Developer Tim Schafer wanted the two acts of Broken Age to be played and reviewed as one piece, but unfortunately I can't do that. Firstly because the two acts came out over a year apart, and secondly because I don't want the poor quality of Act 2 to ruin my extremely fond memories of the first act.
Let's begin with the cost cutting. We all know that Double Fine got into big financial troubles when developing Broken Age due to underestimating their budget, hiring top quality voice actors such as Jack Black, Jennifer Hale, Wil Wheaton and of course Elijah Wood, and throwing lavish parties for the development team. It's more than apparent that all of these costs caused there to be deep cuts in Act 2.
Only 2 new characters have been introduced in this second act, and the whole game plays out almost entirely in just two of the maps from the original. Despite claiming to carry on directly from Act 1, characters have all changed position and activities from the first half with little or no explanation as to why. Vella's family have come all the way to Meriloft from Sugar Bunting, a journey which Vella could only partake in by flying, in a matter of moments with no indication of how they got there.
The interesting and innovative puzzles of Act 1 are replaced with the senseless puzzles of the 90s. Instead of stories developing naturally, you are instead set out with a list of 3-5 objectives from the beginning which you must complete. In Act 1 you can play Shay and Vella's stories individually before they knit together perfectly at the end. In Act 2 you are supposed to now shift between the two characters continuously throughout.
Beyond this point the review contains mild puzzle spoilers.
This is fine, except if you begin with Vella. When you reach the section where you need to switch to Shay, instead of her saying something like "I guess only Shay would know the answer to this" the game literally transports you to a new room and she exclaims "I know the answer is in here somewhere." Here's a spoiler: it isn't in there, but luckily there are only a few possible answers to this problem, making it is easy enough to brute force your way through.
This isn't the only time this happens. At one point Shay is trapped and starts complaining that he is going to die if he doesn't get out soon, while clearly pointing out a way to escape. However, to solve this puzzle you must not move Shay for 2 minutes (real-time) in order to collect a puzzle solving item, despite only having clues to the contrary. When Double Fine decided to give out a walkthrough with their review copies, they probably should have thought about why it was they had to do such a thing.
It's not problem puzzles or missing maps which had me so disappointed in Act 2. It's the complete lack of story. In Act 1, you follow Vella on an epic journey across multiple lands as she learns more about the Mogs and the maiden's feast; you question the mystery of Shay's life in a child's dreamworld, and his missions to rescue helpless creatures. In Act 2 all mysteries set up in Act 1 are solved almost immediately. It half heartedly answers some intrigues while presenting nothing new. With no new mysteries to speak of, playing Act 2 is very much like going through the motions rather than playing an actual game.
Act 2 feels like gameplay was supposed to extend beyond the plague dam, where you could meet the creatures controlling the Mogs and discover exactly what happens to the maidens once captured. This would have elevated the game far beyond what it ended up being. Instead, you get some vague explanation about blood, which doesn't really answer anything, in a dialogue opportunity you could easily miss.
Not everything about Broken Age Act 2 is sub-par. The voice acting is still some of the best I've heard in a game, as well as all those shiny graphics. There were also one or two puzzles which were innovative and clever, and required a certain skill to figure out, but they were all few and far between. What Act 2 was mostly missing was the heart from the first act. By now, with all the pressure from fans and backers to complete Broken Age, it must have felt more like a huge burden than a work of passion, and they were more than relieved to toss it out of the door in whatever state it was in.
HUGE PLOT SPOILER
This lack of passion is most pronounced in what could be one of the laziest explanations for a plot device of all time. So what is this link between Shay and Vella that causes their stories to intertwine so heavily, that makes their connection so strong? Well, even when Vella is just a space invader on the screen, Shay just had this "sense" that she was "his one." Why does he have this sense? Because he was born in the Mog and... you know, he just does, OK? Stop asking questions. Using "love" or any formation of it to explain the supernatural actions of characters is one of the most cliché ideas of all time, and I did not expect it to be tacked on to the second half of a game that had an amazing plot twist at the climax of Act 1.
Broken Age Act 2 had a lot to live up to when it was supposed to be the second half of an amazing set up, but even without the comparison to Act 1, it just isn't very good. I would compare it to The Phantom Menace, except I think George Lucas really cared about that film and tried his best to make it good. Instead Broken Age Act 2 just feels like everyone working on it hated and resented it, and wanted it out of Double Fine's door as quickly as possible. When you even disappoint me, one of the most hardened Double Fine fans, you know you need to examine the wreckage.
Our copy of Broken Age was provided courtesy of the developer. You can purchase yours on Steam.