Thursday, March 27, 2014

Games Review: Broken Age

Kickstarter has had a strange effect on the gaming industry over the last couple of years. The rise in Digital Distribution, especially on the PC, has allowed a hugely fun Indie scene to develop, but the additional of a robust (if not perfect) crowd-funding platform to the mix has lead to an explosion in games of all shapes and sizes, often, it seems, dominated by genres long abandoned by the big developers. Its a mixed blessing, in my opinion; I'm all for a bit of nostalgia, but often these genres lapsed for good reason, although its easy to forget in a gaming landscape so dominated by washed-out grey-brown man shooting other washed out grey-brown men whilst the game shouts at you to run to the next signpost. One of the biggest success stories of the early Kickstarter wave was Double Fine, promising a return to the great Point-and-click adventures of Yore, a game that became Broken Age.

So for you kids out there, the Point-and-click was a genre where you played a character that wandered around an environmental background talking to people, picking up whatever wasn't nailed down, and trying to add the conversation, environment and items together to solve a series of puzzles to advance the plot. At their best, the fused story and puzzle-solving to tell witty, clever adventure stories, relying as they did not on your reflexes but on your brain. At their worst, they involved hours of trying every item on every other item, in a vain attempt to deduce what the hell drugs the writers were on when they were thinking the puzzles up. Broken Age is an attempt not just to relive the past, but a valiant attempt to update it too. 

It's a game split in half, telling two parallel stories that don't initially seem to connect. You can freely switch between them, which is pretty cool, although I tended to play through one for a big chunk, and then switch, and I guess you could play all of one then all the other if you liked. I'd love to have seen puzzles that relied on this switching, but given that Broken Age is also split in half in the sense that Part 2 isn't out yet, maybe that's to come. 

Our two protagonists, Shae and Vella, both exist in worlds that have an expectation of them that they seek to escape from, albeit in different ways. Vella lives in world ravaged by monsters that the locals deal with by feeding young girls to them, a great honour that everyone in the game except Vella wants to see continue. Its slightly odd that this mass sacrifice is played mostly for laughs, but its in keeping with the spirit of the game as a whole, with it's quirky, fairy tale atmosphere. Shae, on the other hand, lives alone on a spacecraft, protected by a computer system seemingly intent on keeping him in perpetual childhood. If Vellas life is too exciting, Shae craves it, and it soon puts him into contact with a stowaway on his ship, promising danger and excitement to come. 

The great strength of Broken Age is the characters and the story. It's really engaging, and witty and the writing and voice work is excellent. The art is fantastic two, with the two wildly different colour palettes playing up the difference between the two stories, and as it progresses, some of the more conscious oddnesss makes more and more sense and the plots begin to echo and converge. The other bit trait of the point-and-click is the puzzles, and whilst these are often cute, they're also a little too obvious, as if the game doesn't want to scare anyone new to the genre away. I do hope for more challenges in the second, concluding part. 

In the final analysis, Broken Age works as both a homage to a genre that seemed forgotten - although other point-and-click series have also relaunched on Kickstarter - and an introduction to it for newcomers, and sometimes that strain shows. However, not only me, but Ewan was entranced by it, a sign perhaps that it doesn't need to rely on nostalgia to succeed. Much of that charm is the artwork and story, however, which makes me think the balance isn't quite there yet, and I have many hopes for the second half.