Review: Broken Age Act 2

Broken Age cover art

Broken Age cover art

Editor’s note: Because Broken Age was released in two acts, this review focuses on Act 2. Check out the review of Act 1. A copy of Broken Age was provided for review. Warning, out of necessity, this review will contain certain spoilers.

When Broken Age Act 2 was released, I couldn’t have been more excited. An opportunity to jump back into Double Fine’s game which had presented major strides in re-thinking the approach to point-and-click adventure games to mask the flaws of the genre by focusing on story rather than nonsensical puzzles and unnecessary backtracking. At the end of Act 1, I had some high hopes:

“There’s many questions left unanswered for the player that should get resolved in Act 2, but perhaps the most important: can Double Fine stay the course and successfully keep Broken Age out of the deeply flawed adventure game rut?”

Unfortunately, in the 16 months between acts, things changed in a big way, and by the end of my time with Act 2, I was disappointed and confused by what Broken Age had apparently become.

A Stark Reversal

The point-and-click adventure games of old were notorious for their reliance on illogical and frustrating solutions to puzzles as developers attempted to increase the length and challenge of games. Yet, Act 1 of Broken Age shied successfully away from this to great effect:

“While these problems are systemic in all point-and-click adventure games to some degree, Double Fine managed to mask these problems fairly well by focusing primarily on an engaging story rather than resorting to illogic and cheap trickery. No, the puzzles in Broken Age aren’t difficult to solve, and they don’t require hours of meditation to come to a conclusion, and that’s OK. Because instead of using puzzles as way to stall player progress and lengthen their game, Double Fine used them as a way to further draw the player into the worlds of Vella and Shay.”

Broken Age Act 2 Fruit Tap

Gathering the fruit tap is just one step in the non-sensical solution to a puzzle

Jump to Act 2, however, and that simplicity had vanished in favor of the old and flawed puzzle format. For example, Shay (one of two player characters, along with Vella) must help his father create a compound to repair a spaceship by finding more calcium carbonate, which according to Shay’s father, can commonly be found in sea shells. Alas, all the shells from the beach have already been used. Coincidentally, there is a man on the beach who appears to be choking, and when Shay finally figures out that he can use a snake to perform the Heimlich Maneuver (yep, a snake, because …) the man coughs up a seashell! Try to give this shell to Shay’s father though, and you’ll learn that it’s actually not a shell, apparently it’s a seashell-shaped pitch pipe. But have no fear – the player eventually finds a man sitting beneath a tree, drinking fruit through a tap, which he generously gives you so you can use it to crack a bird out of an egg to get its shell, which is what Shay’s father needs.

Make sense? No? Correct.

Broken Age Act 2 Wires

The clue to Shay’s wiring puzzle lives in Vella’s world, which is … inconvenient

That’s not even the worst offender of the illogical puzzles though. Shay has a tiny robot that needs re-wired in a specific pattern. The player can use trial and error to figure out the wiring, of which there are roughly a million potential combinations (I’m not great a math) because the direction you place the wire between two of the six posts matters. Luckily, there’s a clue that shows the wiring sequence, but it’s located in Vella’s world, and it’s incredibly easy to overlook as it’s in the background of a family photo. Yes, the miniscule and obtuse clue to answering a problem Shay has is located where Vella is, which is just plain silly.

It’s obvious that Double Fine wanted to encourage players to swap freely between the two characters and deal with their circumstances simultaneously. But swapping back and forth disrupts the flow of the game. In fact, a sequence at the very end of the game requires players to complete a task with one character, swap to the other to complete a task, swap back, complete a task, swap again and complete a task to initiate the end-game sequence. While the actual swapping mechanic worked fine, the need to do it in sequence, rather than completing all the tasks for each player before swapping was disruptive and annoying.

The lack of clues also led to another classic issue from point-and-click games which Act 1 again avoided:

“Double Fine employed logic in their level design, encouraging players to experience the worlds they created, but made it almost impossible for the player to leave each set piece without acquiring whatever necessary piece of the puzzle they were required to collect. They did so through the strategic use of dialog (Marek explains everything to Shay/the player in precise detail), and striking visual clues (the golden eggs stand in such stark visual contrast to the other subdued hues – other than the white clouds – of Meriloft, the cloud town, that it’s instantly obvious that collecting them is Vella’s primary objective).”

Yet in Act 2, backtracking across set pieces to seek bits of missed information becomes the norm. The snake used to free the pitch pipe from the man’s throat is three screens away, the fruit-tap used to crack the egg is 4 screens farther venturing past the woods, through the artist’s house, up to the cloud village, past the bird with the egg and below the tree. If the player misses any part of the sequence to gather the various and sundry items needed to solve riddles, they must wander back and forth seeking clues to what they have overlooked.

It Ain’t All Bad

Broken Age Act 2 stories

Shay and Vella’s intertwined stories remain the best part of Broken Age

The intertwining stories of Shay (the boy sent to space to seek a new world to replace a dying home planet) and Vella (the girl who chose to fight a monster called Mog Chothra rather than be part of the sacrificial Maiden’s Feast) are what drove Act 1’s success – and that story is still present and engaging in Act 2, even if it had less impact on the design decisions. In fact, Shay and Vella swap places, allowing us to examine each world but through a new set of eyes which haven’t grown accustomed to their surroundings, and it sheds new light on the ridiculousness of both of their situations.

Why had towns which participated in the Maiden’s Feasts simply accepted that young women be sacrificed to the monster Mog Chothra? Because tradition stipulated so. Why had loving parents seemingly sequestered themselves from their son and given him the illusion of controlling a spaceship? Because it was part of the mission they had been given. By examining these circumstances from two points of view – those who had grown accustomed and those who had not – the player gets to experience all sides of a compelling story on the process of growing up.

Mix in the reveal that an ancient race of peoples who practice selective breeding for genetic manipulation are the driving force behind both Shay’s and Vella’s stories, layer it with excellent art design and top-quality voice acting, and most of the elements which made Act 1 so compelling are still present. But it only serves to emphasizes the odd decision for Double Fine to alter their approach for Act 2 game and level design.

Old School Point-and-click

Act 1 felt like a modern and enjoyable update to the point-and-click adventure game formula, but Act 2 was anything but. Act 2 was a painful reminder of the many flaws that point-and-click games suffered from pushing the genre into its precipitous decline. Maybe it was the 16 months between acts that caused the shift in design. Maybe Double Fine listened to the rumblings that players felt the puzzles were too easy and overcorrected too far the other way. Or maybe these problems wouldn’t have seem too obvious had Act 1 and Act 2 been played simultaneously.

Unfortunately, though Double Fine’s engaging story, sense of humor and delightful art design were still excellent, they were overshadowed by a return to the old-school point-and-click adventure game formula, resulting in a jarring shift from what was established in Act 1, and leaving me more than a little frustrated and disappointed.