The first thing I’ll say about Broken Age is that I strongly recommend not reading any reviews for it prior to playing. This is a game that reveals itself in some really wonderful ways as you progress, and I feel that would benefit by knowing as little as possible. Double Fine have created one of 2015’s truly great games – one that will be talked about for years – and given the fact that it’s available to play on almost every platform under the sun, there’s no excuse to not jump in and experience it.
However, given this is a site that reviews games, and given this is one of the best games of the year, we’re going to do a review. I’ll try and be as spoiler free as possible, but as mentioned, this really is a game that is best discovered yourself.
Broken Age starts with a screen presenting the two playable characters – Vella and Shay – sitting in their respective worlds. Shay sits on his bed in a spaceship, Vella sits relaxing under a tree on a hill overlooking her town. Selecting either character takes you on the first steps of their exciting journey. One side presents a world filled with bizarre cults and sacrificial maiden feasts, the other a world of over protective parents and helper robots.
At its core, Broken Age is an adventure game in the strain of the Monkey Island series. For the most part, you’ll play as either Shay or Vella progressing through dialogue trees and solving some fairly basic puzzles. Act 2 delivers a couple of real head-scratching puzzles, but fortunately nothing too taxing. Whilst I opted to play through each character’s story completely before swapping over to the other character, you have the capability to swap characters at any time. This is great if you happen to get stuck on one puzzle, as you can simply swap over to the other character until you figure out the solution. It’s like an in-game version of ‘sleeping on it’ that helps with progression, and always makes you feel like you’re moving forward in the game.
Why is it fortunate that the puzzles are not too taxing? Because the story at the core of Broken Age is so damn great. It reads as if Double Fine is well aware of the story quality to the point that they dialled back on the exceptionally difficult puzzles in order to push forward a compelling story-driven game. Whilst I see this as a positive, many may not, as there is not much in the way of pure gameplay here – much of the progression coming from dialogue. To give you an idea how much ‘gameplay’ and puzzle solving there actually is, there is a trophy/achievement for completing the game in under an hour by skipping cut scenes and dialogue trees.
That brings me to my core reason for loving this game – there simply is no other format in which this story can be told. At first, I felt the game was presenting a story that could have been out of a Haruki Murakami novel or that could be presented in a film or miniseries, but as I progressed I realised that it was telling a unique story that could only be told through the medium of video games. Tim Schafer is considered one of gaming’s great auteurs, and with his vision, Broken Age manages to become something a lot more than ‘just another adventure game’.
Why is that? Well, it’s because in a book or a film it’s easier to take an omnipresent look at the story being told, whereas in a game, you as the player are responsible for the character’s actions. Whether male or female, human or alien, it’s easier to become attached to these characters as you assist them through their journey. However, in order to achieve this, the characters need to be supported by great writing and a great plot. Superb visuals and enjoyable gameplay also helps as well. Broken Age has all of these elements in spades.
Where other games either struggle to create strong female characters or simply make a series of lame excuses as to why they can’t include a female character in the game, Broken Age drops in one of video games strongest female characters. Vella stands up for herself and for others – even if they don’t accept what she’s trying to do for them. Perhaps it’s my political left side shining through here, but I loved seeing a character that stood up for the rights of those who disagree with her.
Her intelligence is demonstrated through some of the simply superb dialogue options. Too often in games where the player is given dialogue choices for the main character, the options presented don’t fit with the character’s motivation. A nice, caring character may sometimes have a line of dialogue available to the player that presents them as an absolute dick – an action that is completely out of character. Not in Broken Age. Every dialogue choice feels completely in character and follows a logical progression.
Broken Age is not just a game with a solid female character though, it also has a great male character in Shay. Shay is a character whose progression throughout the game is truly wonderful to experience. Shay grows from being a mollycoddled, naïve boy, into a smart, considerate, and thoughtful boy. The emotional journey he goes on helps to reinforce the feeling of acceptance and understanding that Broken Age pushes.
Throwing around big words like ‘themes’ and ‘feelings’ makes it sound like this is a game that is maudlin and depressing, but it’s quite the opposite. This is one of the most hilarious games I’ve played in a while. The side characters are simply a joy to interact with. The yarn buddies who Shay has to save in various situations are just downright comedic gems. The comedy here is so varied that there’s bound to be something in this game that tickles your funny bone. There’s situational comedy, there’s observational comedy, there’s slapstick comedy, there’s great word play, there’s stoner comedy. Hell, there’s even a fat joke that’s both hilarious and not demeaning to fat people!
What Tim Schafer has managed to do with Broken Age is something that many other games developers and filmmakers have tried and failed at – creating an engaging and interesting story that is driven by comedy. The old adage goes that drama is easy to get right, while comedy is very hard to get right. That’s even more relevant in a game. If you want to build tension or create conflict, that’s quite easy to do, but to create comedy from this tension and conflict is quite difficult and understandably a fine line to tread. Schafer masterfully walks that line by being able to build tension and create conflict, whilst at the same time showcasing some fine comedic timing.
There are a few small complaints that I have that didn’t really detract from the enjoyment of the game, but still did provide a small element of frustration. In some sections later in the game, the dialogue suddenly dropped out. Fortunately I was playing with subtitles on, so I didn’t miss what was said, but it was still frustrating nonetheless.
I played Broken Age on my PS4 and PS Vita. I had hoped to be able to utilise the cross-save feature quite extensively as this is one very beautiful looking game on the big screen; however, the cross-save feature was not something that was easily implemented into the game. If I saved the game on my PS4, then my PS Vita was not able to read the PS4 save unless I forced it to. This made cross saving a mountain of effort that simply wasn’t worth it. I understand that PC, iOS, and Android all support cross save features by utilising Dropbox, but it is not a feature that I was able to try out with my version.
Being a new IP featuring two seemingly separate stories; a game that questions everything from false idols to religion, to how parents raise their children, Broken Age just simply was never going to get funding from a major studio. Throw in the fact that one of the lead characters is a black girl, it’s no wonder that Schafer had to turn to Kickstarter to get backing for this game. Whilst I personally didn’t support the Kickstarter, I’m glad that many did. As I mentioned at the top of the review, Broken Age is a game that I just cannot recommend enough to play.