The first time I visited Meriloft in Broken Age: Act 1, it was a wondrous experience. Why was this pretentious man dressed as a bird, and why was his rotund son dressed like a nest? How did this village stay afloat in the clouds? Was H’rmony Lightbeard as crooked as he appeared? Why didn’t C’rol leave her good-for-nothing husband? There were mysteries to explore, puzzles to solve, and recognizably human–despite their surrealist absurdity–characters to acquaint myself with.
When you return to Meriloft in Broken Age: Act 2–under circumstances that I don’t dare spoil for those who haven’t completed Act 1 yet–you see this world through a fresh lens. And while the mystery of cloud shoes and Gus and F’ther are lessened, there’s enough of a sense of the unknown and new twists to pull you through. Why are familiar faces from another part of the world here? What will they do when they realize who you are? There are new mysteries and new puzzles, and it’s a joy again…at first. But you will return to Meriloft to solve puzzle after puzzle after puzzle, and like every area in Broken Age: Act 2, you start to find yourself a little tired of it.
The puzzles that can be completed in your character’s self-contained story are almost all more involved than those in the first act.
Broken Age: Act 2 is a classic example of being careful what you wish for. When Act 1 was released early last year, the primary complaints against the game were its short length and overly simple puzzles. Act 2 is a clear response to those complaints on Double Fine’s part. The game clocks in at over twice the length of Act 1, while the puzzles are often brain benders in the best Monkey Island/Grim Fandango tradition. But in the transition, Broken Age also succumbs to some of the worst obfuscation and backtracking found in classic point-and-click games.
It’s impossible to discuss Broken Age: Act 2’s plot in any depth without spoiling the end of Act 1 because Act 2 picks off seconds after the events in Act 1. Let me simply say that the plights of Vella Tartine–the girl who raged against her role as a village sacrifice–and Shay Volta–the boy who rebelled against the endless comfort and routine of his sheltered spaceship existence–find themselves smashed together. If Act 1 felt like two separate stories fused together only at the last second, Act 2 intertwines the lives and destinies of our heroes into one gorgeously realized world.
Broken Age: Act 2 is a classic example of being careful what you wish for.
That sense of cohesion extends past the storytelling. Without wanting to rob any players of the delight of working out some of Broken Age’s most devious and intricate puzzles, you can no longer play the game by completing each hero/heroine’s story and then tackling the other half the game. Clues are embedded in each character’s world that feed back to the other’s world. If you are banging your head against your monitor trying to figure out where you went wrong and you’re convinced you’ve exhausted every tool the game’s given you so far, as I did on multiple occasions, you’re simply missing information you need. Play as the other character for a while, and be observant of some subtle (and occasionally maddeningly subtle) environmental clues for the other hero. The absence of this sort of puzzle-solving in Act 1 makes it a jarring transition in Act 2, but, fortunately, if you fail often enough (as I did), the game clues you in on how to proceed.
Even the puzzles that can be completed in your character’s self-contained story are almost all more involved than those in the first act. And they are as outrageously round-about in execution as the game’s 90s spiritual ancestors. There’s never a Longest Journey “rubber ducky”-level of adventure-game lateral thinking evoked, but you can try to enjoy the mental gymnastics you’ll force yourself to go through to figure out how to make a new fancy part for your spaceship. I’ll give you a hint: it involves a snake, sand, and a pitch pipe. For those who grew up on the rubber chicken/pulley nonsense of The Secret of Monkey Island, that sort of outrageous “connect the dots” puzzle solving is half the genre’s appeal. But even for those who enjoy The Longest Journey and its ilk and are used to obtuse puzzles, Broken Age: Act 2 occasionally becomes too enamored with its own subtle cleverness, and its puzzles feel more obfuscated than fun to solve.
Broken Age succumbs to some of the worst obfuscation and backtracking found in classic point-and-click games.
To top it all off, while you spend 80% of Act 2 in areas you explored in Act 1, you spend a not-insignificant portion of your play time running back and forth across these massively developed areas trying to figure out what random inventory item goes to which character. Meriloft has items you need to solve puzzles in Shellmound, which provides items needed to solve puzzles in the Tomb of the Dead Eye God, which provides items to solve puzzles in Meriloft and the forest, and so on. The game features a handy feature where double-clicking on the edge of a location allows you to travel away from it fast, but that doesn’t alleviate the frustration of spending a quarter of the game wandering around aimlessly as you try to figure out who could possibly use the tap Gus was using to juice an orange or how to sneak into a heavily guarded area of the spaceship when the useful shortcuts have been removed.
Despite that, Broken Age weaves an enchanting world. The storybook visuals are as impressive as they were last year. Broken Age is the sort of game I would have fallen in love with as a child, even though I would have lacked the mental skills to solve its puzzles. Combining a storybook aesthetic with watercolors that are strangely reminiscent of Diego Rivera, Broken Age is still one of the most gorgeous games of the 2010s. And the game’s narrative finally plays on its Lovecraftian sci-fi premise in fun and unexpected ways, even though the ultimate villain proves to be forgettable compared to Act 1’s self-aware reveal. The writing is never Psychonauts-good, but, honestly, what game’s writing is?
Broken Age pushes your mental faculties to their limit by the end. On multiple occasions, I became terrified that I wouldn’t be able to solve a puzzle and I’d have to resign in disgrace. I pity the poor souls who had to beat Myst without guides in the proto-internet era. For the most part, those moments leave you satisfied with your own intelligence and problem-solving skills. But the moments when a solution just makes you say “Really?” in a frustrated tone and when you wander seemingly without direction occur often enough to rob Broken Age of a sad amount of its magic.