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Beta’d Review: BROKEN AGE – ACT 1

Let me tell you, friends, of a time long past… When story and character ruled the gaming world… When a sense of adventure wasn’t predicated on length or budget, but on immersive design and creative dialogue… This glorious age was known as the ’90s.

I’ll admit that I was pretty much in the tank for Tim Schafer’s return to the nearly-dead genre he helped shape from the second his Double Fine Adventure Kickstarter was announced. He was one of a few good souls that steered the great ship LucasArts during its heyday, a time that was undoubtedly my gaming prime. His voice (he wrote, among many things, two-thirds of the dialogue in The Secret of Monkey Island) is one I still associate with some of my fondest gaming memories. So naturally, when he asked fans to crowd-fund a brand new point-and-click adventure game over two years ago, I dutifully plunked down some cash and waited… and waited… and waited…

…until last week, when I finally got my hands on what would ultimately be known as Broken Age: Act 1. It’s “Act 1” because, like many crowd-funded games, Broken Age’s ambition grew alongside the millions of dollars it raised past its initial asking price of $400,000, causing it to be delayed and ultimately split apart so that profits from the first half could fund the completion of the second (a free download for anyone with Act 1).

Broken Age: Act 1 (and I’d have to assume 2) is the story of two young people named Shay and Vella who live in two very different worlds. Shay is coddled by an A.I.-controlled spaceship floating aimlessly through the cosmos with seemingly no mission besides protecting its young, restless resident. Vella lives in the fantasy-tinged town of Sugar Bunting, where she’s destined to be sacrificed to a Lovecraftian monster named Mog Chothra. Both Shay and Vella wish to escape the lives they’re bound to – and with a series of points and clicks, you’ll aid them in doing just that.

The first thing you’re likely to notice about Broken Age is its unbelievable good looks. Adventure games have, for the most part, been chained to relatively archaic visuals – something remedied only in part by Telltale’s recent resuscitation of the genre. But thanks to the nearly 90,000 people who supported Double Fine on this project, imaginations were allowed to run completely wild, resulting in a painterly look that’s nothing short of a treat for the eyes. Every frame is so packed with softly-colored, vividly-animated detail that it manages to feel ten times more immersive than half the games I’ve seen running on the borderline photo-real Unreal 4 engine. Ideas are exploding out of every screen – from a distant, piecemeal crane making sandcastles to a futuristic control panel made of baby toys. There’s a French horn looped around a tree branch that wards off an evil snake because why not? This is an adventure, and half the fun is exploring the unknown.

The story is surprisingly emotional, a feat made more impressive by the half-game’s length (somewhere in the ballpark of four hours, depending on how good you are at puzzles). Both characters’s adventures (you can switch between them at the push of a button) are driven by a Quixotic desire to change the status quo, with Shay’s driven by curiosity and Vella’s determination. The nostalgia inherent to this genre certainly helped, but the earnestness with which the story is told aids in drawing the characters, and their dreams, close to your heart almost immediately. The ending is a real jaw-dropper, one that’ll make the wait for Act 2 an even greater challenge. It doesn’t help that Double Fine has no idea when they’ll be finished with it. They hope it’ll be ready by the end of the year.

As for gameplay, it’s about what you’d expect from a game of this ilk. A majority of your time will be spent mulling over which items in your inventory might satisfy the request of an NPC. You’ll choose dialogue options to drive conversation with said NPCs to get closer to the heart of what they need to let you continue the story. You’ll explore environments for new items and ponder the answer to riddles. It’s a brain-game, but one that’s easy enough to get through for players of all ages. The real fun here is in meeting characters like the hipster lumberjack who has a fear of talking trees and the bearded king who rules over a city in the clouds full of giant birds.

I adored every moment I spent in the world of Broken Age. I think you will too. While the money you spend on the game (currently $24.99 on Steam) won’t reach its full value until Act 2 is released, I’d wager it’s worth it to beat spoilers to the punch and dive into Tim Schafer’s triumphant return to the adventure genre now. It’s the most I’ve smiled while playing a game in a long, long time.

Broken Age – Act 1 is available now on Steam for Mac, PC, and Linux.

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