Broken Age is more than a coming of age story. It’s two coming of age stories. One is the story of a teenage girl battling both a monster and social norms, the other about a coddled teenage boy looking to escape the over-protection of his computerized mother.
Broken Age is a point and click adventure reminiscent of Sam & Max.You travel from screen to screen clicking on interactive pieces of the scenery, which will produce lines of dialogue or give you a new item that will be used to progress the story when used properly. You can speak with various NPCs and choose from lines of dialogue which trigger different cutscenes. Some of these options are for world building and humor and some are necessary to advance the plot.
The two playable characters are Vella and Shay. Each have their own storyline but players can switch between the two at any time, which gives each story only as much focus as you choose. If you wanted to, you could even play just one character’s story and ignore the other, though you’ll be missing out on half the game.
Vella is a teenage girl from a town of former warriors who have given up their warring ways in favor of baking. Every 14 years a beast named Mog Chothra arrives to neighboring towns, including hers. To appease this beast the townsfolk conduct the Maiden’s Feast, where selected girls are dressed up to be appetizing snacks for Mog Chothra. Vella has been chosen as one of the maidens to bring honor to her family by being devoured for the sake of her town. This does not sit well with her, as she believes the beast can be fought instead.
While this can be seen as a sensationalist plot taking advantage of current social issues, it is handled tastefully throughout the game and is free of the blatant black-and-white strawmanning and stereotyping that many other stories, such as Bioshock Infinite, webcomics like Sinfest, and to an extent the Disney film Mulan, tend to fall back on. Vella is not portrayed as an unstoppable, do-no-wrong heroine with a rebellious attitude, and the Maiden’s Feast is not portrayed as an evil act run by an over-dominant ruling class or cartoonish stereotypes. In fact, Vella’s grandfather is the only other person in Broken Age who shares her distaste for the Maiden’s Feast, and it’s her grandmother who sees the ritual as something to be celebrated. Analysis aside, Vella’s story at its core is one of standing against societal norms for what you believe is right.
Shay is a teenage boy living in a spaceship that is fully controlled by an intelligent, human-like AI that serves as his mother, complete with a face and showering of praise, love, and affection. This controlled environment keeps Shay completely safe from any form of danger, with the unintentional effect of making him bored and cynical. Shay is often sent to handle “heroic rescues” such as saving yarn people from non-lethal ice cream avalanches, and is often fed nutrient rich paste for dinner. It’s difficult to go into detail with Shay’s adventure without revealing plot twists, but he essentially wants to escape from an overbearing AI of a mother, experience a little danger, and earn his praise rather than having it handed to him.
If this is meant to be a crack at the lack of difficulty in modern games, it’s very hypocritical. Broken Age’s puzzles, both in style and difficulty, can be compared to Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo. Many puzzles revolve around finding items in the scenery, then using or trading an item for a new one in order to get the tools necessary to advance the plot. Other puzzles are about choosing the right lines of dialogue to trigger plot necessary cutscenes. Often figuring out the correct item interaction is heavily spoonfed, and the right line of dialogue can be found through trial and error. At times it can feel like you’re simply going through instructed motions rather than solving puzzles. Broken Age clearly has a focus on presentation and writing over challenging the player. While the lack of challenge doesn’t ruin the game, it would’ve been nice to have separate difficulties set up for those who want a story focused game or want to experience harder puzzles.
Despite the lack of difficulty the story of Broken Age is what keeps you playing. The separate worlds of Vella and Shay are unique and varied enough that no two areas feel the same. Each location you visit is vastly different from the last. The writing and voice acting is charming enough that you may not want to go for the correct dialogue choice right away so you can learn more about the world and its characters instead.
Elijah Wood’s voice acting makes Shay’s cynical, sarcastic personality shine without coming off as monotone. Vella’s voice actor Masasa Moyo however comes off as plain and lifeless. Despite Moyo’s extensive experience in video game voice acting her performance doesn’t bring out Vella’s personality in a noticeable way, leaving the script to do most of the work. Other notable people such as Jack Black, Wil Wheaton, and Richard Horowitz lend their voices to the game and play their parts well.
The art style is unique and well defined. No character looks out of place in their environment, and the entire world exudes creativity, given life through an attention to detail that gives the whole game a unique flair to call its own. While opinions on the art style are subjective, the animation is incredibly fluid and really helps the characters emit more emotion through body language. The characters are more defined when they express emotion rather than just speak it. It’s clear most of that $3.3 million went into the animation budget.
Broken Age is on the short side. Exploring all cutscenes should have you beating the game in around four hours. While that doesn’t sound like much, once part two comes out there should be an approximate eight hours or so of gameplay, which is longer than many retail titles these days.
It’s difficult to judge such a plot heavy game that is really only half out. But from what we have Broken Age is a game that focuses heavily on its presentation and writing rather than challenging the player, but excels in presentation to the point where you feel like you’re playing a game connecting the scenes of an animated film. Those looking for a classically challenging adventure game will not find it here, but those who want to experience a whimsical, well written story with a unique artstyle will be very pleased. With part two hopefully we can expect more of the same, though maybe with a bit more challenge.