Tim Schafer’s first adventure game in 15 years is, in the most literal sense, fan service. Broken Age has been funded by players with fond memories of LucasArts’ golden era and built on the promises made to them in what turned out to be a defining, and record-breaking, Kickstarter campaign. The result is that the first chapter of Broken Age lives up to its title: an anachronistic mix of tradition and innovation that feels somewhat out of step in a post-The Walking Dead world.
But that’s entirely the point. This a game that probably wouldn’t exist had it not swerved around any kind of publisher involvement; a return to the kind of point-and-click that fell out of mainstream favour even before Grim Fandango, Schafer’s prior adventure (and commonly accepted swansong for a genre). But while Broken Age might be mechanically predictable for the most part, its tale of rebellion, self-discovery and cowardly lumberjacks is as deliciously off-kilter as any of its forebears.
As in Day Of The Tentacle, you juggle more than one protagonist throughout the game, each finding themselves trapped in their own peculiar nightmare. Vella (voiced by Massasa Moyo) has come of age and is to take part in the 14-yearly Maiden’s Feast, offering herself up as sacrifice to the great beast Mog Chothra to bring honour to her family. Vella doesn’t understand why the fellow residents of Sugar Bunting, a once-proud town of warriors, don’t share her feelings about fighting the maiden-gobbling creature instead of feeding it. At least her grandfather’s on side.
Elijah Wood’s Shay, meanwhile, lives on the incubator vessel Bassa Nostra, a kind of lifeboat that carried him to safety after the death of his home planet. He spends his days under the extremely careful watch of a cosseting parental computer whose sole purpose is to keep him safe. He tries to stave off boredom by rescuing sentient Yarn buddies (knitted for him by the computer) from staged disasters such as ice-cream avalanches and hug attacks, but it’s not enough.
Neither Vella nor Shay can relate to the world they’ve grown up in, and both yearn for escape. By rejecting the accepted norms of their respective existences, they find themselves embarking on two very different adventures. Each is related to the other, but not necessarily in ways you might expect. You can switch between characters at any time, which ensures there’s always more than one puzzle to mull over. But the game does a good job of opening its puzzles out into nonlinear triplets as often as possible; Broken Age feels supremely confident in its story’s worth, so much so that it hardly ever tries to hold you up. We only struggled with one puzzle, a problem involving fruit and underwear, but that was down to us trying to be too clever. Genre stalwarts might be disappointed by the lack of challenge (even the placement of objects is mostly local to the relevant puzzle), but the draw of LucasArts’ adventures was always their characters, not conundrums, and in this respect Broken Age doesn’t disappoint.
Along the way you’ll encounter a self-deluding cult leader voiced by Jack Black, Wil Wheaton’s aforementioned lumberjack, an incredible turn from David Kaufman as a mysterious wolf who appears to have mistaken Broken Age for the Wes Anderson project he should have been on, and Gus, given adorable life by Pendleton Ward.
Double Fine drew flack for the all-star cast it assembled for the game – or rather its imagined share of the budget – when it was revealed that Broken Age would be released in two parts because the studio needed more time and money to finish it. But their presence, allied to the quality of writing on display, feels entirely justified. It’s a joy to listen to every line (at least the first time around), so entering into a dialogue tree never feels like a chore. Broken Age’s tone feels, for the most part, more subtle than that of Day Of The Tentacle or even Monkey Island, its script closer to the amusing snark of Full Throttle and Grim Fandango. But that just gives the jokes more headroom. And don’t panic, there’s still plenty of space for a series of excellent stool gags.
Schafer has expressed reservations about incorporating traditional dialogue trees, but they remained in place due to the promises made to the project’s passionate Kickstarter community. The team has tinkered with other areas of the game, however. There’s no list of verb actions to choose from, for a start, instead replaced by a context-sensitive cursor that handles every interaction for you. It also helps mitigate any long waits for a character to walk from one end of a scene to another by displaying one arrow when hovering over an exit, but then a pair of arrows once clicked; click again, and you’ll instantly appear in the next scene. The two characters’ adventures feel subtly different, too, Vella engaging in more conversations and combining more objects, while Shay dabbles in pattern matching and even minigames.
Double Fine’s adventure is confident and charming, the studio feeling its way to a comfortable mid-point between the desires of adventure-game fans and its own motivation to move the genre forward – even if only by a small increment. Broken Age is unlikely to convert detractors, then, but for those of us who grew up with Bernard, Ben, Manny et al, it feels like coming home.