Broken Pieces Review: "Filled With Frustration And Tedium"
There are very few feelings better in a video game than figuring out the solution to a puzzle that you've been struggling with, but often it can very easily topple over into the deep end of frustration. French studio Elseware Experience's first game Broken Pieces aims to tow that fine line, while also attempting to create an atmosphere bathed in psychological thrills that can only naturally draw comparisons to iconic titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. So, does Broken Pieces stand on its own and create a title worthy of its influences, or does it fall flat, leaving you puzzled as to why those allusions were made in the first place?
The Missing Pieces
Broken Pieces throws you right into the deep end as Elise, a woman who is alone in a strange village full of mysterious events. While everything is not quite clear to the player at the very beginning, the town of Saint-Exil is shrouded in a controversy that has made all the inhabitants disappear, leaving Elise to pick up the missing pieces and solve the puzzle.
There is the looming presence of a strange cult, a government conspiracy, and fantastical creatures that all seem to be bouncing off of eachother in this otherwise rather quaint setting. It is thus up to Elise to roam the empty buildings and streets in search of clues, answers, and ultimately a way out of this mess, but it certainly isn't a simple process.
One of the biggest initial issues with the narrative is precisely how you're dropped into the middle of everything. Of course, the notion of beginning in media res is nothing new to storytelling, but is it the lack of depth and assumption of knowledge that Broken Pieces puts on the player that makes figuring things out at the beginning a rather frustrating experience.
Beginning just after a catalytic event is fine, but expecting the player to not need any expositional structure by having the dialogue constantly reference people and events that aren't explained makes the first few hours feel really directionless, with quite a lot of elements that feel like they need explaining left alone, as if they make total sense to the player who is none the wiser.
What also does not help at all is that the game's narrative is primarily told through various cassette tapes, which you have to listen to as you walk around the town. First and foremost this felt like an incredibly lazy way of structuring a narrative, where key information is just shoved into the background as if it is not important. The cassettes - especially the introductory ones - felt both tedious and passive, like doing homework on something that should be laid out naturally.
Furthermore, it also felt rather comical to have the main character record expository cassettes only to be played back to… herself? Like Elise was a character suffering from chronic memory loss and was constantly needing to remind herself of what was going on or what her thoughts were the night before. This really exemplified the sheer monotony of the cassette system, which made you listen to information you should really have been told in a far more natural way. While I must admit that some of the tapes did offer an interesting way to discover information through an abandoned town - like an old answering machine, or a note made by a young child, they far too often just felt like cheap ways to fill in the narrative.
Running Around In Circles
In tandem with the dreariness of the cassette tapes is the ridiculous amount of walking and backtracking you need to do to solve many of the game's puzzles. Now don't get me wrong, it can be fantastic when a game uses an interweaving environment to solve puzzles, but Broken Pieces too often misses the mark. I spent far too much of my playthrough watching Elise leisurely jog through Saint-Exil when I just desperately wanted to get to my destination (or what I mistakenly thought was my destination) as hastily as possible.
Furthermore, on multiple occasions the clock system in Broken Pieces - which forces you to return to your house before 8pm every night - halted any form of progress or rhythm I had built up, forcing myself to trudge my way back to the house and then return to whatever I was doing the next day. There are multiple shortcuts scattered throughout the village that do come in handy when trying to get around quickly, but using any of them takes at least an hour from the clock, meaning you have less time to do what you need to do within each day, which can really pile up if you're unsure of where to head.
The implementation of an objective tracker and a journal for various clues was appreciated though, as it did help me keep on top of everything that came up in world interactions or cassette tapes. It was handy to have any important information like lock combinations or important names automatically written down in a place I could easily refer back to when needed.
One of the biggest selling points going into the game was the revised camera system many will recognise from games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, where static camera angles give the player various boxed 'rooms' that they move through. Unfortunately, the camera system fell completely flat, being annoying at the best of times and downright disruptive at the worst. Despite giving the player three different camera options (two third person and one first person), far too often I found myself struggling to navigate an area or actually find the item or interaction I needed in a particular space. There was one point in the game where I thought I had encountered a game-breaking bug, but it was just that the camera made it so that I had missed the point of progression that should have been obvious to me.
I never thought I would be clamouring for tank controls in a game either, but there were far too many instances where moving from one 'room' to the next would feel utterly disjointed, leading to either confusion about where I was meant to be going, or frustratingly having to correct the left stick to move the right way.
Puzzle Me This
There were a handful of puzzles that required the first-person camera to solve, however, and I found this to be a welcome change that made you think about where you should be looking. This partnered with some other clever puzzle ideas, most of which revolved around Elise's ability to change the weather from summer to winter on a whim. It is a rather unique mechanic that not only had you thinking about the specific weather-related effect on the environment, but also changed the way you were able to move through a specific area. Doors that were once usable are now blocked by snow, but bodies of water are now suddenly drained or frozen over, allowing you to access areas and items that you wouldn't otherwise be able to.
The unfortunate flip side of this however is that Broken Pieces doesn't really have much else up its sleeve. Most of the other puzzles in the game have you finding a missing item or using a tool, which does become repetitive relatively fast. There's only so many times I can enjoy finding a level for a bridge, or a cog for a gate before I feel like I'm just doing the same thing over and over again.
Dispersed in between the puzzles however are sporadic combat sequences, which always left me in a strange place between irritation and apathy. At choreographed moments when you're progressing through the story, you will suddenly be gated into an enclosed area and bland, ghost-like enemies will spawn, offering no more resistance than the occasional punch before you are able to mundanely gun them down. Not once did this feel like an enjoyable experience, and Broken Pieces would have fared much better by just removing these entirely.
But it is the failure of the combat sequences that really outline how much of a misinterpretation the classification of psychological thriller is for Broken Pieces. It feels like the only reason these enemies and combat sequences were inserted into the game was to have some arrangement of tension, but they exist only as a tiresome roadblock to your progress rather than a constant threat looming over your shoulder.
The Sound And Sights Of A Seaside Town
There were a handful of aspects I did appreciate about Broken Pieces though, and they largely fall on the technical side of things. While I largely was not a fan of the cassette tape system, the overall construction of sound in the game was something that I became rather fond of.
There were issues where some sounds were mixed rather poorly - like the consistent overbearing screech of seagulls - or were missing when in specific camera angles leading to a break of immersion, but generally, I felt that Broken Pieces successfully created an atmosphere through sound. You feel the breaking of the waves at the beach, and the breeze that blows through an empty town, which goes a really long way in making the game feel active and alive.
The graphics, while not quite as impressive as the sound, do a good job at conveying this too, especially in regards to the lighting. Whether intentional or not, the rather overbearing beams of light scattered throughout Broken Pieces enhance the eerie sentiment that enshrouds the mystery of the game. Something always felt just a little bit off when moving through Saint-Exil, as if I was moving through an uncanny imitation of the world that once was, where everything was almost correct but altered enough to be noticeable. From a technical standpoint I had no issues as well, with consistently high framerates - especially with DLSS - and no sign of any gameplay or visual bugs whatsoever.
Overall, despite appreciating some aspects of the game, most of my time spent with Broken Pieces was filled with frustration and tedium. It fails to deliver its narrative in a compelling manner, and the structure and way you progress through Saint-Exil is at times an excruciating and dull ordeal. If you're looking for a short trip to a rather strange seaside town then maybe there's something here for you, but otherwise Broken Pieces is sadly not a puzzle worth the effort of filling in the missing pieces.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.