The She-Man in the Purple Suit
Freud once said of dreams that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Well, in the dream world of Nights: Journey of Dreams, let’s hope that an androgynous purple jester is just an androgynous purple jester. I don’t want to know what a sexually ambiguous flying clown might reflect about my psyche, and I pity the analyst who would even try to figure that one out.
Nights: Journey of Dreams is the belated sequel to Nights into Dreams, originally released for the Sega Saturn back in 1996. The original Nights game was inches away from earning an A+ from us here at GRand has since popped up again and again in lists of the greatest platformers of all time. Those are some big jester’s shoes to fill. Unfortunately, these oversized purple boots don’t quite fit the sequel.
Journey of Dreams recycles many of the story and gameplay concepts found in the original. As before, you play as one of two children wandering through worlds built from their own dreams. Similar to Psychonauts, each world reflects some aspect of that particular child’s psyche. For example, one level takes place in a large city full of bright neon lights and giant gambling machines. This is a child’s dream of what it means to be an adult, and, yes, I’m as disappointed as the rest of you that this isn’t what the actual adult world is like.
In most levels, you fly around as Nights. You don’t get free reign to roam about the environments; instead, you’re bound by a predetermined course. Within that course, you still have room for some dexterous flight, but don’t expect to do much exploring. Instead, you’ll speed through floating rings, perform acrobatic tricks, and soar over, under, and through everything in your way. Much of the high-flying gameplay that made the original so exceptional remains intact in Journey of Dreams.
A major selling point of the original game was that it shipped with an analog controller. At the time, an analog controller was as high tech to gamers as roller skates would have been to cavemen. Back then, the fluidity of the controls blew us all away. So what’s most surprising about Nights: Journey into Dreams is just how stiff the controls feel. Any time you play as one of the children, you may as well be trying to steer a semi through a grocery store.
And don’t bother trying to fly using the Wii remote; it’s a lost cause. Stick with the Classic controller or a dusty Gamecube controller. It should be clear to all of us by now that if a game gives you the “option” of not using motion sensing technology, take it.
Despite a little stiffness here and there, though, the game is actually fun once you get into its odd groove. While it doesn’t seem quite as fast or frenzied as the original, it still has plenty of great moments to offer. It’s pretty short (a few hours for each child), but since you’re graded for each level, there’s at least a reason to return to earlier stages after you’ve beaten them.
The visuals in Nights: Journey of Dreams also harken back to the Saturn original. And by “harken”, I mean “look the same as”. This game looks at least ten-years old in terms of graphics technology. But what might otherwise look painfully outdated can actually look pretty good - and occasionally breathtaking - thanks to fantastic art design.
The final world, for example, features both children soaring above a London-esque city at night amid fireworks and rising skyscrapers. Get too close to a building, and the graphical seams begin to show, but taken as a whole, it’s an exhilarating visual atmosphere. Still, as many as there are a few similarly impressive-looking environments, there are also just as many utterly forgettable ones.
Like the levels themselves, the boss fights range from highly imaginative to painfully trite. The earliest boss fights are loads of fun, but they get progressively duller and more uninspired as the game goes on. Early boss fights require you to apply flight mechanics in innovative ways, but by the time you get to the later bosses, you’re asked to do little more than move up and down to avoid obstacles.
The surprise highlight for me, though, is the game’s musical score. More than anything else, the game’s music kept me going from level to level. I didn’t care nearly as much about seeing what was next as I did about hearing what was next. The game’s score is light years better than anything else I’ve heard on the console thus far, so if you have a soft spot for spectacular game music, this is worth checking out.
Sadly, multiplayer is a bit of an afterthought. You can play locally or online against another person in a race through a handful of different levels, or you can jump into battle mode and launch giant balls at one another. Unfortunately, battle mode is local-only; I guess Sonic Team thought it would be a bad idea to let folks play with their balls online.
Online racing can be done against a random opponent sans friend codes or against a friend if you’ve exchanged all 3000 digits. There’s also a very simplified online ranking system in race mode, but don’t expect full-blown leaderboards. “My Dream” mode lets you can share your own collection of creatures, but since everyone’s presumably playing the same game, they’ve all seen your creatures before, so there’s not much point.
For better or worse, Nights: Journey of Dreams picks up where Nights into Dreams left off exactly ten years ago. It doesn’t acknowledge that ten years of game development and graphics technology have passed in the meantime. To both its credit and its detriment, the gameplay remains almost wholly unchanged from the original. Luckily, Journey of Dreams also shares with its predecessor some beautiful art design and a stunning musical score that save it from mediocrity. If you missed the original or are looking for a pleasant reminder of Nights past, then pick this one up and pay a visit to everyone’s favorite hermaphroditic jester in the purple suit.