Epic adventure stories: “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” (PC)

Does Funcom‘s Dreamfall: The Longest Journey live up to the epic point-and-clicker The Longest Journey as a sequel and stand-alone product?

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (PC)
(Norway 1999, developer/publisher: Funcom, platforms: PC, Xbox)

College dropout Zoë Castillo gets involved in a conspiracy of a virtual reality system capturing dreams and a zealous belief system in the two worlds Stark and Arcadia while trying to find April Ryan after a mysterious girl told her so in a vision.

Revisiting two changed worlds
Drawing the player into a world one wants to explore because of its rich lore or interesting characters and creatures means a lot of work. Doing so with two worlds is even more difficult. While the original game from 1999 set a benchmark for this kind of environmental storytelling and is used as a template for how some parts of the plot develop, it’s sadly not enough to prevent the story to become convoluted with many characters turning into superficial shells of what could have been in the process. But before going into detail, one shouldn’t dismiss the things that make this a worthy successor and a touching story despite its shortcomings.

Touching mature themes like racism as well as the dangers of science and religion is more prominent here than it was in the original. The dystopian world of robotic pets that can talk to their owners in times of need and government supervision isn’t far-fetched, while advanced technologies in mobile phones and virtual reality by the almighty WATI company make Stark look like a not-too-distant future. Arcadia might still offer dream-like, fairy-tale locations, but everything is clouded by the occupation of the Azadi who rule the city of Marcuria with a zealous hand, going so far to put magicals (people who practice it or creatures that aren’t human) out of business and into ghettos.

New and old characters in well-known places
The pacing suffers from too many storylines that are not even brought to a satisfying conclusion. Even if one disregards the fact that it would take over a decade and a Kickstarter campaign until Dreamfall Chapters would pick up most of the narrative strands, there is simply too much to digest in a 12 hour game with three playable characters. One has the chance to see through the eyes of Kian Alvane, an elite Azadi soldier who is sent to kill April Ryan, and finally the heroine of the first game as well.

Of course the idea behind making a man who was brought up with religious ideas and what he considers right suddenly realize that his faith isn’t without its problems is great, but there’s simply not enough time to develop the character and his sudden change of heart and mind. April’s portrayal is even worse, as she’s become a cynic because of her experiences after saving the world(s) and finding no place in either of them except for being a rebel against the Azadi system. The longer playtime is spent with Zoë, but even her interaction with other characters isn’t without clichés, as a sappy love story is pushed and rushed in, too.

It’s really too bad that all the main characters have potential with their interesting background stories, but they end up rather unlikable and difficult to relate to, which is even true for April Ryan. Only Crow is the same old bird with an attitude, although he’s not nearly as prominent or important as he was in the original. Speaking of the original, the worlds of Arcadia and Stark could always be considered as storytelling devices with so much back stories. Unfortunately, they’re only shadows of their former selves.

While there are still beautiful vistas in Arcadia and a tangible Dystopian atmosphere in Stark, every setting is so diminished with small areas to explore that one doesn’t feel the same sense of expansiveness, especially since much of the old game is recycled and there isn’t a lot new to see. It doesn’t help that there are too many loading screens when going from one place to another and that running through the same locations takes too long without a map or a quick travel function.

Talking and connecting
The Longest Journey wasn’t very accessible with its very long dialogues, and while Dreamfall tones things down a bit, some conversations still drag on. The writing is usually quite good, but it’s a shame that Zoe’s diary entries aren’t as deep as April’s were. This is a missed opportunity, as it would have made her a more fleshed out character. Instead many dialogues are full of religious and esoteric as well as scientific mumbo jumbo talk that makes some parts of the story even more obscure. Again it’s not really that talking to NPCs is annoying or pointless, it’s just that there isn’t enough time to get to know any of them to make them memorable. This is too bad, because despite all the story inconsistencies, the way how the storylines are brought together is well done, and even if there’s information overkill, one is motivated to continue playing in order to know how everything plays out.

Less puzzling, a bit of fighting, and more sneaking
Much has been written about the story, setting, and characters of the game, and one could get the impression that the gameplay is missing, which isn’t too far from the truth. The game is more like an interactive movie than a classic point-and-click adventure. The third-person perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that puzzles should be lacking, but the focus is definitely on the story, which means that many cutscenes follow another, while solving puzzles takes a backseat. Inventory object combinations as well as environmental interaction are still there, but these are nowhere near as engaging or imaginative as in the first game. This isn’t always bad when one progresses in the story without stumbling over illogical puzzles. Unfortunately, Funcom decided to incorporate elements that are superfluous, annoying, and ultimately damaging to the gameplay.

Stealth and fighting segments can challenge the player and create tension for the story if they’re done right as in The Walking Dead: Season 1, but if they’re as badly implemented as here, one can question the developer’s motivation behind it other than making the game more console-friendly. There’s no other explanation than justifying a battle system that’s broken and counter-intuitive. Third-person games aren’t the best when it comes to camera controls, but it’s even worse if collision detection doesn’t work and character movements are slow, not even taking into account that one has a better chance to win fights when cornering the opponent and not giving him or her a chance to fight back. As these fight scenes aren’t spectacular or add anything to the gameplay, they simply end up as unnecessary innuendos that are luckily easy to overcome.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said about the stealth scenes. They’re more frequent and almost reach the point of unfairness at some points. Walking behind creatures or running away from robots during puzzle segments is unforgivable, as it adds more frustration than tension. Hacking computer systems isn’t fun, either, because finding the right symbols on a changing screen with a tight time limit is another bad design decision to alienate both adventure and casual gamers who simply want to enjoy the story.

3D doesn’t always mean great
3D games don’t age very well and the same has happened with Dreamfall. While the weather effects with snow and rain in addition to convincing lighting and shadows still look good and some of the buildings’ architecture and textures are very detailed, the character models are lifeless, especially with some NPCs not even moving their lips when talking. The cutscenes are cinematic enough to hold up the illusion to play an interactive movie, but there are only very few impressive locations that work with the graphics engine.

Cinematic music and TV-show quality voices
The sound design fares much better, at least in the music department, with bombastic orchestral pieces as well as some dream-like ambient tunes. It might all sound a bit old Star Wars at times, but the soundtrack fits the cinematic presentation and creates more atmosphere than the graphics can. Regrettably, some pop songs are used to evoke either happy or sad emotions that come across as forced despite being of a high quality if one likes this kind of music. Voice acting could be better, too, as most of it sounds exaggerated and stilted, e.g. with Kian, making him an even less likeable character.

Epic only in scope, but not in execution
Dreamfall: The Longest Journey‘s biggest problem is that it builds an ambitious story that simply can’t deliver, especially with such a cliffhanger and too many characters left behind that could have made for a great adventure. It relies too heavily on the original story, making it difficult to understand for those who haven’t played it. At the same time its fan service is not enough to please puzzle lovers, as there’s not enough satisfying gameplay to make it as enjoyable as its predecessor. Adding frustrating and simply unnecessary combat and stealth scenes, it alienates even more people.

The plot development isn’t without its merits, and some of the writing is pretty good, but even for an interactive movie with great music, too many plot holes and too much talking leave a bad aftertaste. Compared to other adventure games, the world and its mature themes about scientific progress and racism is unique, but interest can only be held for so long until the player asks why the game couldn’t have been made without a sequel in mind.

Rating: 7/10

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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