Broken Age: Act II Review
Broken Age’s first act ended on one heck of a cliffhanger, and left me wondering what Vella and Shay would be doing next. Thank goodness I wasn’t holding my breath; a year after the first half was released, Broken Age’s story has come to a conclusion that is absolutely worth the wait.
I spent hours playing the first half of Broken Age’s concurrent stories, wondering how they were connected. They couldn’t have been more different – Vella was a tough young woman who bucked tradition because, well, it was stupid. Shay lived an isolated and coddled existence on a spaceship, and he desperately wanted to see what was behind its toddler-toy facade. Thanks to the cliffhanger at the end of Act I, we know a lot more about them – but just as I’d grown fond of each character and figured out how their lives intersected, they were yanked apart. Without revealing too much about the previous installment, this half depicts what happens after Shay and Vella switch places; Vella is in the lonely spacecraft, and Shay is ejected onto Shellmound Beach.
People often get carried away and say that a sequel or chapter changes everything you think you knew about a world. Broken Age’s second act doesn’t do that. There are surprises and big revelations, to be sure, but the world remains largely familiar – and that’s one of its many strengths. When I started guiding Vella through Shay’s ship, I had a nagging suspicion that this part of the game was going to be shorter and less ambitious than what came before. Doors that I could walk right through in Act I were now broken, and paths I’d walked on were blocked off. It’s not until I switched to Shay that I fully appreciated what’s going on.
The first half of Broken Age was about setting up the pieces and then knocking them over with a well-intentioned swipe of the arm. Now, players – and our heroes – have to sort through the consequences of those actions. You don’t knock a sacrifice-craving deity out of the sky without causing a few ripples after all. Some of the effects are obvious; I approached Marshall Dune to say hello, but he still has the pitch pipe stuck in his throat and it’s impossible to decipher what he’s trying to say. Car’l has left her husband behind in Meriloft to try her hand at fishing. That pile of fish guts continues to reek. Others reveal themselves over time.
On the ship, Vella learns more about her greater role in the world, while sorting through and repairing the damage she caused. Shay, too, feels the consequences of Vella’s actions – fortunately she left a positive effect on the people she met. The talking (and puking) tree, however, is one notable exception. Vella continues to develop as a determined and strong character in her portion of the story. Meanwhile, Shay’s experience with being duped makes him particularly well-suited to deal with Broken Age’s cast of supporting characters.
Game designer Tim Schafer recommends that players start from the very beginning of the game before playing through the new content – even those who have already completed Act I. I took his advice, and I recommend you do the same. It made moments like revisiting the snake in the forest that much better, since I still had the agony of wondering what was behind him fresh in my mind. Note: The payoff is supremely stupid and great.
Vella’s time on the ship becomes more interesting as time goes on, too, but it’s her turn to feel isolated. One of the reasons Shay was eager to get off the ship was because he was so lonely, and Vella doesn’t have much of a chance to socialize, but the few characters she encounters are funny and unexpected. I know humor is subjective, but I think Broken Age represents the apex of Double Fine’s writing. The laughs don’t come from desperate pop-culture references and forced slapstick. Instead, it’s reminiscent of hanging out with a funny friend; the lighthearted tone and surface whimsy are present throughout, but there’s also the same sinister undertone beneath the whipped-cream coating. It’s a delicate balance that never wobbles too far in one direction.
The first act had its share of tricky puzzles, but I worked through most of them and lucked out through the rest. Act II isn’t nearly as forgiving, but it is just as fair. Two of the standouts involve unraveling a tricky knot by proxy, and a deeply involved puzzle built around robotics. By the time I finished playing, I had piles of scrap paper around me, which I consider the sign of a game well done. Solutions are logical, and don’t rely on obtuse adventure-game logic; I was almost always left thinking, “Oh, of course,” after finally punching in the final step of a tricky puzzle.
Act II does something that’s a bit jarring, however. While you can swap between characters at will in Act I, it’s purely optional. I completed Vella’s Act I adventure in its entirety before moving over to Shay’s, for example. In the second part of the game, a couple of puzzles require swapping characters to find clues. One of the instances is so clever that I feel bad for calling it out, but it feels unfair to rely on the swapping mechanic after conditioning players to see it as optional.
I was happy to rejoin Shay and Vella and help guide them through this adventure’s conclusion. Who doesn’t want to root for a pair of underdogs, especially when they’re up against forces that seem to relish in ignorance? In spite of the bizarre human-sacrifice mythology and space-simulation hijinks, Broken Age is a wonderful tale grounded in relationships and how two people – no matter how insignificant they might seem – can make a difference.