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Broken Age, Episode 1: An adventure worth taking

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For all you point and click fans out there…

16 years after his last outing in the world of point-and-click adventure games, Tim Schafer and his team at Double Fine have made their triumphant return to the genre that put Mr. Schafer on the map. Finding the perfect balance between nostalgia appeasing and modern aesthetics, Broken Age is everything fans could have wanted and more. Set in a world that resembles a story book, Broken Age is, at it’s core, a tale about growing up.

Players switch between the space faring Shay and the village inhabiting Vella, whose stories constantly overlap. Shay is held prisoner on what is essentially “Baby’s First Spaceship,” a ship filled with mobiles and play steering wheels. He is coddled by the ship’s duel A.I.s, who believes themselves to be his mother and father. Every day, Mother sends Shay on safe adventures to phony emergencies acted out by yarn creatures that are intended to satisfy the child he no longer is. Shay apathetically goes through the motions, but he yearns for something more.

Meanwhile, Vella has been chosen as a sacrifice in a ceremony called the “Maiden’s Feast,” which is meant to appease the horrific creature known as Mog Chothra, who is said to watch over the village. While everyone tells Vella that it is a great honor to be chosen for the Maiden’s Feast, Vella yearns to escape the sacrifice and instead fight back against the creature.

Players are free to jump between the two protagonists at any time, which proves useful when you get stuck. The ability to resume each characters story at will proves to be a refreshing mental palate cleanser, ensuring you never get frustrated when you can’t solve a particular puzzle, which will happen plenty of times. But even when you can’t seem to wrap your brain around a puzzle, the solution will eventually become clear in a wonderful “Aha!” moment. Broken Age finds the perfect balance between appeasing hardcore point-and-click fans and welcoming newbies, with puzzles that are difficult but never too difficult.

All the while, the writing in the game shines. Considering the game comes courtesy of the writer for Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, it was expected that the script would be snappy and hilarious. While the game is packed to the brim with sly jokes and references, Broken Age also tackles heavy topics such as loneliness and sacrifice in a mature, surprising way. It’s a testament to the game’s writing that I found myself laughing almost as much as I found myself tearing up over the course of the adventure.

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Double Fine has found a splendid cast to bring the script to life, populated by a mixture of Hollywood stars and the who’s-who of the voice over world. Shay is voiced by Ellijah Wood, he of Lord of the Rings and Wilfred fame, who does a wonderful job of capturing the mix of excitement and hesitation in the adventure that lies ahead. Jack Black voices the guru of all things light Harm’ny Lightbeard, while nerd favorite Wil Wheaton plays Curtis, a lumberjack with a justified fear of trees. Voice over favorites such as Masasa Moyo, Jennifer Hale, and even the creator of Adventure Time, Pendleton Ward, round out the cast.

The artwork is spectacular, with every character, set piece, and tiny detail dripping with personality and imagination. The protagonists visit a variety of worlds, all unique and interesting enough to stand on their own. Ice cream planets, a village above the clouds, and a giant sandcastle are all visited over the course of the game. To juxtapose the crazy worlds that the characters inhabit, the characters themselves are simple in design, allowing their personality to shine through. Everything is drenched in color, making the game a true feast for the eyes.

The only problems I encountered in the game were due to sporadic bugs, which would sometimes cause the backgrounds to disappear, or text to stay after a character was finished speaking. But even these minor hiccups weren’t enough to ruin my experience with the game.

Because this is the first episode in Broken Age, the game ends on a cliffhanger. After becoming so invested in the characters and their world, this was mildly frustrating, but the game does a wonderful job of tying up enough loose ends to give you a sense of closure while still leaving some questions unanswered to bring you back for episode 2. But even after convincing myself that I’ll be able to wait it out for episode 2, I know deep down that I would prefer to have the whole thing as one complete package. For impatient gamers, it might be advisable to wait until both episodes are released before sinking your teeth into the game.

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Broken Age has managed to be delightfully old school while remaining modern; it’s a game that wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf next to The Secret of Monkey Island. But the point-and-click adventure genre has notoriously been difficult for outsiders to break into, and while Broken Age is great for point-and-click beginners, it still falls prey to the classic adventure game pitfalls. Adventure game logic is in full force in Broken Age; if it doesn’t seem totally natural to combine a blow-up doll air pump and whip cream gun with your space suit in order to traverse the outside of a ship, Broken Age may be difficult for you. Thankfully, unlike there some of the harder games of the genre, there are no choices that result in death, so the game is a little more forgiving.

Broken Age has come along during a mini point-and-click revival, with Telltale pumping new life into the dying genre with games like The Walking Dead and the Wolf Among Us. But Broken Age is a tried and true point-and-click game. There are no quick-time events to worry about. No timer underneath dialogue choices. Thus, while other games work on moving the genre forward with new gameplay styles, Broken Age prides itself on staying rooted firmly in the past.

There are those who will argue that Broken Age’s pigheaded ways are a bad thing, but Broken Age is a throwback to a simpler times, and it’s honestly refreshing to have an honest to goodness adventure game to play again. Sure, Telltale dabbled in regular point-and-click adventure games a couple years ago with Sam and Max and Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Awesome People, but the market has been dry. If Broken Age takes off, it could help to bring the classic genre back into the spotlight.

Images: Double Fine

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