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Broken Age: a new era of adventure dawns, but looks familiar

Broken Age is Double Fine's love letter to and resurrection of the adventure genre. Brenna checks her inventory for useful items and sets out to solve the puzzle of whether anybody really wanted that in the first place.

Double Fine was going to save Adventure. Adventure had been neglected too long. Adventure was on its deathbed, the victim of greedy corporate busybodies and underbred console kiddies. We, gentleman all, would open our hearts and our wallets so Double Fine could resurrect a genre that had been neglected too long. The developer's insistence that the glory days of adventure will return was a welcome balm to those left moderately chafed by the passage of time.

But there's a good reason big publishers are leery of point and click adventures, and that's because it's a niche genre with a lot of problems. Most point-and-clicks can be solved by pixel hunting, picking up everything, then clicking everything on everything else until something happens. That's basically true of video game "puzzle solving" in general, but it takes a certain kind of personality to enjoy ponderously strolling back and forth between the same six locations repeating the process over and over again without stopping to shoot terrorists in the face between lever pulls. There are something like 30 million people who like shooting terrorists in the face, but significantly fewer who like solutions such as "find the one of 16 identical-looking items on this screen which is clickable, and start it up by combining a washing machine, crab claw, pair of underpants and dog whistle" enough to do nothing else for eight hours. Especially now that genres exist that also feature decent writing and characters, but let you do something - anything! - else.

When Double Fine popped up in in early 2012, determined to save adventure, there were questions to be asked. One, did adventure actually need saving or was it ticking along quite nicely, thank you, even if nobody wants to give you $100 million to do it? Two, does anyone really want adventure to be "saved", or can we just quietly pop it back on the back burner with others like simulation, there to be loved by few and ignored by the many who'd rather be shooting terrorists in the face? Three, how the hell can you "save" a genre which has built into its very definition a bunch of strictures the mainstream gamer is never going to embrace?

I think we know the answer to that last one, actually, because TellTale already did it, a couple of months after Double Fine's Kickstarter closed: you get a good license, you give players a reason to care, and you make genuine changes to the long-standing formula.

How embarrassing, then, that the self-proclaimed saviour of adventure hasn't done any of this. To criticise Broken Age is, in many ways, to criticise old-school adventure gaming itself. There's nothing really wrong with Broken Age. It's a classic Tim Schafer point-and-click adventure. It oozes charm. It's just not one of the two things it might have been - a really mainstream-friendly take on the genre, or a really hardcore offering for old-school fans. Instead, we've got a disappointingly traditional reprisal of an old theme sans the challenge, enrobed in a whimsically kooky wrapper.

Let's start with the good things. The ability to switch between Vella and Shae is fantastic. Even before the plots start to come together - subtly, and much more satisfyingly if you do the two chapters simultaneously rather than one after the other - it's a wonderful feature. Whenever you get a bit lost or frustrated - hello, adventure games - you can take a break by visiting the other story. It's refreshing, and the two realms are so different and splendid that it's a genuine pleasure to explore them. They don't interact in any way, though.

The characters are varied and interesting, and it's great to see so many female characters, not all of whom exist to be eaten by monsters. Meeting the inhabitants of the villages Vella visits is fun and the voice acting, in particular, is terrific. The humour and style aren't going to charm everybody, unfortunately - you either like Schafer's stuff or you don't - but whether you're logging onto forums to feverishly share your experience ("a talking SPOON!!!!11!!!one!!") or a bit put off by it you can't argue with the production values. Where did your millions go? Elijah Wood, Jack Black and co. earned their salaries.

Vella's journey is the more varied of the two, taking in several locations.

The graphics and animation are appealing and clever; it's all unrelentingly gorgeous, but in a deliberately misleading low-fi style. As a result, the way everyone jerks around like puppets and gestures with the suddenness of skipped frames seems intentional, and therefore doesn't make your eyeballs vomit blood.

Finally, you can double click an exit to instantly leave a field rather than having to watch your chosen hero trot slowly to their destination, which is not entirely new but thank god. On a similar note: press space bar to skip things you've seen before.

Now the bad: the puzzles are only ever going to give you trouble when you've missed picking something up. Several of them are "solved" in conversation by simple trial and error; you try all the available options until you win. Sometimes you can guess the right one immediately by paying attention to other things the person has said, but since this is a quirky Schafer universe character motivations are often entirely men-tile and you are better off flipping a coin. Not that it matters - there's never any consequence for being wrong, or failing one of the few sections requiring reflexes.

There's no consequence to anything because there's nothing non-linear, and that's a trope of classic adventure I feel we could live without in 2014. The player follows a very strict A to B, and while it's very fair and just of Double Fine to ensure you don't need to backtrack very often to solve puzzles it does mean you can be fairly sure whatever problem you're facing can be solved by dint of clicking randomly where you're standing. Almost every puzzle item can be obtained in advance of your actually needing it, too, which is weird (why precisely am I trying so hard to get this piece of abstract art from a lumberjack?) if sometimes convenient (oh thank god I don't have to trek back four screens for this except now I have to anyway for the next puzzle).

The puzzles are neither complicated enough to satisfy those old-school fans who really enjoy classic adventure games, nor logical and straightforward enough to appeal to people who don't consider it normal to, oh, stick a pelican to a bus with glue made from beeswax and barnacle spit in order to use the flying bus to knock down a door which has a doorknob right there, I'm just saying. That's not a real example, because spoilers, but it's close.

Shay's story contains a good, well-communicated multi-part puzzle.

On top of all that, there are sections which are just kind of boring. Several of Shay's sequences are deliberately, cleverly simple and dull - you'll understand when you get there, and I'm not complaining about that. It's just that there were other times when I'd been listening to someone drone on for a bit and hadn't actually interacted with the game for a couple of minutes. I started browsing RSS feeds on my phone because I play games to be active and stimulated, not to passively receive entertainment. Especially when that entertainment is a lot of world building background for an area we exited shortly thereafter and expect never to return to.

In short, Broken Age is pretty good, but it's got a few problems and I'm disappointed overall. I suppose nobody ever said that Broken Age had to innovate substantially and revolutionise adventure gaming, or to really capture the old-school spirit; mainly the developer needs to satisfy its fans and make enough money to finish development and go on to whatever comes next. But these are goals I set for it myself, because I helped pay for the damn thing, and it didn't meet those goals.

Although Double Fine has made noises about getting review builds to press, I've been playing Broken Age because I backed it. I'm telling you this so you know I've got a horse in this race, and am likely therefore to be critical and over-excited. The emotional investment on this project, coupled with the long wait, split release and budgetary mismanagement, has made some fans livid.

I'm not livid; I'm just underwhelmed, and not enough of a fan of either Schafer or adventure games to be like "aww yiss, some mother-clucking bread crumbs, which I will combine with slug juice to make mortar for the wall I'm building to stop the water hitting the baby animal farm rather than just turning off the hose". Broken Age, ladies and gentleman: you probably already know if you like it or not.

The first of two acts of Broken Age is now available to crowdfunding backers through a Humble Bundle log-in. It will release to the general public on January 28. The second act will follow as a free update. You can save 10% with a Steam pre-purchase. It's available on Linux, Mac and PC.

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