2017 has been a surprisingly big year for point-and-click adventure games on Xbox One. Sure, we only got a small handful of titles as opposed to the usual zero, but those few games were pretty good. It only makes sense that we're now getting Broken Age, Double Fine's recent attempt at revitalizing the genre. It was a Kickstarter super-success that showed there are still plenty of people interested in these type of games, or maybe it just proved people really love Double Fine. It only took three years after its initial release to make it to Xbox One, so let's see if it was worth the long wait.
Here's what I liked:
Once upon two separate times – Broken Age tells two separate coming-of-age stories. One is about Vella, a young girl who's forced into being a sacrifice for a legendary monster. She's had enough of this vile tradition and decides to fight back. The other story is about Shay, a boy who is the only human on a vessel flying through space. He's been coddled by his AI mother his whole life and must discover a way to escape the overly safe confines of the ship. Both stories are simple yet captivating, featuring immediately likable protagonists. You have the ability to switch between the stories at (almost) anytime. Being able to explore both at your own pace is great, especially because getting stuck in one story won't halt your progress completely. The game feels like a whimsical fairy tale, presenting some dark and emotional themes in a way that makes it fun for someone of any age. While the humor can occasionally get rather crude and dark, it's usually pretty tame and always well-written.
Art – The game's art style is hard to put into words. When looking at a screenshot, it looks like it was taken straight from a children's story book. When in motion, it looks a bit more like those Monty Python cartoons, albeit with manipulation that can only be done digitally. It's a bit unusual, but it's fantastic. The use of color is particularly striking. While both stories use the same art style, Vella's side relies more on warm pastel colors while Shay's story consists of cooler, darker shades. Every screen of the game is charming and gorgeous, complementing the story perfectly.
All-star cast – Double Fine went all out getting the best cast Kickstarter money can buy, and it shows. There are celebrity cameos from the likes of Jack Black and Wil Wheaton, not to mention the fact protagonist Shay is voiced by Elijah Wood. The non-celebrity cast is also fantastic, featuring tons of talented voice actors from across the video game and cartoon spectrum. It's not just about touting pedigree, as every actor does a fantastic job selling the part. Everybody performs well and nobody outshines anyone else; they all fit into this world. The game somehow made me forget I was controlling Frodo Baggins for half of it, which is no small feat.
Here's what I didn't like:
Inventory management – The controls are great, barring one exception. Like any point-and-click, all interaction is done through a cursor, controlled by the left stick. You interact by pressing A; there's no actions or verbs you have to select, streamlining the whole process. By flicking the right stick, you can move the cursor to the nearest interactable object in any direction. This all feels great – the problem comes when using your inventory. Pressing Y opens up a drawer at the bottom of the screen, showing everything you've collected. You can pick anything and combine it with anything else, either in your inventory or in the world. Thing is, opening your inventory automatically assigns an item to your cursor, so when you go to grab the item you really want, you end up combining the two objects. Or you'll inadvertently investigate the object, getting a line about what it is rather than using it. Using the inventory is just messier than it really needs to be. Alternatively, you can just cycle through objects by pressing the left and right bumpers without even opening the inventory, which may seem more practical until you've collected a long list of junk.
Wrong foot – It's not a classic adventure game unless there are some odd puzzle solutions to contend with. Some of the worst stuff happens right at the beginning. The sequence where Vella escapes the sacrifice is a pain; it only consists of a single screen that gives you everything you need, but even though there are steps you could theoretically do from the get-go, everything must be done in a specific order. However, before you can even attempt to escape, you must talk to all four other sacrifices. This in no way makes sense; they all brush you off, so after the first couple tries there's nothing compelling the player to keep going down that road. It makes seems illogical to progress the scene by doing things that don't move you closer to your goal in any way. Shay's story doesn't start any better, as you replay the endless minutia of his daily life until you figure out a way to break the cycle. After a while, the game does funnel you towards the solution but getting there feels like forever.
Huh? – Outside of the prologue sections things improve, but there are still some moments of pixel hunting and archaic solutions, and there's no hint system to help you out. Dialogue puzzles, in general, are the most confusing – it's never clear which options will yield the desired results. There were a few times where I got stuck because the proper item to solve a puzzle was hidden beneath what appeared to be simple world-building dialogue. Sure, in these type of games you should always exhaust your options, but it should also be clear which of the four options makes the guy give you his hat.
If we're not talking about gameplay, Broken Age is great. It presents a fun and detailed world to inhabit filled with silly characters and interesting plot developments. If we are talking about gameplay, Broken Age is just okay. It's a serviceable attempt at a point-and-click game that stumbles more than it should. This isn't the best adventure game to come out this year, but it's still an enjoyable ride.
Score: Reader's Choice
Broken Age was developed and published on Xbox One by Double Fine Productions. It was released June 23, 2017 for $19.99. A copy was provided for review purposes.