Rating: 4/10 - A promising game destroyed by a premature, completely unsatisfying ending.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
The Longest Journey was one of the first really good adventure games in a long time. A compelling plot, interesting puzzles, fascinating world, well acted dialogue, compelling lead character in April Ryan, and an interesting plot twist in the end. The only weakness is that the dialogue was a big aimless and could have benefited from an editor to thin it down to essentials. Indeed, that weakness was bad enough to keep several friends who are fans of adventure games from finishing it.
On the strength of The Longest Journey, I purchased the sequel, Dreamfall, sight-unseen. I made a serious $40 mistake.
The first warning sign is that the game begins in a hospital room. A disembodied voice tells us that she is Zoë Castillo and is the coma-bound woman in the hospital bed. She tells us that this is the story of how she came to be there. With that the game begins. Not an auspicious beginning.
In its favor, Dreamfall is a good looking game. While it isn't a cutting edge 3d engine, they make good use of what they have. Pools of water give rippled reflections. Wet areas glint well. The result is compelling and believable. Solid backgrounds are supported by solid character animations.
Dreamfall's voice acting is admirable. Sadly it suffers from the aimless writing that plagued the original. The dialogue would really benefit from some tightening.
Plotwise the game starts well. Zoë lives in our world's future. (Our world is named Stark within the game.) While there are futuristic elements, it still feels like our world. (For those who have played the Longest Journey, Dreamfall takes place roughly a decade later.) Zoë is seeing visions of a white plane, a fractured black house, and a creepy girl on television screens wherever she goes. The girl calls upon Zoë to "Find her. Save her." Meanwhile Zoë's journalist ex-boyfriend is investigating something big. He asks Zoë to give him a hand and fetch a package. Unsurprisingly there are complications.
(Warning, this paragraph only: mild spoilers for the first hour or so of gameplay.) Zoë saves the life of the women she is supposed to get the package from. Her boyfriend is arrested. There are signs of a massive corporate plot.
At this point things are looking good. We've got several interesting mysteries. The situation continues with layer upon layer of tantalizing mysteries added. We discover the existence of a parallel world, Arcadia, and the fate of April Ryan, the heroine from the first game. The many mysteries all hint at being connected in some unknown way. Zoë ends up traveling across the world, visiting April's old stomping grounds of Venice (a fictional city in the US, not Italy) as well as Japan and Russia. We spend some time as April Ryan, seeing her new cause. We spend a little time as Kian, a religious assassin in Arcadia. Sadly we spend almost no time with Kian and his character arc isn't entirely plausible.
Now the downsides. This is a story first and a game second. The plot is highly linear. The puzzles are generally straightforward. The game feels like the creators wanted to create a movie, but felt compelled to toss some puzzles in so it could be a game. There is a fighting engine and several required fights, but the engine is barely acceptable. If you're a fan of fighting games you'll dislike the crude combat system. If you're not a fan of fighting games, you'll just be frustrated that your adventure game was interrupted. As an game Dreamfall is only marginal.
The box and advertising hype that you play three characters, Zoë, April, and Kian. In reality you almost exclusively play Zoë. You play several short, low importance scenes as April. The scenes you play as Kian are, with one short but impressive exception, completely irrelevant to the game and storyline.
More seriously, Dreamfall completely fails as a story. Layers of complex, interconnected plots are hinted at. A few are explained, but many more are left completely unexplained. Zoë's fails to achieve any of her goals (excepting perhaps one). Make no mistake, at the end of the game, Zoë loses. Her being in a coma represents her failure. This isn't a bittersweet victory, it's simple failure.
This can perhaps be explained by the creators envisioning it being part one of a multi-part series. However, the box makes no such claims. Even if it was, players deserve at least some small victories. I have never felt this cheated by a game.
I cannot recommend this game to anyone, not even die-hard adventure game fans. As such I'm going to spoil the entire plot below. If you are planning on playing the game, stop reading now.
It turns out that Zoë's boyfriend was investigating Wati-Corp. The corporation is about to launch a secret new product: "Dreamers" that allow users to lucid dream. However the Dreamers have a secret function: they let Wati-Corp read the mind of the user. With this power they will take control of the world.
The creepy girls turns out to have been an early experimental subject. She was killed during the experiment, but ended up as a sort of "ghost in the machine" inside the bio-computer that runs the Dreamer system. Zoë and the girl share the unusual ability to directly access a third world - a world of dream, through which the girl speaks to Zoë.
When Zoë is connected to a Dreamer she meets the girl in her strange dream-plane. The girl commands Zoë to find and save April Ryan. Then the girl sends Zoë to Arcadia.
In Arcadia we discover that April Ryan has lost the ability to shift between worlds. April's adopted home has been invaded by an oppressive theocracy. April leads a group of rebels fighting the invaders. Kian works for the theocracy and is ordered to slay April. It looks like there is some third party, a "prophet," controlling the theocracy, a party whose power is somehow connected to dreams.
In the end Zoë finds the details of Wati-Corp's evil plans. Kian comes to believe that his faith does not match the orders he has been given.
Given all of this, Zoë, April, and Kian have a number of tasks:
The only goal we succeed at is convincing the little girl to move on, and that's done in a non-interactive cut-scene. Zoë is poisoned and unable to tell the world of Wati-Corp's plans. Indeed the ending cut-scene makes it clear that Wati-Corp will release the Dreamers. Zoë's boyfriend never turns up, although an untrustworthy character in the game suggests that he is dead. Zoë watches theocracy troops kill April. The little girl insists that Zoë successfully saved April, but Zoë's brief interactions with April don't suggest any impact on April. The theocracy arrests Kian as a traitor. The third-party successfully begins some sort of ritual drawing power.
So far we're one for six. Of the six, it's perhaps the least important. Indeed, the little girl's presence in the Dreamer system was destructive and likely would have thwarted the release of the Dreamers. Not especially good odds.
The game ends with Zoë arriving in a strange place, presumably the plane of dreams. A strange man asks her to tell her story. There the game ends.
(August 4th: Minor edits for correctness and clairity.)
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