WARNING: Spoilers for Broken Age: Act 1 follow.
Broken Age is an absolutely stunning game that successfully tells a single, cohesive story across two characters’ uniquely intertwined experiences. Act 1 introduced us to Shay and Vella, two youths who had never met but whose lives were destined to collide, quite literally, when Vella destroyed Shay’s spaceship and home at the first half’s conclusion. Our time up to this meeting had been split between the two, guiding each toward their similar yet beautifully juxtaposed goals.
Shay dreamed of real adventure and responsibility, the freedom to make his own choices and mistakes beyond the ever-present, watchful eye of his “motherly” computer. Vella wanted to escape her family’s oppressive traditions, fighting back against a system that claimed being fed to a monster was a “great honor.” Shay’s world, which had always been defined by his guardians, opened up when he met the mysterious wolf Marek and began taking action that would affect those outside his bubble. Vella found that despite living in an open, multicultural world, the close-minded traditions of her people held the rest of the neighboring cities prisoner, too.
These two paths and realizations lead our heroes to where we begin in Act 2: Shay has been flung from his ship and stranded on the beach of a new, unfamiliar place. Vella is trapped inside the ship and monster she’s been struggling against this entire time, along with the realization that this is much more than a bottomless feeding machine. We won’t give away plot points for Act 2, but suffice to say, their courses are destined to cross yet again.
Along the way, all the charm and humor we fell for in Act 1 returns, as well as a rewarding aftermath to the first act’s conclusion. Shay has to awkwardly interact with the townspeople he’s apparently been terrorizing all these years; Vella wanders the wrecked ship as a proud harbinger of doom, admiring her destructive handiwork. The characters are even more endearing in this second half, as Shay’s morose brooding is replaced by youthful awe at the outside world, and Vella’s aimless doubt turns to confident determination that she can, and will, stop the mogs.
The gorgeous, hand-drawn artwork gives life to even the simplest movement: in one scene, Shay briefly glances up with just the tiniest flick of his giant eyes, giving us a window into his vainly teenage thoughts about another character. In another, Vella’s look of worry and delicate fingers show us her empathy for a broken robot, a rare glimpse at the soft side she supposedly abandoned back in Sugar Bunting.
Of course, Vella and Shay are only two of the stars of this show, and Act 2 is strengthened by a slightly expanded cast, as well as return visits from all of the world’s quirky citizens. Favorites like Harm’ny Lightbeard and the “dead-eye druids,” Dawn and Courtney, return in full, along with conclusions to many of their stories. (Yes, you will get to learn the truth about Brother Lightbeard!)
However, despite the joy of getting to see and interact with Broken Age’s denizens again, Act 2 does suffer a bit of “been there, done that” syndrome. Besides a unique intro screen for both characters, the rest of this Act is trapped within the confines of previously visited locations. Vella will explore Shay’s ship in a newly disarrayed state, but it’s still the same rooms and wonky teleporters. Similarly, Shay has access to Shellmound, the woods, and Meriloft, all of which are almost as Vella—and the player—left them (understandably, since all of five minutes have passed since the end of Act 1). While we love these locations and feel a sense of comfortable nostalgia in visiting them again, some of the sense of wonder instilled in Act 1 is lost in the lack of new locales.
This recycling of assets carries over into the puzzles, too, many of which will be familiar to players who just finished Act 1. Star chart-stitching, teleporter head-resizing, and tree sap-vomit are just some of the events directly recalled from the first half. Again, like the environments, there’s both a sense of world continuity and dull repetition in this. Luckily, there are plenty of new puzzles thrown in, some of which significantly increase the difficulty since our last trip.
Act 1 favored simplicity in its puzzles, rarely presenting challenges you couldn’t deduce your way through or randomly throw items at. Act 2 has a number of classically confusing point-and-click problems, with multiple levels of obscurity and “Did you notice that tiny detail six screens back?” This is exasperated by the fact that Act 2 requires you to switch between Vella and Shay to solve some of their puzzles, yet never indicates this in any way. Because Act 1 was beatable without interim switching, this new requirement is easy to overlook, leaving players to wander aimlessly until frustration leads them to try a last-ditch switch.
Broken Age is not, however, one of the harder point-and-click adventures out there. Its limited environments, smaller inventories, and lack of pixel-hunting clutter prevent too much aimlessness, and these are all still present in Act 2. The objects you come across are almost always related to the plot or character development in some way, and those that aren’t—like Shay’s “sad sack”—are just for fun.
And that is true of Broken Age as a whole, too. It’s just plain fun. The annoying puzzles in Act 2 don’t negate this. And while we sometimes felt Act 2 was just a lightly modified Act 1, if you enjoyed the first half, there’s only more to love here. Unlike Shay, we don’t want to get off this ship. But, like Vella, we wouldn’t mind a few more explosions.