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Sunday, 2 February 2014

Broken Age

Broken Age.

Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure game coming after two and a half years of development, is potentially a major test (although far from the only one) of the viability of Kickstarter in producing quality independent or semi-independent game. In this case, Broken Age comes from the minds of Tim Schafer and Double Fine, best known for the psychedelic and hilarious action-rpg-puzzle game Psychonauts, in which you play as an eleven year old psychic unravelling a conspiracy at a psychic summer camp. The Kickstarter, which asked for some four-hundred thousand, instead drew in almost three-and-a-half million, so expectations were, understandably, quite high.

So the three million dollar question is, I suppose, does it live up to expectations? It's a question to which I honestly don't have a simple answer.

Broken Age Act 1 (with Act 2 coming out later this year) has two separate stories which only join together at the end, but which can be switched between at any time: That of Vella Tartine, a young girl due to be sacrificed to hungry eldritch abomination Mog Chothra, much to her chagrin and her family's delight; and that of Shay Volta, a young boy who is the only living resident on a spaceship run by an AI with an overprotective mother.

There's an interesting contrast between the two: Vella, who is in real danger, constantly finds her quest to kill Mog Chothra derided as pointless or unnecessary by the people around her, who deny (in an almost Kafka-esque manner) that she is in any kind of danger or that the multi-eyed, tentacled, maiden-devouring creature is anything other than wholly benevolent and delightful. Meanwhile, Shay, who is never in any kind of danger and who even when he escapes the Mother's 'games' appears to have just found new games to play, is constantly forewarned of the terrible danger and responsibility he has on his shoulders.

In general, the story is a bizarre, hilarious romp, although each half of it has its own weaknesses: Vella's story, while the far more genuinely funny of the two, sometimes seems to lack direction; while Shay's occasionally tends towards repetitiveness, and has a humour that lacks some of the edge that has characterised some of Schafer's earlier works. In general, though, both are great fun, well-crafted, and leave you wanting more at the end. There are plenty of questions left unanswered, but they don't feel like plot holes - they feel like things that will be answered when Act 2 comes out. It helps that the art style resembles a children's storybook, as the narrative often deals with the nature of childhood and adulthood, with each character's story acting as a miniaturised bildungsroman in which they attempt to escape the influences that have kept them bound into childhood.

A lot of people have pointed to the gameplay as a rather shallow affair, by the standards of point-and-click adventures, and I can't disagree. Compared to the standard set by games like Broken Sword and the Monkey Island series, the puzzles are very simple, mostly consisting of finding an item from one NPC and using it to solve a nearby puzzle. It's a problem, and one that could do with being attended to in Act 2, but it's not a deal-breaker.

Where the game really falls down is the slightly suspect length and price tag. For nineteen pounds, you can get Act 1 (weighing in at about three hours) and, at an undisclosed date later in the year, Act 2 (presumably the same length) as a free download. It's not a lot of content for a price that is almost half that of a triple-A game, especially when you consider how far over its target the Kickstarter went, and that the game was made using an open-source platform.

For some, that may be more than worth it, especially considering both the production pedigree (Schafer and Double Fine's works remain some of the finest story-driven games in the industry) and the voice-acting chops (including people like Elijah Wood, Jennifer Hale and Jack Black). For me, it comes as a stretch: No matter how good a game is, that is a lot of money for very little content.

Ultimately, I find myself more and more won over to the side of 'it was worth it'. The game lacks length, and its gameplay could do with being meatier, but its story is as exquisitely crafted as it is utterly surreal, and there's a lot of mileage in that. 

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