Broken Age is a pretty darn good game. I’ve been a fan of the “LucasArts style” adventure game since the first ones came out decades ago. I eagerly backed Double Fine’s Kickstarter, although their handling of the issues surrounding it soured me on the concept of overfunded Kickstarters altogether. All those (mostly) nice things said, there are some really terrible puzzles in Broken Age. In this article, I’ll lay out my top 5 complaints.
I should preface this with a special kind of spoiler alert - I think these are the good kind of spoilers. These are frustration reducing spoilers. Still, if you want to enjoy Broken Age completely unspoilt, now is a good time to stop reading.
First I’m going to run down the puzzles in a quick list, with minimal spoilers. Then I’m going to dissect each puzzle and provide the solution, while explaining why I found it so frustrating. So if you insist on continuing to read, you’ll know whereabouts to expect a dumb puzzle, and you can return later if you want the solution.
All of these puzzles occur in Act 2. That’s not to say there aren’t any bad ones in Act 1, but the ones that really stuck out occurred later in the game. I think part of the reason why is that the puzzles in the second half got a lot more complex - many of the puzzles in Act 1 are pretty basic, and have minimal items or moving around involved.
My 5 least favorite puzzles in Broken Age are:
- The “Favorite Stuffed Animal” puzzle
- The “Fried Hexipal” puzzle
- The “Zero-G Acrobatics” puzzle
- The “Trash Chute” puzzle
- The “Space Weaver” puzzle (at the end of Act 2)
Okay, last chance to avoid spoilers. You ready?
This is something like the third puzzle you encounter in Vella’s portion of Act 2. I almost put the first puzzle (the one about connecting hoses and stuff) in this slot, just because of how unintuitive that puzzle is. However, I feel like this one is worse.
The basic thing you’re trying to do here is to access Mom’s room on the ship. There are a couple of different aspects to this puzzle. One, you’ve got to sound like Shay. Two, you’ve got to be able to answer a few quiz questions about Shay’s life.
The quiz questions to me are very problematic. Act 1 was all about leaving the two protagonists to their own devices, and this is really the first time that I encountered (having played Vella first in both acts) where I had to cross over information from one part of the game to another. It didn’t make obvious sense to me that there are parts of this puzzle which require Shay’s input, and parts which can be solved solely by Vella.
To solve the first part, you’ve got to send Shay to meet the snake west of the lumberjack’s hut. This was something you could do as Vella in Act 1, but the only way to get back out was to blow the horn, which doesn’t really “solve” anything so much as get you out of an otherwise impossible to solve situation. In Act 2 with Shay, you’ve got to... do nothing.
Nothing at all. You’ve got to just sit and wait until the snake gets tired and gives up. While the snake is struggling with Shay, Shay will call him “Mister Huggy.” That, along with a photo in the “trophy room” tells you what you need to know to answer the question of Shay’s favorite stuffed animal.
The other half of the quiz is determining Shay’s last pair of handmade boots. This one is significantly more straightforward - the objects in Shay’s trophy room will give you enough information to suss this out, although there are so many hotspots that it can be confusing to determine if you’ve seen every hint.
When Shay leaves the ship in Act 2, he finds a broken Hexipal. The Hexipal needs to be repaired in order for it to help repair the derelict ship’s electronics. There’s wire missing, but this part of the puzzle is fairly straightforward. An NPC on the beach is playing with a spool of wire and wants a hook. Solving another puzzle in Merloft and dealing with the talking tree helps here.
The part that gets me is trying to figure out what pattern of wire the Hexipal requires in order to operate. If you show the Hexipal to Shay’s dad, he’ll comment on the missing wire, and it really feels like he should be part of this puzzle, but he’s not.
In order to rewire the Hexipal, you’ll have to use him on Shay. Then you’ll see 6 terminals and have 3 pieces of wire to connect between them. But what connects to what? There are far too many combinations to brute force, so there must be hints.
Nobody gives any hints as to what to do next, though. What you’ve got to do is take him to the ship and stuff him in the diamond shaped socket on the left wall. Assuming the wires have been placed in some pattern, you’ll see a set of symbols - but let me reiterate - you only see this if you’ve taken a guess at a puzzle that seems unguessable.
Now you’ve got symbols. Great. Shay comments that he wishes he was back on his ship so that he had access to the resources required to repair the Hexipal. This is a hint that you need some information from Vella’s exploration in order to proceed.
However, here again we have a puzzle with no hints. You can scour the ship from top to bottom, but the only reference to the Hexipal’s symbols is in...
