By: Mike Chen
Broken Age is Tim Schafer’s return to adventure game design, and it reinforces the notion that Schafer’s storytelling and world-building abilities are among the best in the business. Its old-school pacing and puzzles aren’t for everyone, but for gamers looking for an immersive story and outside-the-box solutions, Broken Age is a treasure.
As a throwback to the ’90s heyday of adventure games, Broken Age‘s controls will look extremely familiar to anyone who played LucasArts games from that time. It’s a point-and-click interface, with the icon changing from crosshair to circle when you can interact with an object/person.
The left analog moves the crosshair like a mouse while the right analog locks on between the screen’s clickable objects. Dialogue trees are taken directly from the old LucasArts system rather than the newer style of TellTale/Bioware. In most cases, all you need is the X button.
Inventory control is the only hiccup in the game. Inventory is brought up by bringing the cursor to the bottom of the screen. The square button lets you examine the object while also selecting it. However, changing the item you want to use can be a bit of a pain; the Left/Right buttons can cycle through, but just clearing your cursor of an inventory object or switching to another one without combining objects leads to some frustrated clicking.
This is one area that feels built for tablet play rather than taking the old-school management, and, rather than streamlining it, it makes it clunkier.
Broken Age looks like a children’s picture book come to life. From the distinct look of the characters to the painted backgrounds, all of the visual details are exquisitely made, and any screenshot from the game could double as a piece of art.
While this generation has seen plenty of intensely realistic character models and lighting systems, Broken Age (having been released on everything from Android to PS4) wins for having a clear, distinct art style and getting the most out of it.
The game’s voice acting works just as well. There are celebrity voices (Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Wil Wheaton), but they’re natural and fit the characters rather than being wink-wink-nudge-nudge moments.
This is all topped off with a musical score that is equal parts whimsy and bittersweet, which keeps with the theme of the game. All in all, Broken Age is a treat for the senses.
Broken Age is from Tim Schafer, a developer whose adventure game pedigree includes genre legends The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. This echoes throughout Broken Age in both area design and puzzles. If you’re a fan of those titles, then Broken Age was made with deep affection for gamers like you.
However, it’s not just a nostalgia-fest despite its throwback control scheme. Good adventure games are equal parts character, story and puzzles, and Broken Age succeeds on all three levels. To say too much about the story would be a disservice to players, but the basic gist is this: Shay and Velouria (someone at Double Fine is a Pixies fan) are two teens living completely different lives but trapped by their family history.
Shay is stuck on a spaceship that is literally coddling him to death, and Velouria is selected to be a sacrifice for a monster threatening her village. Their separate stories lead to a convergence at the end of Act 1, and gameplay continues to switch between the two. Should you get stuck on one character’s path, you can always move on to the other’s by clicking their icon in the inventory menu.
Their stories and the world of Broken Age is filled with humor and whimsy, kind of like the salesmen-toting pirate universe of Monkey Island. However, this is all colored with an undercurrent of bittersweet, which creates a gravitas not found in Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion/Day of the Tentacle. It’s unexpected but welcome, and it helps the stories stick in your brain literally five minutes after you start each character.
Years ago, TellTale Games carried the flag for adventure games. With episodic revivals of Sam & Max and Monkey Island, their catalog kept the genre alive. Then with the (much-deserved) success of The Walking Dead, they became publishers of interactive fiction rather than adventure games, and any sort of puzzle elements are simplistic “use A for B” tropes at best.
Broken Age’s puzzles feel like they were designed in the LucasArts era. While being both clever and absurd, they’re (most importantly) not always obvious and require some lateral thinking to get the job done. There’s a certain satisfaction in solving a puzzle that isn’t immediately obvious or easy, but one that makes so much sense when you do accomplish it.
Broken Age is an exquisite throwback to ’90s adventure gaming, but rather than just being a nostalgia trip, it stands on its own with an excellent combination of art, storytelling and old-school puzzles. It’s one of Tim Schafer’s finest, and that’s saying something.