Epic adventure stories: “Dreamfall Chapters: The Final Cut” (PC)

After Dreamfall: The Longest Journey couldn’t quite live up to The Longest Journey, does Red Thread Games‘ episodic Dreamfall Chapters: The Final Cut make things better and bring the saga to a close?

Dreamfall Chapters: The Final Cut (PC)
(Norway 2017, developer/publisher: Red Thread Games, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Zoë Castillo tries to find a new life in Europolis, but soon discovers a political conspiracy and finds out that dreams and reality aren’t what they’re used to, while Kian Alvane helps rebels against the Azadi who plan to get rid of magic and people who aren’t human altogether.

Years of waiting, remembering, and dreaming
The PR says “With a new storyline, a fresh cast of characters, and a recap of the previous games in the saga, this is the perfect entry point for new players – and the conclusion fans have been waiting a decade for”. The reality is that the truth lies somewhere in between when it comes to story and characters, because the optional recap video on the title screen is simply too confusing for newcomers. The Final Cut version rectifies this a bit by unlocking information about newly met characters, although it’s still a lot to digest. One should also take the term “conclusion” with a pint of salt, because this is definitely not the final instalment that explains everything. However, it’s a worthy continuation of the stories of Zoë and Kian.

Both heroes are still not as charismatic and memorable as April Ryan, which is especially true for Kian who is either a dull believe-in-anything-his-religion-told-him or suddenly-changed-his-whole-attitude-towards-magicals character. Zoë can also come across as a rather bitchy person whose relationship with the equally uninteresting on-off-boyfriend Reza doesn’t make her any more memorable. Still, her diary entries are almost as well-written as April’s were, making her a bit more likable and easier to relate to.

Funnily enough when Crow turns up and accompanies both main protagonists, he comments on them following in April’s rather large footsteps, which shows that writer and designer Ragnar Tornquist is aware of how difficult it is to introduce new characters and to prevent the player from dwelling too much in the past. Still, it’s impossible to enjoy the whole story without background knowledge of former games, as many well-known people and creatures make a return, although they’ve changed with the dark times.

Mature storytelling and where to draw the line
While Dreamfall already hinted at more mature themes, these are nothing compared to what awaits the player here. Political bribing, racism, genocide, religious fanaticism, oppression, depression, and even child abuse play a role, and while some of it is handled with subtlety, references to ghettos and concentration camps are just too obvious, swearing and sexual references (not only in jokes) are too numerous and technology talk is still too much. This is too bad, because there are quite a few touching moments in a story that has the potential to keep the player engaged if it wasn’t so convoluted and it wouldn’t lose itself in too many branching narratives and characters.

Something every game in the series suffers from are the never-ending dialogues. They’re mostly well-written and the characters have interesting stories to tell, but the amount of spoken lines is staggering and often tedious to go through, slowing down an otherwise great story about the power of politics, dreams and memories, and the dangers of future technologies and social unrest. The perception of reality is a permeating theme that works much better than in Dreamfall, because people have already accepted that using headsets to experience dreams is a vivid alternative to real life. Manipulation of memories and the deconstruction of reality is particularly thought-provoking and makes for the most memorable scenes. Walking through dreams or nightmares and visions isn’t only visually impressive, but it’s also used to great narrative effect and even offers inventive puzzles.

Epic storytelling and when to stop
There’s a fine line between telling an epic story and having subplots that don’t add much to the experience. Dreamfall already made the mistake of giving more questions than answers, and while some of them are addressed in this sequel, a few are simply left behind or explained in a less satisfying way. Bringing politics, rebels, and various characters with their own agendas into play can only work if suspense is kept at a high level. Unfortunately, with so much talk and even more cutscenes following each other, one is overwhelmed with information, which isn’t helped by the episodic structure.

In the first episode one makes little progress and is left as unsatisfied as with the controversial ending of Dreamfall. The other episodes also struggle with telling three stories at the same time, because as if Zoë’s struggle with a surveillance state and Kian’s fight against oppression weren’t enough, one also plays through the eyes of Saga who grows up in a world between Stark and Arcadia and whose role only becomes apparent in the end, but not without leaving room for a potential spin-off game. Still, she remains the least fleshed-out character and despite interesting gameplay ideas, her parts seem very disconnected from the rest of the game.

Of course it’s not all doom, gloom, and narrative inconsistencies when revisiting Stark and Arcadia or seeing these places for the first time. Despite taking place mostly in the expansive Blade Runner-like city of Europolis and in the medieval fantasy city of Marcuria, a few other fantastic places can be visited, and these are both known and unknown to fans of the series. It would have been nice to go to more places outside these cities, especially in Arcadia, because some of the places ooze atmosphere and uniqueness, like a witch’s hut that comes alive or houses above the clouds built and inhabited by cat-like creatures.

The story can feel overblown and the characters less interesting than in the original The Longest Journey, but there’s still the same sense of wonder that made the series so memorable in the first place. Walking through the streets of both Marcuria and Europolis and listening to NPCs’ conversations as well as watching how each world changes makes it a believable setting outside of its cinematic constraints.

