Just over three years since the Kickstarter drive for the "Double Fine Adventure" ended, we can finally play the entire saga of Broken Age. Act 2 has touched down a year after Act 1 did, completing the tale of Vella Tartine and Shay Volta. How did the adventure end, three years and millions of dollars later?
Not as strong as Act 1, sadly.
As a recap, Broken Age is the story of two characters: Vella and Shay. Vella is a baker's daughter who's offered up as one of the sacrifices to the monster Mog Chothra. She's not willing to take this sitting down, so she hatches a plot to defeat the beast. Shay on the other hand is the sole living inhabitant of a floating starship, trapped in a world that's built to keep him safe and sound, with no rought edges or hardships.
I was pretty high on the first half of Broken Age when I reviewed it last year. My review summary: "Broken Age is a cute, colorful tale about growing up. While the 'game' part of the experience is pretty straightforward - like an old-school adventure game - the world is full of charming and unique characters. Sit back, figure out some puzzles, and experience the wonderful little tale that Double Fine has crafted." I had to replay Act 1 because it had been a year since I had last experienced the world. Even with my second playthrough, I stand by my original tkae on Act 1. The second half runs into a few problems though.
While Act 1 was an enchanting view into the world of Shay and Vella, meeting new characters and seeing new sights, the budget Double Fine had to work with means Act 2 revisits the same cast and locales. We're still working with two hub areas, Vella's island home and Shay's spaceship. The world and its characters still look beautiful, rendered in a unique art and animation style that I hope the tudio carries forward into other games. The difference is Shay is now on the island and Vella is on the spaceship, combined with some cosmetic changes to denote the new status quo after the end of Act 1.
Playing both acts back-to-back makes the game feel like a regression in parts; the second act trends downward from the climax of the first, until its final moments. Many classic adventure games made it a point to throw new things at the player up until the end, but Broken Age falters. The game tries when it introduces the culprits behind the entire Mog system, but even then, the action takes place in the same well-worn areas players have long since grown used to. It feels... tiring.
While parts of Broken Age represent the best of old point-and-click adventure games, some of its puzzles represent the worst. (I stress "some" because a number of Act 2's puzzle are perfectly fine.) Broken Age Act 1's puzzles were rather easy; there might have been a few that stumped players for a few minutes, but nothing particularly difficult. Act 2 has some real stumpers, as if Double Fine took that particular criticism of Act 1 to heart. You'll find yourself wandering around the world using everything in your inventory on anything you can interact with. Some puzzle logic is simply divorced from any sort of common sense, instead forcing players to reverse-engineer the developer's intentions or simply arrive at a solution by plug-n-chug.
The worst of this is what's not explained to the player. The stories and worlds of each character are unconnected until you reached the end of the first act. You could switch back-and-forth between characters in Act 1, but there was no real reason to do so. Given that, many played completely through Vella's story, then followed-up with Shay's, or vice-versa. That doesn't work in Act 2. Though the characters are still unconnected storywise for most of Act 2, solutions for various puzzles will sometimes be found in the other character's plotline. This information isn't shared between the characters; the only transmission is through the player. You'll see a bit of the environment in Vella's part that will be a solution to a problem Shay is having. Bring over the information and your puzzle is solved.
This style of puzzle-solving isn't hinted at in Act 1. If you try to play Act 2 like you played Act 1, you'll simply find yourself stuck. You'll wander around from area-to-area, interacting with everything, utilizing the trial-and-error method of puzzle solving. I only switched characters out of frustration after wandering around with Shay for 30-40 minutes. It's a problem of not setting expectations correctly. The final puzzle takes the mechanic to the limit, requiring the player to switch back-and-forth multiple times between both characters in order to discern the solution. It's a painfully exacting puzzle that may have some players simply turning to a guide instead of putting in the byzantine effort to figure it out.
This act also loses some of the the themes present in the first half of the game. Broken Age Act 1 felt like it was tackling the journey from adolescence to adulthood. Both Shay and Vella knew there was something more out there and they rejected in rules and platitudes of their parental figures to explore their independence. It's a pretty strong theme, one that speaks to the childhood experiences of many of us.
In Act 2, that theme is mostly discarded. Perhaps this act is dealing with the drudgery of young adulthood and responsibility? Shay is primarily concerned with cleaning up the mess he made due to his actions in the first act. (Actions that made perfect sense with the information he had on hand. Early Act 2 revelations about his family are head-scratching at best.) Vella still has the strongest story of the pair, as she continues on her quest to rid her world of the Mog threat once and for all. Vella is all about decisive action, while Shay's half of the plot feels more like meandering; one protagonist is go-getter valedictorian, the other is pursuing an Undecided major in college. The loss of the central theme is a shame because it was a strong one, and there are ways they could've carried it forward.
If it feels like I'm harping on Broken Age, it's because I'm a bit disappointed. Act 1 was a great start for the title, and while Act 2 carries some of those ideas and concepts forward, it fails to capitalize on them. Together, they make a solid title that I'll look back on with some fondness. Unfortunately, taken alone, Act 2 just isn't that satisfying.
Once you've run through Broken Age once, there's little reason to return.
Some of the puzzles lack any sort of consistent logic, instead forcing players to divine the intentions of the developer.
The voice acting and music is a delight, even if the expository nature of some of the dialogue means famous voice actors have little to work with.
Broken Age still look beautiful and animates well.
Together, Broken Age Acts 1 and 2 make a solid game that players will look back on fondly. Unfortunately, the second act doesn't live up to the promise of the first. Themes are dropped, puzzles seem a bit more obtuse, and the environments feel like a retread of the first act.