Broken Pieces is clearly a labour of love. From the moment I booted it up, between the artwork, sound design and narrative direction, I could tell that a lot of heart went into this game. In fact, it starts out incredibly promising; our protagonist walks around an empty isolated house, before we learn that the entire town we live in is completely abandoned. This intro alone is enough to grab the player – however, everything thereafter is hindered by unnecessary mechanics and often times unpolished presentation that hold back this psychological thriller from its full potential.
Taking place in the French coastal town of Saint-Exil, the story follows Elise after all of the townsfolk were seemingly whisked away overnight. Ever since the attack, she’s been stalked by ghostly apparitions preventing her from leaving town, and strange, abstract visions haunt her in her dreams every night. Driven to find out what happened to her husband Pierre and all the other villagers, Elise explores Saint-Exil to learn more about the mass kidnapping and why the town seems to be stuck in a time loop.
One thing cannot be denied about Broken Pieces is that the story and tone are great, at least at the beginning. Exposition is fed to us in the form of cassette tapes and Elise’s internal monologue during exploration. Her wistful stream of consciousness is very much reminiscent of Max’s ramblings in Life is Strange with Elise often cracking jokes to herself or providing light-hearted commentary, a narrative choice that can feel out of place at times but makes sense given her solitude. The only other sounds filling the silence will be the crashing ocean waves or birds chirping in the distance, further adding to the feeling of isolation. You do however have the option to listen to songs using your cassette player, which I found to be a refreshing touch of realism.
Broken Pieces is often compared to survival horror classics like Resident Evil, but in reality, the only thing the games have in common would be the fixed camera angles. While most survival horror homages nowadays go for a blocky aesthetic to replicate the low-poly graphics of yesteryear, the textures here look almost hand-painted. This results in a visual design that is a breath of fresh air and stands out from your run-of-the-mill, hyper-realistic adventure title. Some puzzles could perhaps be reminiscent of the zombie-killing classic, but I feel a much more comparable contemporary would be Microids’ Syberia – finding a missing computer passcode or pulling a lever to lower a bridge are the typical means of progression. The puzzles are light and straight-forward, offering enough of a challenge to keep you engaged but never completely lost and frustrated, ultimately providing a functional albeit forgettable gameplay format.
Ghost encounters happen occasionally as well, locking you into a brief battle against your foes before you can carry on exploring. Unfortunately, this battle system is also probably Broken Pieces’ most glaring flaw. You’re often fighting in very small, cramped environments and many encounters involve two or more enemies, something that quickly becomes overwhelming when they swarm you all at once. While you can dodge if enemies get too close, it’s very easy for the enemies to overpower you. While Broken Pieces does help you out by offering auto-lock on while shooting, Elise must focus her aim and “charge up” her shots – a somewhat absurd design choice given that enemies are usually no more than three feet in front of her. Most encounters feel like a free-for-all to see who gets there first: your gunshot, or the enemy’s attack.
The dodge mechanic also feels inconsistent, sometimes resulting in you taking a hit even if you feel like you should be fine. While I never came dangerously close to dying through my playthrough, I just accepted in most battles that I would take a hit whether I like it or not. This clunky, unpredictable combat system feels unnecessary in a game that is clearly prioritising a poignant narrative over an action-packed experience.
During exploration, you need to keep in mind the game’s time management system. The ghosts hunting Elise become far more aggressive at night, so it’s recommended you return home by 8pm each day, something you can keep track of via your in-game watch. Staying out after this time isn’t massively detrimental, it just means you might have to take down a few enemies before you make it back to the safety of your home. Much like the combat, this mechanic is something that feels out of place.
I understand that this was in an attempt to introduce a level of mechanical depth to the gameplay beyond just puzzles, but the time management can end up becoming a nuisance. Once it gets closer to 8pm, Elise will refuse to progress onwards and effectively force the player to return home. While it’s not a major setback, this still disrupts the otherwise solid pacing and results in far more mindless backtracking than it should.
It’s a shame that such central mechanics end up feeling so unnecessary, worsened by some presentation issues. Frequent, noticeable texture pop-ins and robotic, borderline inhuman dialogue can take the player out of the experience. Early on when investigating a lighthouse, Elise describes access to the top of the building as “condemned”, clearly an awkward translation of “unsafe” or “dangerous”. Considering Elise’s voice actress appears to be a native English speaker, it’s surprising that these hiccups slipped into the final release.
The final nail in the coffin has to be the ending, which seemed to try going for an ominous cliffhanger but instead leaves the player feeling empty, frustrated. Before the story feels like it’s in full swing, the credits roll and the player is left wondering why the past several hours of gameplay led to such an underwhelming conclusion. This is worsened by promising designer sketches and development notes shown during the credits, which showcase enemies and concepts that never made it to the final release.
Considering the final product we got, it stings knowing these ideas could have enhanced Broken Pieces and I can’t help but wonder if this is a sign that production was rushed towards the end of the game’s development.
Broken Pieces is, in short, disappointing. It starts out with a promising tone and premise in the first thirty minutes, but it’s one that slowly crumbles as time goes on. Yet despite these critiques, I felt enchanted by the setting, mood and gentle melancholy of Elise’s desperate search for the truth in Saint-Exil. I wholeheartedly feel the developers’ style is better suited to a more narrative-driven experience, a la Dear Esther or What Remains of Edith Finch. There are moments that prove their storytelling capabilities are more than enough to carry a game on its own, so it’s a shame Broken Pieces focused more on including half-baked combat and pointless time management mechanics instead of honing in on its captivating premise.
- Sombre tone grabs the player from the opening cutscene
- Good voice work and sound design
- Conventional but comfortable puzzle design will scratch the itch for those wanting a straightforward experience
- Unnecessary, clunky combat that feels unresponsive at times
- Time management system can cause unnecessary backtracking
- Rushed cliffhanger ending feels underwhelming, leaving numerous plot holes and unanswered questions
- Awkward, jarring dialogue can be distracting at times