Tim Schafer is the Tim Burton of video games. He has a unique, recognizable quirk. His work has the imaginative range of Hayao Miyazaki, and the whimsy of Adventure Time. With titles such as Grim Fandango, Costume Quest and Stacking, he’s established himself as an innovative and masterful storyteller. With his latest release, the Kickstarter-funded Broken Age, Act One, he has upheld that reputation and delivered a beautiful piece of gaming.
Broken Age tells the stories of two teenagers from two completely different worlds. First, we have Shay, a “space adventurer” who lives on a ship made for infants, cared for by an overprotective AI that thinks it’s his mother. Then we have Vella, a beautiful girl who will soon be sacrificed to a monster called Mog Chothra for the safety of her village, Sugar Bunting, in a ritual that’s gone on for generations known as the Maiden’s Feast.
In one sense, these coming-of-age stories are the same. Both characters are trapped in dull routine and tradition, and they do what they can to escape. On the other hand, they share subtle contrasts that lend depth to the game. Shay is a boy, and Vella a girl. Shay’s story is sci-fi, and Vella’s fantasy. Shay doesn’t know real danger, while Vella endures too much of it. Shay is coddled by his “mother,” but Vella’s parents are more than eager (and proud, even) to offer her up for sacrifice.
Broken Age marks Schafer’s return to the point-and-click adventure format. You mix items, interact with the environment, and talk to characters. Not much new on that front. The gimmick comes in with the player’s ability to switch between Shay and Vella at any time – a handy feature when you’re stuck on a puzzle. That won’t happen often though, as this is quite an easy game. With so few objects to interact with and not many items to mix, most puzzles can be solved by a simple process of elimination.
But I don’t think Schafer was after difficulty here. Broken Age is all about telling a story. The 2D art style is wonderful, and the music – which ranges from noir to classical – is gorgeous. Jack Black and Elijah Wood join a tremendous cast of voice actors who give life to a variety of characters, each of them unique and endearing, with dialogue that contains the sharp wit we’ve come to expect from Schafer. He’s in fine, fine form here.
I worry some might be put off by that difficulty level though. Why play a puzzle game if it isn’t too challenging? A fine point for the hardcore puzzler – and I’d understand if they didn’t like the game for this reason – but I ask them to take a different perspective. While some of the game’s puzzles are indeed maddening, Broken Age is primarily a game for appreciation. It is an interactive piece of art. The story, the characters, the visuals – they’re Pixar-level quality. It’s a painting or a symphony in which you move around and explore.
We’ve seen this trend in gaming in titles such as Limbo and Journey. They’re meant to be finished in one sitting (Broken Age is approximately six hours long) and entertain with a story, just as Pixar movies do. The narrative flow would be interrupted by puzzles that require an hour. You don’t watch a romantic comedy expecting gunfights. That’s not what it’s after. In the same way, don’t go into an “art game” expecting much challenge or competition. It has different goals.
For the right kind of player, Broken Age is pure gold. Some might find it a bit too easy overall, but at roughly six hours long, that shouldn’t prevent them from savoring a wonderful story full of funny, lovable characters. The visuals, music and dialogue are top-notch, some of the best in a while, and Tim Schafer upholds his reputation as one of the industry’s premier developers. For anyone who still doubts the potential of video games to be art, Broken Age is proof positive.