Broken Age: Act 1 [Review]
Broken Age: Act 1 just looks gorgeous. Its children’s book aesthetic and hand-painted look make the game irresistibly charming to look at — something that absolutely belies the dark events that are going on throughout its first chapter. Looking at screens won’t tell you this, nor will Tim Schafer’s characteristic sense of humor that runs through the work, but some terrible things are happening to the characters you’ll play as. It’s interesting that a game can both horrify me while bringing a smile to my face almost within the same moment, but through incredible care and a steady hand, Double Fine Productions has created a narrative like few others I’ve ever experienced. If you can handle something that is simultaneously wonderful and tragic, Broken Age: Act 1 will leave you in awe. Assuming you can handle point-and-click puzzle logic from one of the original greats of the genre, that is.
Make no mistake, this is an old-school point-and-click adventure game, so expect to smash head-first into times when you’ll have no idea what to do. At the very start of the girl’s (Vella) adventure, I had to find a knife. I don’t want to talk about how long I had to look for that knife considering the whole puzzle could be solved in a single room. Don’t expect a hint system or item highlighting to save you, as the game is perfectly willing to let you languish, internally debating whether you’ll crack and look up that walkthrough. This will happen a few times throughout the game, although nowhere near as many times as it would during many of the classic point-and-click adventure games. When it does, though, don’t expect any help from the game. You’re on your own, kids.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t do an excellent job of conveying what you need to do, as important items are almost always obvious in the environment. I’ve played many point-and-click games where important objects just get lost in all the clutter of the game’s visuals, but Broken Age: Act 1 has a very sharp art style that relies more on large, striking objects than filling the game with small details. As such, when something stands out in the environment, odds are good you can grab it and do something with it. The game uses its art style to show players what’s important rather than making them guess; naturally drawing the eye over to what they should be interacting with. I still missed a handful of objects in the game, but I was amazed at how naturally I could pick out what was important most of the time.
While I did know what I could pick up and interact with, there are some weird item combinations that reminded me why this genre could drive me crazy. Some later game puzzles are solved by using items in some bizarre ways; many of which are perfectly in keeping with the game’s sense of humor, but still required that I try everything on everything once I got stuck. This doesn’t happen all that often, though, and the game felt like it was teaching me its weird mindset as I moved along. When I hit a point where a tree was giving me a hard time about not giving me some sap, I somehow managed to pick up on the fact that I needed to make it throw up. That’s a weird conclusion to come to, but through careful design, Broken Age had me thinking that way.
You’d better learn how to think like an old school point-and-click fan fast, though, as there are timed areas that pop up. At least, they felt like they were timed, as I didn’t actually hold out long enough to fail the ones that showed up. These sequences have really bad things going on around you while you try to find the puzzle solution, and they seemed to be happening independently of what I was doing. There was one point where the people I was talking to were being taken away while I tried to figure out what to do, and they seemed to be disappearing with odd timing that didn’t make me feel like they were just being pulled once I got the right solution. It was a delightful infusion of tension whether I had any reason to feel it or not, and broke up some of the monotony I get while playing point-and-click games. There weren’t many of these sequences, which was a downer, and I hope there’s more of them in later chapters.
I got lucky in those sequences, as the characters in them were giving me clues on what to do with very careful wordplay, as they did everywhere else in the game. Tim Schaffer’s characteristic oddball humor is in full effect here, so it was fun and enjoyable to talk to all of the characters (Particularly the woodsman as he talked about stools. STOOL. Get it? Because I am five years old). While it’s fun to listen to them, these characters often also give clues that you’ll miss if you aren’t paying attention, something that felt a lot more elegant than the hint systems in many modern point-and-click games. I often found that the game had practically been offering me the solutions I’d been looking for the whole time, but I’d missed them by not paying enough attention. It really was my own fault when I screwed up some of those harder puzzles, but I doubt I’ll be the only one. For those who are far more attentive than me, though, you’ll find everything you need to complete the game through its charming dialogue.
