It's almost impossible to judge Broken Age without mentioning the insurmountable hype surrounding its three million dollar Kickstarter campaign.
After all, this is the game made without the intrusive tinkering of those nuisance publishers. A game paid for by fans, and built under the peering eye of a documentary crew.
The Kickstarter pitch was vague: Tim Schafer, of Grim Fandango and Psychonauts fame, needed a few bucks to create an old school point and click adventure. The sort of game that would make a publisher snap its chequebook shut like a crocodile's jaw.
The end result is Broken Age: a tale split in half (well, in quarters if you consider that this is just act 1 of the adventure), with two characters telling two stories in two worlds.Fixing what ain't broken
First there's Vella, a young girl who's been chosen as her village's sacrifice to the monster Mog Chothera. Her parents are overjoyed, but Vella's not, and hunts for a way to kill the beast and stop the deranged ritual for good.
Then there's Shay, the only human occupant on a ship drifting through space. He's mollycoddled by an overbearing computerised Mother who sends him on spoof missions involving ice cream avalanches and stuffed toys in pantomime peril.
When he finds a way to break out of his safe routine and get involved with some real danger, he dives in headfirst.An age apart
The stories are different in location, pacing, and tone, but they explore similar coming-of-age themes. They're about teenagers breaking out of their suffocating childhood lives and shattering the expectations of those around them.
It's a warm and uplifting game that feels a little bit like a young adult novel. And it's not afraid to break away from the loopy comedy and madcap hijinks of Schafer's earlier work.
At times though it can feel too gentle, and it misses the sharp edges and sharper wit that made games like Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle so memorable.
It plays things safe, and doesn't make the bold, daring strides that the Kickstarter pitch seemed to promise.Head in the clouds
The two heroes are rather flimsy, but they're well written and voiced. It's fantastic to see a damsel-in-distress who doesn't need a brave knight to rescue her. Vella is feisty and fierce all by herself.
But both blend into the background when cast amidst two whole universe's worth of rich and inventive characters. And while most of the credit goes to Schafer's smart comedy writing, the voice acting seals the deal.
There's Jack Black as charming cloud hippy Harm’ny Lightbeard; David Kaufman as a slick, shadowy wolf; and Pendleton Ward as a hopeless sad-sack who gets his underpants snagged on a tree branch.
These characters inhabit imaginative worlds, all drawn with a gorgeous painterly look. Some of the character animations are a little rough, but the backdrops are stunning and packed with tiny details.Mother ship
The real downfall is the puzzles, which just aren't very compelling.
Most of them are painfully obvious. Often the solutions are given away by the tiny number of objects you're juggling at any one time, or the winking hints buried in the dialogue.
The frustratingly obtuse puzzles of '90s point and click adventures don't really have a place in 2014, when a walkthrough is just a click away, but this goes too far in the other direction.
There are still some sticking points, mostly in frustrating timed sections where you have to think fast. Miss your chance and you have to wait for the opportunity to roll around again.Disappoint and click
Judged on its own merits Broken Age is a charming adventure game, with some strong characters and snappy writing, that's let down by easy and insubstantial puzzles.
But if you're aware of the Kickstarter's promises, and Schafer's legacy, Broken Age can feel too soft, safe, and ephemeral. This doesn't feel like an anarchic middle finger to the publishers, or a bold rethink of an old genre.
Here's hoping that act 2 can deliver a satisfying conclusion, take a few risks, and offer some tougher puzzles as well.