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Thursday, 30 April 2015

Broken Age: Act 2.

Broken Age: Act 2.

This review isn't going to have any images in it, because it's actually very difficult to acquire any pictures of this game's second act.

Oh, my god. It's finally here. I think after a certain point I just forgot that Broken Age's second act was even coming. It was a pipe dream, a fantasy, like an Adam Sandler film that doesn't make you throw up in your mouth at least a little bit, or an announcement for Dishonored 2.

But it is actually here. After a very long wait, the second part of Tim Schafer and Double Fine's latest point-and-click adventure can be downloaded from Steam.

Picking up from the end of Act 1, Act 2 sees Vella, a young maiden who had been due to be sacrificed to eldritch abomination Mog Chothra, now finds herself trapped within the aforementioned abomination, which is actually a spaceship. Meanwhile, Shay, former resident of said spaceship, is stranded outside of it.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room, then, shall we? This game's development cycle. I'm not going to lie, much as I like Tim Schafer, this game's entire development has been an omnishambles of Biblical proportions, demonstrating that, with all the goodwill in the world, Double Fine operates poorly outside of the traditional developer-publisher relationship. 

There's the fact that despite getting funding in excess of six times what they asked for, Double Fine ran out of money part way through, forcing them to not only split the game into multiple acts, but also to fund the development of the second act with money gained from selling the first. There should never be a situation where you exceed your budget that badly, it's inexcusable.

Then there's the fact that it came to light that Schafer hadn't even started writing the second act until long after the first act was released.

And then there's the fact that after being slated for a late 2014 release, Act 2 wouldn't show up on Steam's storefront until a third of the way through 2015.

I've seen it thrown around - not by Double Fine themselves, thankfully, but by their apologists - that gamers are entitled for expecting any different, that there should be an infinite supply of understanding and patience in this regard, but it's not entitled to expect a company to fulfill their promises, to wisely utilise their funding, or to have a game's script written in good time. It's especially not entitled when many of those gamers complaining were also people who had funded the game, who had given money to a kickstarter for the promise of a product. These are not just consumers, they're investors who want to see a tangible reward for their investment.

Which would all be - well, not fine, not fine at all, but slightly less not fine if the game had been of astounding quality. It's not.

Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible. The art style is gorgeous and unique, the voice acting is very strong, there is a lot of typical and very funny Schaferian humour scattered throughout. There's even some variety in gameplay, such as a section where Vella takes control of Mog Chothra's computer.

All of which is great, but the game is missing two key aspects: A significant focus on its core gameplay elements, and a satisfactory story.

We'll start with the story: It is - both very straightforward and very messy, both entirely predictable and bafflingly un-foreshadowed. 

The answers to all of the questions left hanging at the end of the first act are, by and large, exactly what you'd expect them to be, and said answers are delivered with nearly no dramatic impact: But they're not what you'd expect because there's been clues that will lead you to the right conclusion, they're like that because they're shameless cliches. Conversely, the answers to all the questions that absolutely nobody was asking because nobody had bothered to inform us that there were question marks hanging over these things, like 'Is Shay's mother actually a computer or is she in fact a real woman who Shay has been pretending is a computer, thus turning an interesting story about parenting and growing up into a condescending, sneering jibe at teenagers' are bizarre and come entirely out of the blue, delivered with no ceremony and no emotional impact. 

It feels like a very flat and lifeless story, and it only becomes more so as time goes on and the mysteries are, one by one, resolved. Worse, it feels less like a completed story and more like a first draft, brought to your screens with absolutely no editing or oversight whatsoever.

Worse still is that it feels like some excellent opportunities for character development were wasted. With each character, you have an abrupt change of circumstance, with Vella going from freedom with danger to imprisonment with safety, and Shay vice versa, but neither of them seem at all affected by this change.There's no character arc here, they are entirely static characters, and as a result it increasingly starts to feel like they don't have much personality. Even Shay, who brimmed with personality in the first act, finds himself utterly devoid of meaningful motivations, opinions, or character.

Which just leaves the adventure game puzzle gameplay to talk about, and to be frank, it's not good. It's not good at all. Puzzles are either laughably easy, solvable by just picking an item in your inventory and handing it over, or maybe walking to someone else, getting an item from them, and then handing it over; or they are impossibly hard, requiring thoughtless trial and error. The pride and joy of a good adventure game should be puzzles that are difficult and compel a player to think outside the box, but entirely doable, that follow a form of bizarro logic that is alien to a player, but can be followed. A good adventure game should elicit a feeling of satisfaction when you successfully solve a long puzzle, not total apathy.

The game does try to shove in a clumsy dual-character mechanic in the final stages of the game, where Shay and Vella must cooperate to achieve a goal - except they're not cooperating. They never communicate, they're just controlled by the same player, resulting in them performing random, meaningless actions that only form a coherent plan because you happen to be there, and it's situations like that for which the ridiculous term 'ludonarrative dissonance' was derived, because it renders their stories totally incoherent. 

So, that's Broken Age's second act. Summed up in four words: Not worth the wait. 

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