Broken Age Review

In the current climate, perhaps doubly so when writing about a game by Tim Schafer, it is important to declare interests. I should declare that I was one of the backers of the Kickstarter, to the tune of $130. I should declare that, since I was mostly playing GTA5 I didn’t even bother playing the Steam version that purchase gave me, I bought it again for another eight quid on my phone.

With such an obvious declaration made, I think you should now know that this is going to be a positive review. And it will be, a thoroughly positive review. A review that will at some point declare this game to be “a beacon of true hope in an industry struggling to offer individual visions”, that will speak about the Kickstarter using the phrase “implemented flawlessly”. A positive review that will compliment the creators for making something “that publishers simply wouldn’t have allowed to come to fruition”. A review so positive it’ll conclude “I am proud to have invested such a sum of money in this game”. And that’s a lot of money.

I should declare why I wanted to invest that money too. Well, we’ve all got our favourite adventure games but it was The Secret of Monkey Island that was the one I fell for. It’s probably The Secret of Monkey Island that you can trace pretty much my entire career back to. There were certainly clunky bits, but there were some beautiful puzzles and the writing, such as the fight scene behind a wall, wasn’t just a gaming memory, it was a childhood memory. I played a fair number of point’n’clicks after that and then they went away. In the strictest sense they didn’t, but there wasn’t that feeling of there being another around the corner.

I should also declare that, although I’ve only started watching them since completing the game, that the Player Two documentaries are some of the most interesting videos recorded about videogames ever. If the rest of the Kickstarter had occasional wobbles, this bit was implemented flawlessly.

I should declare that, and have thought so from the initial glimpses through to the final game, I think the art style of the game is perfect. It looks like a dream of a pixel game, both metaphorically and literally how dreams of pixels look. Which is amazing. I should probably declare I didn’t back Thimbleweed Park for the same logic, although I am looking forward to it.

I should declare that throughout the development, I’ve been on the side of the developers. Running out of money after raising so much seemed inevitable from the first moment, raising more may go against the true idea of the original Kickstarter, but it allowed the game to be completed. Perhaps the celebrity voices were a bit unnecessary, the casting doesn’t seem wholly ideal in some of the more famous cases, but it’s a nice thing to have.

And whilst I’m on that topic, I should declare that I don’t have a problem with big indies going to Kickstarter and receiving vast sums whilst smaller teams struggle to receive anything. The big successes have encouraged more devs to try Kickstarter, even if that means more have also failed.

I should declare that I really wanted to like this game and that in lots of ways I do. I do consider it a beacon of true hope in an industry struggling to offer any individual visions. This is genuinely a game that publishers simply wouldn’t have allowed to come to fruition. It’s too expensive to make, too unique. It doesn’t really feed off nostalgia whilst also not really doing anything new and so exists in one of those hard to define niches that publishers so hate.

But…

…whilst I am proud to have invested such a sum of money in this game, to have helped it come into being…

…it’s just not very good. The first part is utterly simplistic with only two or three puzzles that you’ll notice are actually puzzles. It’s a warming and welcoming game, but it’s closer to a children’s story book than it is to Monkey Island. Perhaps always intended, perhaps a reaction to the feedback on the first part, the puzzles in part two are much harder but they’re, sadly, not much cleverer. Some rely on trial and error, some are relatively obvious but punish the player with long hikes around the map if they don’t get it right first time, others are just incredibly badly sign-posted and still more are easy to work out but then take ages to complete even when you know the answer. Quite how the game can feel like there are too few locations all over-loaded with solutions and almost every puzzle requiring a hike from one end of the map to the other and back again is mind-boggling. This is a game with a lot of walking, large chunks of which can’t be skipped. Cut-scenes are very cute once, but have to be skipped every time afterwards. Controls on a PC feel basic so they can be worked on a touch screen, controls on a small touch screen don’t feel anywhere near precise enough. Environments in Part Two are simply the first ones re-used, which feels slightly cheap. Understandable, but a little bit disappointing.

And the story? It’s almost great. It’s certainly well written and it feels warming and interesting, the dialogue is funny when it tries to be and it does evoke childhood in the way it tries to. There is a slight irony to playing a game written to evoke someone’s childhood in a game backed to evoke your own childhood and that never really feels resolved, this doesn’t ever feel like a game that was made for its pre-made audience, it’s very much its own beast. A strange decision, but not a bad one. Due to that and the lack of a single focus in the story it doesn’t quite keep your interest, slipping into the background behind whatever you are doing. That your irritation at a particularly bad puzzle is often more powerful than the urge to see the end of the story, even in what is clearly the (incredibly pernickety) finale speaks volumes. Upon completion it does feel pretty much worth the effort, although even then it is still a little bit confused and there are unanswered questions.

As the credits roll and my name scrolls past amongst hundreds of others, Broken Age confirms itself as a game that will always make me happy that it exists. I can’t imagine it will be a game I ever play again, nor will it be a game I can ever wholly recommend to anyone else. It is the most lovely and individual failure gaming has seen in years and that is genuinely a good thing, even if this is not a good game.