Financed by a Kickstarter army of fund-it pundits to the tune of over $3 million, Broken Age is a bespoke graphic adventure like no other. And yet the point of this old-school clique, of course, was to guarantee a game that was just like all those others – old adventures in the grand LucasArts legacy. It should have been nostalgia, made on-demand by Double Fine, but there's more to it; a modern personality.
The delta between what should have been – and what is – lies right in the middle of Broken Age, a sincere story of a boy and a girl breaking free of expectation and tradition. Shay and Vella exist in separated worlds, but you can visit either at any point, funneling your curiosity into the regular point-and-click mold: relaxed exploring, conversing with the locals, and collecting odd inventory objects that are sure to have some weirdly sensible use later. These are the old, uncluttered ways, paired with truly new-feeling art and an irresistible optimism that simply can't be found elsewhere, today or yesterday.
There are a couple of sensible additions to the adventure game pattern, such as a brisk character walking speed and auto-save alongside a manual option, but Broken Age feels fresh because of its two protagonists. Shay and Vella are personable and smart, with big bright eyes and lanky frames with a slight slouch. They speak softly at first, as if masking a sigh over their not-quite-lives. They're on the verge of greatness.
Shay lives in outer space, where he's coddled by computer-generated parents and hologram blankets. Heroic rescue "missions" await him every day, as does a bewildering variety of futuristic cereals. Sugary and obviously manufactured, his adventures put him in terrific non-danger and elevate him to hero status with ease. There's an avalanche made of ice-cream, an attack made of hugs, and adorable, shrill victims made of yarn. Nothing is really made of anything in Shay's Fisher-Price "adventures."
Meanwhile, Vella resides far-off in a village that excels in cupcakes, baguettes and other delicious baked goods (I can't imagine how bad their brunch lines must be). As a matter of tradition, the fine young women of the town are offered as an appetizing, appeasing snack to the Mog Chothra, a bulb-eyed beast of many tendrils. When Vella decides to escape the horrifying (but darkly funny) ritual and exterminate the beast permanently, we cheer at her resolve – while her family is overcome with shame.
This trajectory of escape in Broken Age is made more powerful by the imaginative spin on fantasy, seen in both Shay's futuristic home and Vella's trip to an airy land above the clouds, filled with denizens that have even dropped letters from their names in an attempt to be lighter. More importantly, the writing gives Shay and Vella a chance to break free for themselves and not in reaction to something falling from the sky. If anything, you're the force that fell in from another world, gazing from afar and prodding them to find the odd solutions inherent in all adventure games.
Broken Age does not require severe Adventure Brain to succeed, and this may make it feel overly straightforward or simple to veterans. I did find the puzzles too easy, but it's hard to discern the reason here: Is it because adventure classics like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Sam & Max have permanently warped my brain? Is it because Broken Age has a handful of puzzles on a small scale, rather than several spread in a web of locations and characters like the brilliant Monkey Island 2? Are there too few inventory items? I'm gonna say yes to all of the above, but append one more: Is it because the story does a good job of guiding you, and getting you to think in a way that suits the world before you?
The lack of challenge and a dearth of branching dialogue (sorry – these dialogue trees resemble bamboo shafts) disappoint, yes, but Broken Age always elicits a smile and a desire to continue. It honestly sucks to come to the end of this first act of Broken Age, knowing Vella and Shay have more ahead of them. And that tingling pain? It's your Adventure Brain booting up.
This review is based on a Steam download of Broken Age, provided by Double Fine.
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