Broken Age Act 1 feels like the start of something really interesting. It's scene-setting for what's to come, but it's well-handled and feels somewhat necessary. Act 1 is laying an essential foundation, providing the requisite intrigue and foreshadowing needed to make Act 2 as good as it promises to be. This first part of Double Fine's new adventure game serves as an excellent introduction to an intriguing and wonderful new world, and though it feels like half a game, there's still enough here to make it worth your time.
Broken Age Act 1 - Setup
Broken Age is set up like a conventional point-and-click adventure game - you use your mouse to navigate the environment, find items and use them. You can examine the items in your inventory, and you will have to combine some items to solve puzzles. It's nothing new, but it is this familiarity that adds to the game's charm. It's all entirely purposeful and adds a sense of nostalgia, as well as illustrating that this formula still works in the modern-day.
The driving force behind Broken Age's conception was a return to Tim Schafer doing what he is most known for. That being old-school adventure games like Monkey Island. Broken Age harkens back to these but welcomes certain modern tropes that current players take for granted. The end result of this is a game that carries the appeal of an old adventure game, and that plays to the strengths of that formula, but doesn't fall into the pitfalls that the genre often does (or at least rarely falls).
Broken Age Act 1 - Accessibility
Despite its old-school heritage, Broken Age is really accessible. The key point is that it doesn't require the obtuse and often busted logic that point-and-click games are known to have. The adventure game framework just provides an excellent way to tell the story the game wants to tell at the pace it wants to, and this works wonders. Though Broken Age is a puzzle-based game, the puzzles aren't hugely taxing. The appeal here is the world and the characters, and the genre trappings really allow those parts to shine.
The story centers around two characters whose tales are split into two separate campaigns. Vella is a native of Sugar Bunting, where tradition demands she must offer herself up to a fearsome monster as food so that the town will not be ravaged. Shay is a bored teenager, he lives on a spaceship that hops around the galaxy, and his only companions are AIs. Each character is very different, but there is a connective tissue between the pair. Both find themselves in the way of life that they want to break out of, a situation they are supposed to accept but refuse to. Vella's rebellion is far more interesting and speaks more to her character, whereas Shay seems rather passive - compelled by boredom as opposed to Vella's somewhat moral stance.
Broken Age Act 1 - Puzzles
Though each character has a separate set of levels, you can move between them at any point. Get stuck on a puzzle as Vella? Play as Shay for a bit while you work it out in the back of your mind. The ability to do this adds a nice juxtaposition and fluidity to the game but is completely optional. Playing through each separately works perfectly well, if not better because each tale is moderately self-contained. At this stage, there is no story or gameplay reason to swap, though having any time swapping as a part of the game opens up some interesting possibilities for the second act.
The core story of the game itself is off to a strong start. Though this is mostly setting the stage for things to come, it's all very interesting from the get-go. The universe Double Fine has created is enchanting and a joy to be in, full of superbly written witty characters and permeated by darker themes bubbling under the surface. There's joviality to the game, a whimsy, but this is counterbalanced with sinister undertones. There is a pervading theme of childish innocence compared to the real world, and though nothing is explicitly revealed yet, the undertones and foreshadowing make it clear that there are darker days ahead. The game is headed in a very interesting direction, and Act 1 sets it up for this destination perfectly.
Broken Age Act 1 - Graphics
The most obviously appealing part of Broken Age is the visual design. The art style is just magnificent, it feels like a storybook coming to life, and the overall look is just beautiful. Environments are brilliantly detailed, and everything down to the simple yet attractive interface ensures that this new adventure is a joy to look at. This is complemented by superb sound design, including consistently excellent (and always appropriate) music and great voice acting from an all-star cast. Though this is only half a game, this half feels completely polished and finished. Just on a story basis, the world is appealing. However, the superb presentation of this game really seals the deal, making it thoroughly enchanting.
Though some may complain about the abrupt cliffhanger ending (which will leave you wanting more in a good and a bad way), the only real issue with Broken Age is in its gameplay. Though the refinements made to an old formula are welcome, this game fluctuates between feeling excellent, obtuse, or just too simple. As previously mentioned, the game never gets particularly difficult, but some of the puzzles require steps that don't make as much sense as they should. There's a degree of trial and error which could be better handled, and there is a small amount of missable content that makes later puzzles seem briefly impossible. Certain items just don't seem germane at the time and are not obviously attainable, yet are required for use far down the line. This is a rare occurrence, but when it crops up, it can be annoying. This issue may not rear its head for all players, but sometimes when you solve a puzzle, you feel fortunate that you stumbled across a solution when you did and are very aware that could not have been the case.
Broken Age Act 1 - A Little Frustration
Some of the game's puzzles are interesting, but none are particularly complex or memorable. They aren't as intricate as they can be in the genre, but this is a good thing to some extent. Past adventure games had really clever puzzles, but they were clever in terms of the solution itself, not in regard to the puzzle process. Working them out was often not entertaining and rather frustrating. There's a sense and flow to the puzzles in Broken Age, you can piece things together ahead of time, and it sticks to weird but sensical logic.
Puzzles serve the story rather than the story being a vehicle to present you with clever challenges. You may not remember the specifics of how you did something, but this process makes the end result shine brighter. The puzzle design isn't always as straightforward as it could be tough. You will stumble upon things by accident, but when you do them, they usually make perfect sense. The game doesn't roadblock you much, and while there is some arduous pixel hunting at points, the game is mostly a joy to play through.
Act 1 of Broken Age is a very solid start. It's an excellent opening that leaves a lot of room for something to really flip the script over and excel all expectations. The story is left in an interesting place, and foreshadowing is cleverly done so as to make you feel that you can work things out whilst still leaving you intrigued as to the real solution. This fairytale start is a wonderful beginning to what could be a modern-day adventure game classic, it's only hampered by some gameplay issues and the fact that it does feel like half a game. The cliffhanger is effective, but with a good amount of time to wait and no solid date for Act 2, the momentum created here may well have dissipated by the time the main course comes. However, don't let this stop you from stepping into the enchanting world of Broken Age.
This review was originally published on 01-28-2014. While care has been taken to update the piece to reflect our modern style guidelines, some of the information may be out of date. We've left pieces like this as they were to reflect the original authors' opinions, and for historical context.