STAFF REVIEW of Broken Pieces (Xbox One)

Tuesday, January 24, 2023.
by Adam Dileva

Broken Pieces Box art I really enjoy when a game has a narrative that piques my interest, where I need to keep playing to find out what the outcome will be. Will the hero saves the world? What’s the big twist? Is there a shocking ending? I love when narrative has the forefront of a game and I’ll easily forgive weaker components if the story is enthralling and captivating. Within its opening moments, I was intrigued by Broken Pieces’ plot as it begins in some sort of alien-like hallway and then you wake up in an empty village, unsure what has happened or why you’re there. Sound interesting? I thought so too.

If had to best describe how Broken Pieces actually plays and its genre, it’s almost a mix of Siberia and Parasite Eve, heavy on the mystery and puzzle elements with some combat thrown in for good measure. The isolated feeling of being alone in a village doesn’t go unnoticed, as I was always in suspense of figuring out the next clue as to what’s going on, constantly driving me forward and wanting to see the credits roll.

Elise and her fiancé decided to move away, landing in a small village on the French coast, Saint-Exil. When she wakes up one day though, she doesn’t know where everyone is or went. The village seems abandoned as if no one has been there in quite some time. Not only will you need to figure out the mystery of the village and your presence, but why is the Lighthouse seemingly a beacon in more ways than one? You’ll learn early on there’s also some sort of cult that is, or was, in the village, and before long you’ll have some paranormal entities to deal with. Are you stuck in a time loop? What does the Church have to do with what’s going on? Why is there some sort of force field nearby? These are just a few of the questions you’ll be asking yourself as Elise slowly pieces together what has happened via a constant flow of puzzles and backtracking.

Now I’m being purposely vague with the story for a few reasons. For starters, if you’re good at these types of games and have a good memory of what pathways lead to where you’ve already been, you’ll probably be able to finish it in a single, albeit lengthy, sitting. Others will probably have a good few hours of wasted wandering and backtracking trying to figure out where you should be going next. While you are guided with clues in your notebook, there’s no compass or map, so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to learn the layout of the village and its intricate interconnected pathways.

I really don’t ever like to spoil endings, and I won’t here directly, but what I will say is that for the hours of intriguing plot, narrative and background lore you find along the way, the ending simply falls flat on its face. As the credits rolled I was kind of in shock, not because of some major reveal or crazy plot twist, but more of how ambiguous and unfulfilling it was. It’s a shame too, as the Elise’s story really gripped me all the way until the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth playing through, but waiting for a big payoff that never comes was a serious letdown.

As you explore Saint-Exil, the gameplay feels like it came right from early 90’s adventure games. While it doesn’t have tank controls like Resident Evil, it’s certainly got an annoying camera system that uses a fixed angle, though offering another angle with the press of a button. Sure you could look around in first person, but then you can’t move, so it’s not generally all that useful. Why we couldn’t just move the camera bound to the Right Stick I’m unsure, as having to swap between the two cameras for each area becomes tiresome as you’re trying to search for clues. An unfortunate byproduct of this camera system is that when the scene changes to a new section and the camera swaps, you’re all of a sudden holding the movement stick in the wrong direction and have to readjust.

As you search and explore Saint-Exil, you’ll come across numerous items and objects that can be interacted with. Some will have items inside that you can pick up and carry in your inventory, others are simply for lore and descriptions. There’s plenty of collectables to find as well, some in the form of favorite items, others, and more importantly, tapes that can be played at any time in Elise’s Walkman that’s always attached to her hip. Depending the options you toggle and choose, the objects that you can interact with will have a thick white outline to make easy indication, but you can turn that off should you wish.

Elise is going to have to manage her inventory, especially the latter half of the game with more puzzles and pieces to carry back and forth to certain areas. You can only hold a certain amount of items, though they are set into different categories based on what they are. Large items like and Axe or Lever for example can only have one held at a time, so if you need both, you’re going to need to remember when you dropped the first item and come back later to get it. Key items and tapes don’t seem to go towards your carry limit which is nice, as your tapes go into your collection and can be played at any time. These tapes are how you get background lore to the area, world and characters, though there’s also some songs you can find that your partner made that are absolutely wonderful to listen to in the background as you explore the desolate village.

