Broken Age (Act 1) was one of my favourite games of 2014. Though I was somewhat reluctant to list half of a game as one of the most outstanding pieces of interactive entertainment I’d experienced all year, such was the majesty of Broken Age. Its writing was sharp, its puzzles were tough but well thought out, and its brilliant dual set-ups made for two of the finest fictional worlds created since Adventure Time.
Act 2, delayed after alleged financial issues and disruptions in production, shows us what happens when these worlds collide, as space-faring Shay and would-be-maiden Vella are forced to survive and thrive in each other’s worlds. Though Tim Schafer’s dialogue is as witty as ever, and the characters introduced in Act 1 are predictably lovely to spend time with, Broken Age Act 2 struggles with awkward pacing and crushingly difficult puzzles, which makes for a story that never quite takes off and certainly never finds its feet.
If you’re unfamiliar with Broken Age‘s set-up, I’d advise you to go back and read my Act 1 review, since there’s an awful lot of back-story to digest at this juncture. Act 2 picks up with Shay and Vella essentially swapping roles, as well as locales – Shay finds himself wandering the beaches, forests and clouds familiar to Vella, whilst Vella must explore and repair Shay’s ship, once thought by her to be the great beast Mog Chothra.
Re-meeting familiar faces from Act 1 feels nostalgic (particularly if you’ve waited a year since playing the first act), if a little trite, given that most of these supporting characters remain largely unchanged since the game’s first act. On Shay’s end, Curtis the hipster woodcutter, the talking tree, and Jack Black’s hokey sky-cult leader all show up to deliver satisfying performances packed with typical Double Fine wit, but back on Shay’s ship, Vella finds herself relatively isolated in a story which painfully lacks the high concept whimsy (and ice cream avalanches) of Shay’s Act 1 story. Though there’s still plenty to love about these places and characters, it’s easy to feel a little short-changed when presented with wholly repeated environments and characters.
By retreading far too much old ground, Act 2 essentially throws away all of the wonder and discovery of the game’s first act, and instead attempts to develop its characters by forcefully swapping their perspectives. Shay learns about Vella, her family and what it’s really like to live in a world of danger and unpredictability, whereas Vella comes to sympathize with Shay’s molly-coddled childhood, and respects the similarity of their situations. These elements are all in place to deliver a really satisfying story, but it feels as though something’s missing, like all the tension and atmosphere left with Mog Chothra.
Though there are still plenty of laughs in Act 2, the whole thing feels blanched by a thin but noticeable layer of cynicism. This is no longer a tale of independent teenagers rebelling against their parents’ curious and frustrating natures, it is a story about parents reeling their children in, and saying: “That’s enough. You’ve had you’re fun”. Without delving into spoiler territory, Act 2 makes some huge narrative missteps, and in doing so manages to wipe away an awful lot of Act 1’s simmering teen angst.
Combine this huge tonal shift with Act 2’s over-reliance on 90s-era adventure game puzzle logic, and you’ve got a recipe for a stunted and awkwardly paced plot that even Shay’s spoon would hesitate to touch. Act 2’s puzzles feel so thinly spread across a large area, making for an awful lot of backtracking to and from already familiar areas. Many are near-impossible to comprehend and complete without a guide too. One puzzle requires you to stand and ignore a presented solution for an entire minute, before the game informs you: “Oh, yeah. You just had to wait it out.” Another repeated puzzle involves rewiring robots, which requires mind-boggling foresight, uncanny attention to detail, and steady nerves in order to complete. Some puzzles are even in-completable without first switching characters and accessing information from their side of the story, an odd system which was never utilised in Act 1, and which cripples the game’s narrative flow, punishing players for not predicting events before they occur.
In theory, I can see why these puzzles would seem like quirky, subversive puzzle-punchlines, but in practice, they feel like a slap across the face, and a far cry from Act 1’s more fluid, flowing puzzles.
Act 2 still keeps to a base level of quality, simply by virtue of its lovable worlds and characters, consistently brilliant voice performances, and fun, snappy dialogue. Just like before, Broken Age is an adventure game in which patience and exploration are rewarded with cute Easter eggs and charming character moments. It’s such a joy to experience each and every conversation to its end, which is why the game’s infuriating “logic” puzzles have such a negative impact on Broken Age’s narrative; we want to keep enjoying occupying this space, but totally obtuse puzzle solutions succeed only in putting up an unwanted difficulty wall.
While Act 1 felt like a modern homage to classic adventure games, Act 2 feels somehow regressive, as though Schafer and co. struggled to leave some of the genre’s more troublesome features on the cutting room floor. What’s left is a game that feels divided, not just in terms of its release, but also in terms of its tone, pacing, puzzles and plot.