Broken Age: Act 2
Android, iOS, Ouya, PC, PS4, Vita
Just as her first act did, the second part of Vella’s Broken Age story opens with a knife. But rather than searching for cutlery with which to slice a cake, she instead narrowly avoids being shivved by a talking blade from Shay’s ship. Following Act 1’ s cliffhanger, you see, the pair of protagonists have accidentally switched places, and now find themselves forced to make daunting reassessments of what they thought was reality. Shay’s story also echoes the beginning of the game, with his computerised father from the Bassinostra attempting to wake him from unconsciousness. As you might imagine, however, neither scenario is quite what it seems.
So begins the bulkier, Double Fine-funded (the development of Act 2 was sustained by Act 1 sales after the Kickstarter pot ran dry) portion of Broken Age. Act 2 is roughly twice the size of its forebear, in fact, but while it might be considerably longer, don’t expect much new territory to explore: the bulk of this episode is spent acquainting Vella and Shay with each other’s prior locations. That’s not to say that nothing has changed when you get there – Vella’s new stomping ground, especially, has sustained enough damage to make it feel unfamiliar – but there’s an undeniable pang of disappointment when you reach the end of the game with only four or five entirely new scenes to show for it.
What you get instead is the chance to explore welltrodden paths in a new context, and with fresh eyes. Characters you’ve met before have been reshuffled and many have made amusing changes to their work/life balance. There are also a few new faces along the way, none of whom make themselves unwelcome. As you would imagine, there are also plentiful references to the first episode’s events and puzzles, along with all manner of callback gags, and having the lot fresh in your memory will provide clues as to how to progress this time around. It’s well worth playing through Act 1 again before you continue the story, then.
Act 2 also represents the second half of the difficulty curve, addressing a criticism of vocal adventure purists, who felt that Act 1 offered too soft a challenge. Puzzles here are more complex, their components placed farther apart, and now information gathered by one character might offer the solution to a poser blockading the other, a change that had us stumped on a Nav Scarf quandary for longer than we’d care to admit. It’s not quite up to Day Of The Tentacle’s time-travelling conundrums – and there’s none of that game’s exchanging of items between characters – but it further bonds the two worlds and adds an enjoyable layer to Broken Age that, if anything, feels underused. The increased difficulty comes in the form of more oblique head scratchers, too, at least two of which function in such a way that it’s easy to fractionally miss out on the solution and go in search of nonexistent items or conversations.
But such moments are rare, and for the most part puzzles unfurl and then come together in an entirely satisfying, surreally logical manner. You’ll get to rewire robots, expose a fraud and even attempt a couple of sequences that will require reaction times as quick as your wits. The finale, especially, requires you to juggle an uncommonly large number of time-sensitive elements to succeed, and will prove a steep challenge for even the most click-hardened veterans. But while Broken Age might be a service to longtime Tim Schafer fans, it’s also going in search of a new audience. PS4 and Vita versions are flanked by iOS, Android and Ouya builds, and the team has built in format-specific control schemes across the board (you can now also play the PC game with an Xbox pad or switch to tablet mode for Windows-powered slabs). Pad controls work well, with the triggers reserved for speeding up and slowing down cursor movement, which is controlled by the left stick, while the right stick allows you to snap between items of interest, a novel addition that entirely eliminates pixel searching. It’s worth noting that smaller tablet, phone and Vita screens prove a perfect fit for Broken Age’s painterly visual style, sharpening everything up and appearing to intensify the game’s rich colour palette. Better still, the extreme close-ups of scenery that looked a little fuzzy on PC suffer much less here.
All of the first act’s celebrity cast reprise their roles, and while Elijah Wood’s Shay and Masasa Moyo’s Vella are exceptional, it’s again the relatively small parts that stand out. Wil Wheaton’s lumberjack, Curtis, is hilarious; Pendleton Ward’s newly self-confident Gus is simply peachy. Marek and Alex, played by David Kaufman and Alex Rigopulos respectively, get more screen time, and the latter delivers some timely, thinly veiled jokes about rhythm-action’s apparent demise.
But beyond the copious gags, the plot continues to be as refreshing as it is captivating right up to the end, and the twists you thought were coming after the conclusion of Act 1 might not turn out entirely as suspected. It’s more than enough to overpower the nagging sense of fatigue that builds as you continue to haunt the same locations, especially when it comes to the hub-like Merriloft, which requires a fair amount of hiking to get between locations. It’s a design choice that can make the world feel smaller than it really is, too.
But with a cast, story and world this charming, and this dazzlingly original, it’s easy to brush off such concerns as you’re swept up in videogames’ most enjoyable yarn in quite some time. Broken Age is by no means perfect, but it remains a staggering display of imagination, design and performance that makes a powerful case for what can be achieved with the simplest of ingredients.
While Elijah Wood’s Shay and Masasa Moyo’s Vella are exceptional, it’s the relatively small parts that stand out