The recent re-release of seminal point-and-click Grim Fandango was a reminder that nostalgia can only do so much to keep the genre relevant. Telltale Games’ simplification of the basics in recent years has both brought adventure titles back to heady heights of popularity and changed the way many perceive the genre. As such, Grim Fandango often frustrated with its plodding, archaic control system and complicated (by modern standards) puzzles. Which is a shame, because at its core, it remains one of the most well-written and genuinely hilarious games ever made. If only there was some way of marrying Tim Schafer’s quirky humor with a slightly modernized version of the adventure genre he and his team once made so beloved…
In Broken Age, we have the answer. Tim Schafer and Double Fine have returned to the genre, and after a rocky, staggered launch on PC, the full game arrives just in time to also land on PS4 and PS Vita. This is the full package on PlayStation devices, and Broken Age is point-and-click adventuring at its best, grounded in tradition with a hint of invention.
The story is split between two young characters in different places and situations as they strive to rebel against the stubborn rulesets their worlds impose on them. Vella is a girl in the town of Sugar Bunting who has been chosen as one of the ritual sacrifices to the fearsome monster Mog Chothra. While everyone tells her what an honor it is to be picked for this one-off job, Vella feels differently. She believes that if the town and fellow sacrificial maidens unite to take down the behemoth, they could put a stop to the rituals. Naturally, when nobody agrees, it falls to Vella to engineer her escape from death by digestion and set herself on a typically offbeat adventure. Vella’s tale is a fantastic blend of bright, sugary visuals and an oily-black heart of menacing narrative festering below the candy-coated shell of Sugar Bunting and beyond. Vella herself isn’t fired up with passionate vitriol about escaping so much as she’s genuinely quizzical and concerned about this strange routine her town goes through. It makes for a nicely balanced protagonist who is smart, resourceful, and mildly sarcastic in the face of certain doom. In all, she has a highly interesting story to follow.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the story is Shay, a teenage boy travelling through space in the care of an aggressively maternal spaceship A.I. and crewmates made of yarn. He is given a daily routine of ‘’rescue missions’’ to perform by the ship, but each mission is hilariously lacking in real danger and gets acted out by the yarn people with hammy gusto. Shay, like Vella, finally breaks the monotony of his sheltered daily life and starts his own escape and subsequent adventure. Though Shay’s narrative follows similar beats to Vella’s, he and his narrative have personalities of their very own and a selection of characters that are instantly memorable and likeable. Grab-it Garry doesn’t speak, for example, but there’s a great little run of jokes about what Garry won’t grab that pays off nicely in a later puzzle. The overbearing A.I. does the mother hen thing to a tee and has some inventive ways to change the subject whenever Shay questions the conformity of his life on the ship. Shay is filled with world-weary indifference and withering sarcasm that’s directed at the rut he’s stuck in, eventually tempered by enthusiasm for new and exciting things.
Eventually, these two stories intertwine (the how and why of which I will leave you to discover) and throw up a whole new bunch of situations, characters, and puzzles to contend with. The journey through this wonderfully written adventure is pleasant, funny, and captivating. The efforts of the voice actors are not to be sniffed at, either. Masasa Moyo and Elijah Wood inject Vella and Shay with wit, charm, and personality, while the supporting cast–which features the likes of Brutal Legend’s Jack Black, Star Trek’s Will Wheaton, and Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward–manage to serve up fun, quirky characters that fill out the roster of NPCs without being mere background dressing. There’s a real children’s storybook feel to the whole package. The visuals pop like paintings come to vibrant life, laced with that absurdist style that’s as much a hallmark of Schafer’s games as tricky puzzles.
Ah yes, what would a great adventure game be without a fine selection of taxing and inventive puzzles to tackle? More to the point, what would a Double Fine-developed one be without a certain amount of silly, oddball, object-and-place combinations to give it a highly unique feel? Broken Age, thankfully, has all of that in spades. Yes, there are some puzzles that can leave you feeling stumped far too long and some cheap fail states thanks to small timing windows, but these are small asides. Largely, Broken Age proves a masterclass in making puzzles challenging, inventive, and rewarding to solve. That oh-so satisfying lightbulb moment happens regularly and is often accompanied by a broad grin because of how ridiculous the solution normally is.
The only real complaint you could lay at Broken Age’s door is that, despite a slightly modern tweak to the controls and mechanics, it is practically no different from the likes of Grim Fandango and Monkey Island. The mechanical changes are welcome–for example, you can skip long walks to exits and highlight all interactive areas in a room–but its similarity is much of the reason it succeeds. There’s a reason those games are so fondly remembered. The charm, humor, daffy dialogue choices, and all-around offbeat stylings that punctuate the past efforts of Tim Schafer are why Broken Age raised over $3 million on Kickstarter–an investment in the mere promise of a return to form.
It’s worth mentioning that while Broken Age is fantastic on either PS4 or PS Vita, it’s most welcome and fitting on Sony’s handheld. PS Vita has been crying out for an old-school adventure game to utilize that touchscreen and in Broken Age it has just that. It’s Cross-Buy and Cross-Save, too, so you can sample which suits you best if you have both systems.