For the first time since 1998’s Grim Fandango and with the help of the Kickstarter community, Tim Schafer returns to direct a story-heavy point-and-click adventure game. Broken Age feels at once familiar to fans of the genre, and accessible to those who have never played a game of the kind. The game world is influenced by clicking on objects and characters, listening to extensive dialogue and solving puzzles. Though short, this is only the first act of the game; the second act is due out sometime later this year as free DLC. After playing the roughly 4-hour-long first chapter, it’s going to be hard having to wait for the second.
In Broken Age players switch between its two playable characters and two very different narratives at will. Though the ties between the characters are not immediately apparent, they share many traits. They’re both very strong-willed, though one is far more mature than the other. Both, as we all do at that age, think of themselves as far more grown-up than they really are. Above all, they both long for adventure; they long to see what is just beyond the walls that bind them.
Shay, played by Elijah Wood, is a boy in his mid teens with the very epitome of a “smother”. He lives in a world controlled entirely by his mum: she feeds him, she bathes him, she watches every single thing that he does. Oh, and did I mention that she is an Artificial Intelligence piloting a spaceship through the galaxy with the apparent sole purpose of keeping Shay safe? His life is like a kid’s TV show on endless repeat. He spends his days embarking on simulated “missions” that would have thrilled a younger child; but the teenage Shay no longer finds much enjoyment in rescuing stuffed animals from ice cream avalanches.
Masasa Moyo plays Vella, a modern mind in a village that is stuck in the past. Her lakeside town of Sugarbunting is a pristine picture of municipality, their economy literally driven by the art of pastry. The only issue of course is that every 14 years, the fairest maidens of Sugarbunting are sacrificed to the giant monster Mog Chothra in order to appease his great hunger. Vella’s family could not be more proud of her, being chosen as a sacrifice is quite an honor after all, but Vella isn’t convinced that human sacrifice is the answer. She longs to fight the great beast and spare herself and the other maidens, but few citizens of Sugarbunting agree, many thinking her insane for suggesting it.
Jack Black, Will “Wesley Crusher” Wheaton, Grey Delisle, Pendleton Ward and more round out the game’s impressive voice cast, all playing distinct and interesting characters. The dialogue is roughly 40% hilarious, 40% touching and 20% dopey. Most of the characters are great and many are truly wonderful, but there are a small few I could do without. The narrative occasionally seems to have a hard time choosing a demographic, slipping in a poop joke in practically the same sentence as it deals with the morality of human sacrifice. The story in general though is fantastic, and one of the most original and unpredictable we’ve seen in recent memory.
Broken Age is like a child’s picture book come to life. Every scene, every character, every little blade of grass is painted and animated beautifully. Double Fine’s lead artist Nathan Stapley brings his recognizable art style to life in a whole new way, replacing polygonal 3D models with painterly 2-dimensional sprites. The world looks anything but flat though, and has layer upon layer of visually enticing and detailed scenery.
Peter McConnell returns as Schafer’s go-to composer for what may be his best score yet. Accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, McConnell takes us on a harmonic journey, the tracks ranging from light and fun to truly sinister sounding, all evoking a true sense of the scene at hand. The range of musical styles and emotions is impressive to say the least, and not a single track is out of place.
The puzzles in the game mostly involve listening to dialogue for hints, then combining items found throughout your adventure to solve a problem. They can be challenging but are never unfair, and the feeling of solving one of the more tricky ones is often truly elating. The music and dialogue work together with the gameplay to add a sense of urgency or comedy to your puzzle solving, making the game heart-racingly immersive at times, and side-splittingly hilarious at others. All of the elements of the game weave together perfectly, never clashing or stepping on the toes of another.
We’ve all felt like the world is against us, like the powers that compel us do not have our best interests in mind. We all do the same thing: we rebel, we fight back with all of our might and almost without fail, we hurt those who love us; it’s part of the process of growing up. It’s also what makes Broken Age so special: its pair of protagonists are genuinely relatable from start to finish, and despite their fantastical surroundings they are undoubtedly human.