...the background of a family photo on the bridge. It’s easy to miss, and missing it means you’ll have no clue how to proceed. Vella and Shay’s mom don’t talk about Hexipals at all, and there’s no mention of them anywhere else on the ship.
Now you’ve got to work out what connections make what symbols, and match the symbols to the diagrams in the background of the photo. It’s doable from here, but it’s still a bit more tedious than it really needs to be.
Ugh. This one I hate mostly because it’s a timing puzzle in an adventure game.
Action sequences are not unheard of in adventure games - there are tons of examples, dating all the way back to the early Sierra games. The one I remember the most clearly is in Space Quest I (VGA), where you have to drive a little landspeeder from a hangar to a nearby town. Along the way, you have to dodge incoming rocks and other obstacles to avoid trashing the speeder.
Adventure game engines and interfaces just aren’t designed for puzzles involving a lot of precise timing. I could just as easily criticize the “grappling arm” minigame near the end of Shay’s quests in Act 1, which relies on precise timing as well. The latency from button press to action, including animation and so forth, is just not well suited for this sort of thing.
In this puzzle, you’ve got a couple of timing things to work out. First, you’ve got to use the boot to get the small magnetic arm on the left. Then you’ve got to use the small arm to grab the second boot on the right, and then land on the big arm and push off into the airlock.
The problem is that the timing is really weird. Especially trying to time grabbing the second boot with the opening and closing of the big arm, along with Vella’s slow spinning. This took way more tries and way more frustration than it really needed to, in my opinion.
(Side Note: I’m not an expert in zero-g, but since there’s air where Vella is - she’s obviously breathing/talking to herself - shouldn’t she be able to “swim” in it, even if she doesn’t have anything to push off of? I think the reason why you can’t move easily in the vacuum of space is because there’s no air or other objects to push against, right?)
Here’s another Vella puzzle from Act 2. This time, we’re trying to get an object off the ship by dropping it down the trash chute. Problem is, the trash chute is locked. If you’ve been paying attention through the whole game, you might have noticed that there is a cleaning robot that can unlock the chute. The cleaning robot only shows up a couple of times - usually when there’s a mess, naturally.
How does one cause a mess? That’s pretty non-intuitive. You’ve got to use the computer helmet on the bridge, and then go to the dining room. Drop the cereal serving arm from the ceiling, but stop the arm halfway through the motion. Then walk into the dining room and knock the cereal on the floor.
The cereal has already been used in another puzzle, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that you’ve done everything you need to in the dining room. Plus, the whole freaking ship is a disaster area at this point, so why is a little spilled cereal a critical issue? There’s no other way to get the cleaning robot to show up after you’ve passed the cutscenes where it appears, so if you’ve forgotten or missed these sequences you’re probably just scratching your head at this puzzle.
Even after you’ve figured that out, you’ve still got to race the robot to the cleaning chute - which requires that you move some stuff in its way in order to beat it there. It’s junk that you probably moved out of the way immediately upon coming onto the ship, and then promptly forgot about.
There are several Space Weaver puzzles, so I’ll say this is the one when you’re trying to leave the hangar with Vella near the end of Act 2. We’ve already had the opportunity to mess with the Weaver in Act 1, so it’s clear that just having a star chart is not enough. The navscarf will have to be modified to take Vella where she wants to go.
The hard part is figuring out where that is, and the answer is complicated by a couple of factors. One, there’s extraneous information that doesn’t appear to ever be used, and two, getting the actual information is a matter more of luck than of deduction.
It’s clear after doing some searching around the ship that you need to find something as Shay in order to solve this puzzle. If you look around Alex’s ship, you can find a note taped to the wall which gives a star-chart like arrangement of notes. However, this arrangement is not one you can make with the navscarf from Vella’s star chart.
Instead, you’ve got to convince Alex to play you the “song of return” which takes a ship back to the last port it was in. There’s nothing that I could find which mentions there’s even a song that does this. All of the other star charts take you to fixed locations. Further, there’s also no indication that Alex knows it, or why he would play it for Shay.
In order to get this information, you’ve got to hand Alex the pitch pipe. He never asks for it, or even mentions it. But you’ve got to give it to him in order to solve this puzzle. He plays a series of notes that translate to star chart dots, which is kind of a stretch. Meanwhile, the very star-charty memo on the wall is never used, as far as I can tell. (Maybe it’s there to explain the relationship between music and star charts?)
I’m espousing a lot of vitriol in this article, but overall I enjoyed Broken Age - the characters are interesting, the voice acting is great, and the story is both sweet and epic. The puzzles, though, frequently left me unsatisfied.
What did you think of Broken Age’s puzzles? Too easy, too hard, or just right? What dumb things did I miss? Let me have it :)