security measures. When we first are introduced to him, Shay is being put through comically childish play scenarios by a computer who seems to think he’s still five, until his eventual resentment of his treatment leads him to rebel and begin covertly searching for a way off of the ship. Balancing his story out is our female protagonist, Vella, a girl from a small village who seems destined to be sacrificed to the gargantuan beast Mog Chothra, whom the village pays tribute to yearly in the form of teenage girls dressed up in giant cakes. After the ceremony goes awry thanks to our heroine, who chooses to fight the monster off and escape, she heads out in search of a weapon that can help her destroy the beast before it consumes her village. They’re both clever stories, full of both ample opportunities for Schafer’s style of absurd humor and interesting characters, which are easy to relate to, although it should be noted that Shay’s story is clearly the stronger of the two.
Anybody who has played Grim Fandango, Maniac Mansion, Telltale Games’ titles, or any of the games in the Monkey Island series will have a good idea of what to expect from gameplay right off the bat, as there has certainly been little change made to the standard point-and-click formula. At any given point, your character will be tasked with picking up any item in the area that isn’t nailed down and talking with other characters as much as possible to gain information. The information is then used to determine how to use said objects to solve scenario- and environ-based puzzles in (usually) odd and clever ways. Correctly using objects will reward you with further plot progression, and more puzzles and environs will then open up as you continue through the story. Besides the fact that it is much more obvious which objects will do what as opposed to the totally off-the-wall logic found in the MI series or other games, you will still find yourself using objects in some bizarre and highly amusing ways as you work towards various goals. If at any time you find yourself totally stuck in one character’s scenario, you’re just a couple clicks away from shifting to the other character, as the game employs a unique mechanic that lets you play through each scenario simultaneously, switching at will.
The second most prominent characteristic of Schafer’s games, besides their creatively written and designed plots, has always been his previously mentioned style of unique, ludicrous humor that pervades his characters, puzzles and world. For example, one puzzle in Escape from Monkey Island had the player entering a diving competition – one that they could only win by sabotaging their opponent, putting cream cheese in his hair gel so seagulls would attack him mid-dive. The player then had to don a massive dunce cap to make their own dive more aerodynamic.
One of the strongest characteristics of Broken Age is that, if anything, that aspect of Schafer’s writing is in rare form here. It was hard to go more than a minute or so without characters uttering absurd lines that had me chuckling, if not just outright laughing. There’s a bumbling sky cult member dangling from a tree branch by his underwear (voiced by Pendleton Ward), a violently aggressive, sentient knife that becomes comically overjoyed whenever you use him for things, and a cult of bizarre sky people that have removed all vowels from their names for purposes of “promoting lightness,” just to name a few. Elijah Wood and Masaya Moyo act incredibly as the protagonists, and seem to have had a lot of fun getting into character. The puzzles, while not as difficult as his other games, are just as outlandish in their nature, whether it’s horrifying a talking tree enough to make him vomit up his precious sap for use elsewhere, or using a whip-cream canister as a makeshift jetpack to traverse through space. Even with the very adult themes common in the story itself, the humor will only occasionally venture into very dark territory, and never stay long, maintaining a light-hearted feel throughout.
The last major positive note I want to mention is the art design, which evokes the look of a children’s storybook in its’ overall hand-painted design style, bright colors, and flat-looking characters slightly reminiscent of South Park. Schafer’s games have always played with different graphic art, but never before has his own humor and light-heartedness been matched so impressively and perfectly by a graphic style. The game is gorgeous to look at no matter what’s going on onscreen, and it’s difficult to conceive of any other game coming out this year truly looking so stunning regardless of the artistry it employs.
WHAT WAS OKAY
As great and engaging as the story of Broken Age is, I previously mentioned the fact that Vella’s isn’t quite as interesting as Shay’s, and I want to elaborate on that point to give you a real sense of the game. Shay’s story, while continuously being engrossing and moving you along in a way that keeps things interesting as the plot blossoms into something incredible, never really manages to skip a beat. Vella’s, on the other hand, while not really boring, has some very unusual pacing that can be a bit awkward at times and will likely fail to grab your attention anything like the way Shay’s does. It isn’t bad by any means, but the issues in writing and pacing it does have become a little more glaring when stacked up against the stalwart strength of Shay’s. With both stories combined, the overall collective is still very much sound, but you’ll likely just be wishing you had more time with Shay by Act’s end. Hopefully it’s something that can be remedied in the next episode/act.
WHAT WAS BAD
There was only one real issue I had with Broken Age, but that issue itself is a rather biting one when compared to most other point-and-click adventure games, and that is the game’s difficulty level. The Walking Dead can get away with easy puzzles because the game is primarily narrative driven anyway; not so with Broken Age. In a game where the puzzle-solving mechanics are front-and-center, just slightly more prominent than the story, it was troubling to me that I never really felt lost or stuck as to what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to use a certain item. Found a weird abstract art sculpture? Great! You’d better go put it into that socket that looks oddly like that exact same shape!
The original point-and-click genre was notorious for painful difficulty, especially the King’s Quest series, where not talking to a person that only shows up onscreen for four seconds of the game could potentially cause you to completely fail the game. Even in Schafer’s original games, items were often used in ways that had you combining them with one or two others in concoctions that involved very off-the-wall logic. There’s really none of that present here, though – as long as you pick everything up and fully converse with all of the characters, there’s never any real point that will stretch your mind’s limits or even really push you in any way. Even a harder difficulty option would have been nice, but instead you should find yourself waltzing through the entire game with no real challenge.
In an era where indie and crowdfunding games are increasingly becoming more of a presence in the industry, I find it very encouraging that someone like Tim Schafer can return in full force and still find a huge audience. Broken Age is evident of the fact that even though there are still a few very clear hiccups from his team’s attempt to leap headfirst back into adventure gaming, the overall comedy, uniqueness, and colorful nature of Schafer’s writing and creative style is still unmatched in the industry, even today. The breathtaking visual art, heartwarming story, and immense love that was put into designing this first half clearly sets it apart from many others, even if it’s not quite of the highest caliber yet. Hopefully Act Two will rectify those mistakes when it drops later this year and set Schafer at the top of the mountain again.
If you want a game that is funny, beautiful, and immensely engrossing, even if it doesn’t challenge you, I would highly recommend Broken Age. In an overall, objective sense, I give Broken Age: Act 1 a B+.