I have every right to have been distracted though, since I was looking at the game’s gorgeous art style. Broken Age: Act 1 does looks like a children’s book in motion, with a very striking art style and character design that makes it stand out. Characters all have a unique look to them, changing depending upon themes for specific areas or other weird quirks. The boy’s (Shay) quest takes place on a space ship that was clearly designed to house a baby, and because of that you end up with a crew of knitted creatures and controls that look like they should be swinging over a crib. Every detail of the ship reflects this design idea, creating a location that look good while clinging to a silly theme that made it extremely memorable and fun to look at.
Vella’s quest takes place over several of these environments as well, each with its own fun look. The dresses each character wore to the Maiden’s Feast near the beginning were all made to look like cakes of some sort with their own neat flourishes, and really made the whole scene stand out for me, especially when terrible things began to happen. Again, you see this weird mixture of beauty that makes the horrible events that come all the more terrible. Also, this may be the first and only time I’ll ever mention how much I like the dress design in anything, ever. That same care goes into later places and events, such as the city in the clouds where all the people had their own unique style of dress and appearance. Many of them appeared to mimic birds, but some had nothing to do with animals at all, instead just shooting for a ‘light’ look. It’s hard to describe, but these outfits just looked light and airy, as if they belonged in a kingdom in the clouds.
It’s stunning to see just how much effort went into each location and character in this game. There are no two places that look alike, but there are also no two people who do, either. Every person you run into during the game looks completely different from anyone else, and has been given special care in their design, dialogue, and personality. So much work went into this game’s presentation that I spent a long time just walking around watching the world around me, seeing the people talking to each other and laughing. I don’t think I’ve seen anything with this much work put into its visuals, so if you’re wondering where all of your kickstarter money went, boot it up and you won’t be left wondering for long.
The music was quite nice as well, providing a delightful backdrop to things. It shifted subtly from light and goofy to dark and serious, helping maintain the mood without ever becoming overbearing. I like something a little more powerful if I ever intend to take the game’s soundtrack on the road, but Broken Age: Act 1‘s soundtrack would be a wonderful companion for a relaxing afternoon. I could turn it on and just feel my troubles melt away.
Voice acting was very well done, but then again, it’s voiced by some big names. Jennifer Hale, Wil Wheaton, Elijah Wood, Pendleton Ward, and Jack Black all make appearances and voice their characters wonderfully. It’s nice to see that kind of effort put into the voice acting, as I’d rather the game go without any voice at all if the only alternative is to use people with no skill at it. For example, Face Noir had absolutely terrible voice acting, and would have been improved had it just asked me to read the text instead. Broken Age: Act 1 does not disappoint here, providing me with a cast that breathes life into the images on the screen. I can practically feel Jennifer Hale smiling behind the image of the Mother Computer.
Those voices really helped strengthen an already-great story for me. Broken Age: Act 1‘s first chapter is an odd one, taking place over the life of a boy on a space ship and that of a young woman heading for an important feast. Their lives seem innocent enough as the game begins, and Shaffer’s humor grinds that point home, but it wasn’t long before my smile turned to a look of concern and shock as the game’s true story came into effect. Even so, the game never fully casts off its humor, something that makes all of these events seem so much more real to me. My family has always dealt with horrific events with humor, and as such I felt an incredible connection with this game and what went on. The world is a ridiculous place even as it falls into ruin, after all, and few games have captured that as well as Broken Age: Act 1.
How easy would it be to go too far, though? Too much humor would seem flippant and disrespectful to the terrible things going on, but too little would make the game more tragic and dark. The game hits just the right balance between the two, telling a story that is fun and silly while still setting up for the dark things that occur. It really is something to see, and an amazing story overall.
While some of the classic point-and-click elements and lack of modern concessions might scare some people off, it’s really worth sticking out Broken Age: Act 1. The game has a subtle way of dropping hints on what to do that attentive players will pick up on, one that is far more elegant than having a clunky hint system. Beyond that, the art style helps guide the way while it provides some truly beautiful visuals, all accompanied by a great voice cast and soothing, fun music. It’s a real gift to point-and-click fans, and I am already jonesing to play the next chapter after the cliffhanger ending of this one.
Broken Age: Act 1 is available as a season pass for $24.99 on Steam.