Even though there’s lots of wandering around trying to figure out what has happened and how to escape, you’ll only be able to do so with your puzzle solving skills. While the main puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, usually just bringing a lever to a certain spot or changing the weather to adjust water levels or causing wind to blow down some platforms, there are optional puzzles that will probably bring some frustration as you become stumped for a while.

Even though Elise is seemingly alone in the village, she’s going to need to be mindful of the time, checking her trusty watch every so often. Her watch just happens to be a flip open Crab that speaks French. Yeah, I don’t know why either. You need to be home before nightfall, designated by 8PM, because Saint-Exil becomes incredibly dangerous once night arrives. While time slowly ticks away as you traverse around the village, moving to different main areas will actually take a much longer time, usually an hour or two, so make sure you’re being mindful of the time and how long to get back to your home before dark to rest.

What I didn’t expect was how much combat is in Broken Pieces, as I figured Elise being seemingly alone in the village would have no one to fight. While I don’t want to spoil too much, you’re not fighting regular humans or monsters, and thankfully it is basically explained in the narrative. How bullets harm these enemies I’m not sure, but I don’t ask questions. Remember those camera issues I mentioned above? Those carry over into these combat portions where you’re suddenly attacked by a few enemies and locked into an arena to deny any escaping until you’re successful or die.

Combat is without a doubt the weakest component and worst part of Broken Pieces. Interestingly, there’s an option to turn off combat, but there’s still a few parts where it’s forced and it’s made much easier compared to the other option, almost like a difficulty. Trust me, turn down the combat, it’s nothing but frustrating. As enemies manifest and slowly lurch towards you, you’ll need to shoot them a certain amount of times to defeat them. Defeat the wave or two of enemies and the combat section finishes. What isn’t explained initially very well is that the longer you aim your gun the smaller the reticule will get, causing more damage, so don’t just rapid fire, as you’ll likely miss the majority of your shots. As you’re aiming you’re also unable to move, so you can see where the frustration starts, especially since you can’t easily swap targets, so you better hope it chose the enemy you want to shoot at.

Elise also has a dodge and a knockback that can be used, but good luck getting them to use with any regularity when you really need it to work. You have unlimited normal ammunition, but during your travels can find, or craft, High Quality ammunition, causing more damage. I found I didn’t need to really use the HQ ammo until the last portion, and even then it was just to make the combat easier and finish quicker. What makes combat uninspired and boring too is that there’s really only one enemy type. The odd few will get a shield in the last portion, but nothing new from start to finish. I’m glad there was an option to lessen the combat sections, but it really just doesn’t feel or perform well in any way, feeling more like an arbitrary way to lengthen the gameplay even though there is a narrative reason for them to be there. Even the ‘boss’ portions at the end are quite uninspired.

For all the frustrations I had with Broken Pieces, there were some positives as well. The seaside village backdrop certainly paints a desolate area as if it’s post-apocalyptic. Visually the background and scenes are done well with plenty of smaller details, it’s just a shame you’re usually fighting the two camera options constantly to really enjoy much of it. Animations are a little janky at times, Elise doesn’t all that visually impressive and there’s a whole slew of 'jaggies' that stand out, but for such a small team, it’s impressive overall for its aesthetic.

The music though is wonderful, adding some much needed distraction and tone when much of the adventure is quite quiet by design outside of the natural wind and nature sounds. The music you find via tapes is actually the highlight, great to add to any YouTube playlist when you want something light in the background as you do some work. The English voice acting is done quite decently, not amazing, but for how much Elise talks to herself and listens to her own recordings, an overall commendable job when it comes to audio as a whole.

It’s clear that Broken Pieces was a passion project by the team, and while some aspects were wonderful, there was an equal amount of frustration along the way as well. You can expect anywhere from 5 to 10+ hours depending on how much you want to explore and how much backtracking and aimless wandering you do, and while the $31.99 (CAD) may seem a little high, it has potential to be a cult hit with its quirky charm.

**Broken Pieces was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 5.7 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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