Watching and acting out scenes
After writing so much about the story, characters, and world-building, the same question as in Dreamfall remains: How much game is in this cinematic experience? The good news is that there’s more than 20 hours of playtime in total, coming very close to the original in terms of content. The bad news for puzzle lovers is that despite having inventory item combinations and environmental interactions, there aren’t as many conundrums as in the original. Most solutions can be found in the near vicinity of where a problem occurs, although objects can easily be overlooked. However, at least puzzles are incorporated in story progression without feeling as afterthoughts, even if the quality varies from obvious to quite clever as well as annoying and frustrating. The best ones can be found in dream sequences where Zoë’s power to slow down time, get into people’s or creatures’ heads is a refreshing departure from the standard puzzles. Being aware of one’s surroundings and knowing people’s motivations often helps, and except for some instances, one doesn’t have to guess how everything works together.

Fighting sequences are fortunately a thing of the past, although there are some sneaking scenes that are a bit unfair if one doesn’t know what to do under time pressure. Running around, looking for people and things isn’t very much fun, either, especially with the protagonists moving at a rather slow pace. The Final Cut makes navigation less of a problem with a map that can be checked anytime, whereas it was only possible to ask for directions and look at street signs or another map before. Still, the system is far from perfect when one has to go through labyrinthine streets. A quick travel option would have made things much smoother, especially when characters don’t always give accurate directions.

Decision-making and questing RPG-style
The player isn’t simply asked to do errands and fetch-quests, although there are a few of these, too. Non-linearity with multiple goals almost turns the adventure into an RPG, which is further highlighted by decision-making. There are minor and major decisions during episodes with consequences and repercussions carrying over from one to the next. This concept mostly works by making the player think about moral ambiguity and in some cases even changes the story in unexpected ways, e.g. when Zoë has to decide if she wants to continue her old life style or try something new, which results in her working either in a bio-lab as an assistant or as an IT specialist in a robot workshop, or when Kian recognizes a former traitor among the rebels and, depending on his decision, makes her die or live.

However, there are instances when the choice is taken away from the player, e.g. when Kian refuses to join the rebels and the game simply ends for every character, so that the player is forced to take a route the designer wants him to. If this design decision is acceptable to a certain degree (although Heavy Rain did a much better job of continuing a story without some of its main characters), it’s a bit insulting to the player’s intelligence if one can either kill a prisoner or leave him to be killed by the wards only to be reprimanded later by his wife, no matter what decision one has made. Regardless, it’s great to play the game again to see how things turn out differently, if only to listen to the ramblings of SHITBOT or KIDBOT in the workshop or bio-lab environment respectively.

Modern visuals and audio experiences
The game looks absolutely fantastic if one has the hardware to support it. Thanks to the Final Cut, the frame-rate doesn’t drop as frequently as before and the graphics card (at least mine) doesn’t overheat. Even if loading times could be shorter, the graphics quality is very high with all sorts of fancy weather, lighting and shadows effects. While Dreamfall felt rather empty and small with its enclosed spaces and few NPCs, Dreamfall Chapters bursts with vivid colors in Marcuria and neon lights in Europolis, while there are so many people on the streets, smaller and impressively big ships flying through the sky that one feels even more connected to these two worlds than in the original The Longest Journey. Reflections on puddles of water or fireflies illuminating the night time of Marcuria, digital signs on skyscrapers and Chinese lanterns glowing in Europolis and being reflected on the river show that a lot of love has been put into every location. If there would ever be a sequel or an open-world RPG, this would be the perfect starting point to create amazing vistas. The only disappointment can be found in character models. Despite being very detailed, facial expressions are rather limited.

The soundtrack is great, too, although the use of orchestral set-pieces and moody piano tunes can feel a tad exaggerated at times. Voice acting is much improved compared to the predecessor and almost reaches the same high level as the first game, except for a few lines that are out of context and an over-reliance on British actors and actresses, which seems especially weird when there are so many cultures in Stark and Arcadia. Still, the sound design is just as polished as the graphics and art direction are.

Almost the best and longest journey yet
Dreamfall Chapters didn’t have the best development history. After a sequel was almost out of the question due to the mixed reception and lackluster quality of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, the episodic releases took over 3 years to find a conclusion. The final product doesn’t have as many memorable characters or as high a number of puzzles as in The Longest Journey and the story seems deeper with all its mature themes than it actually is, but it’s still a title that gets many things right.

It seems all the vogue these days to talk about decision-making and it would be easy to dismiss the game’s forced decision-making and path-taking as a way out of the urgency to tell a coherent story, but it would do the whole experience a disservice, because the way how dialogues play out, characters react or even live and die by the hand of the player, and how one sees different scenes works surprisingly well. Shaping the story in certain parts to one’s own character or experimental nature doesn’t always turn out to be true, but with so many storylines and characters to take into account, it’s quite an achievement for an adventure game to give this much freedom of choice.

The Final Cut is recommended for those who’ve been waiting for all the performance issues and bugs to be ironed out, while it’s also worth playing through with reasonable game-changing features for those who already took the journey once. It might not be the best adventure game or storytelling experience, but it’s certainly a great attempt to reinvent the series and give fans almost what they wanted after all these years of waiting.

Score: 8/10

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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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