Broken Age resurrects all of the key features of classic 1990’s adventure games: Gorgeous artwork, a fascinating storyline, funny writing, and puzzles that don’t make any freaking sense.
We’ve been waiting a long time for this day. Back in February 2012, game developer Double Fine took a gamble and asked for the then-unheard-of sum of $400,000 via Kickstarter to make a small-scale point-and-click adventure game, something that the company’s fans had long begged for but that it felt was financially impossible to fund through traditional means. It raised $3.3 million.
The higher-than-expected funding caused the scope of Broken Age to balloon massively; going from a tiny iOS game to a full-on PC and console release starring Elijah Wood and featuring music from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Surprising no one, Double Fine ran out of money, and began to sell the first half of the game via Steam Early Access about a year ago. This week, it finally drops Act 2, putting Broken Age back together.
When I played through the first act last year, I noted that it might have been considered a touch on the easy side, but that that would make sense, as the harder puzzles would logically come towards the back half of the game. This turns out to be the case. I was happy to find that some puzzles required a good deal of thought, and careful examination of everything around you. I was disappointed to find that a few of them were just plain unfair.
Note: Broken Age spoilers follow. I’m not going to mention the details of any specific puzzles but I am going to discuss specific situations that you’ll recognize as you play the game. Quite frankly I am going to say the things that I wish my past self had known before I started playing this game. But anyway you have been warned. Spoilers.
Broken Age has two protagonists, Vella and Shay. As you play the game’s first act (the half released in 2014), a rule emerges: Vella’s puzzles are solved within Vella’s environment, and Shay’s within his. You don’t need information from the other half of the game; you play through one entire Act, get to a distinct endpoint at which you no longer have control, then are asked to switch to the next character’s half.
Having set this expectation, Act 2 subverts it. That, per se, is a great idea. The problem with Broken Age‘s execution of it is that, depending on how you decide to approach the game, it never actually tells you, either directly or through any sort of indirect cluing, that this is the new rule.
In fact, it told me just the opposite. When I first reached a puzzle in Vella’s half that I could only solve with information gleaned through playing Shay’s story partway, not only did the game not clue this, it actually had Vella say something to the effect of, “I just know the information I need is somewhere in this room!”
In that particular case, the puzzle only had so many possible solutions, so I was actually able to brute-force my way through it with guessing. For many hours later, what I thought I’d encountered was a puzzle without enough clues.Double Fine
One of the final puzzles in Vella’s section, again, required information from Shay’s half (buried deep, deep, deep in Shay’s half, it turned out later). I spent, let’s say, a very long time wandering through every room, meticulously trying to use every item in my inventory with everything else, clicking on everything again, desperate for some shred of information that was not forthcoming.
Eventually, I cheated: Double Fine had passed out a walkthrough with the review copies, and I looked at it. Finding out that I was basically spinning cycles because I wouldn’t be able to solve that puzzle without actually giving up on it, ditching Vella’s section and starting all over in Shay’s section, I felt pretty well and burned.
Now, the funny thing is, had I arbitrarily decided to start in Shay’s section, my experience might have been totally different. Because when you reach a point with Shay in which you need Vella’s information to solve a puzzle, he actually says “Gee, I would know what to do if I were on my ship.” He’s not on his spaceship at that point, but Vella is, and that’s your clue to start up her adventure at that point if you want to proceed. At that point, you should have inferred that the rules have been changed.
Your experience with the rest of Broken Age‘s puzzles may vary. I found some of the latter-game puzzles to be maddeningly difficult—but the clues are there. They might be incredibly subtle, but they exist for you to find, and it’s entirely possible that one person will spot them instantly while it might take another hours. And that’s fine. Some of the puzzles are arguably illogical—as in, it doesn’t make sense why that solution was necessary—but because you only have a few things to interact with, you were likely to eventually happen upon a combination that led you down the right path.
Double Fine did promise us an authentic 1990’s-style adventure game, and that’s precisely what it’s delivered, warts and all. In an age in which many point-and-click adventures tend towards not ever letting players get stuck, it is nice to see Broken Age sporting some legitimately challenging puzzles. It’s just disappointing that, at some crucial moments, it fails to give the player enough tools with which to solve them.