Dream a bigger dream.
Dreams and games have a lot in common. Both occur while sedentary, both inspire false senses of accomplishment, and both are best populated by impossibly hot women who, under any other circumstance, would immediately flee your presence.
However, there are differences. For one, you cannot control dreams, and control is essential to video games. Games also cost fifty bucks while dreams are free, which might be why they are worthless. Usually.
Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, the gorgeous sequel to the critically popular and popularly ignored PC adventure The Longest Journey, is more dream than video game. The pretty girls are here, as are the soothing atmosphere and fantastic graphical details. But so is the lack of control, choice, or challenge. With only a half-hearted attempt to involve the player in the action, Dreamfall may lull you to sleep, but it’s sure to be a pleasant sleep, free from anything like frustration or excitement.
Dreamfall’s story is long, immense, complex, promising and eventually disappointing. It begins when college drop-out Zoí« receives a strange request from her ex-boyfriend. Motivated by his subsequent disappearance and the sightings of a spooky girl in her television, Zoí« tries to track him down, uncovering a giant conspiracy that spans multiple dimensions. Along the way, Zoí« travels between her own futuristic world, Stark, and the magical world of Arcadia, eventually meeting up with April, the protagonist from the first Longest Journey. Familiarity with the original is not essential, though those who did play the first game will feel more in the know, having already been acquainted with many of the characters. But “in the know” doesn’t necessarily mean knowing anything.
For much of the game, Zoí«, April, and just about everyone else has very little idea what is going on. In the science-fiction world of Stark, there appears to be a conspiracy involving a robot company marketing a product aimed at controlling dreams. In the fantasy world there exists an entirely unrelated conspiracy involving a giant tower and the oppression of magicians and other races. I don’t want to give anything away, but that would be impossible for me to do, as even after finishing the game I have no idea what it was all about.
That’s not a good thing, since Dreamfall’s success depends so much on its story. For most of the game, at least, the pace is brisk and engaging. Strange elements and hidden intrigues propel the player to interpret and hypothesize the larger scheme. However, when the game ends without concluding many of its plot threads, you’re left with more loose ends than a shag carpet.
The cop-out ending is all the more disappointing since the characters are so incredibly well-developed. You play as not only Zoí« and April, but also a new character, Kian the apostle. Each character begins the game embodying a fairly conventional personality: Zoí« is existentially lost, April is a fierce advocate and activist, and Kian is a loyal and unquestioning warrior. But by the end of the game, events will force each to reconsider their positions. The subtle degrees by which the characters change are affected by deft touches in the superb writing. Aside from the ending, the storytelling is excellent.
But there’s not much here in terms of gameplay. You control the characters in third-person, roaming about the various environments and interacting with people and objects with the touch of a button or click of a mouse. For about half the game, you will merely guide your character from point to point, picking up keys to unlock doors or talking to people who tell you to go talk to other people. There are no real enemies; the game is mostly just you jogging merrily from one end of the map to the other and back again, unimpeded. This is fairly typical of the classic adventure game formula, but it ends up feeling a little dated and bland. Other than the control input (mouse or game pad), Dreamfall plays identically on the Xbox and PC.
The other half of the game is spent watching long, drawn-out cutscenes. You’ll often just drop the controller (or mouse) to watch these 10-minute sequences play out. They aren’t unpleasant to watch, but this is a game, not a movie. More playing and less viewing would have been nice.
Talking, it appears, is what Dreamfall does instead of gaming. Many of the conversations will prompt you to choose responses. Sometimes a proper set of responses will get you by an obstacle that you would otherwise have to fight through or sneak around, but most of the time these choices just give the illusion of agency in a storyline that is fully determined in advance. It doesn’t matter what attitude you take or what you say, the game goes on just the same. It’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure where every choice eventually goes to the same page.
In the unfortunate event in which you have to fight, you will mainly square off against the game’s thin combat engine: one button blocks, one quick attacks and the other strong attacks. As you can only fight one foe at a time and because control is absurdly clunky, the combat boils down to a boring mini-game that, fortunately, only occurs a handful of times during the entire game.
Dreamfall also includes a smattering of puzzles in the old text-adventure spirit. Of these, though, only two are even remotely challenging, and only one is legitimately difficult (that one, by the way, requires you to recognize a non-repeating clue before you know you will need it - about a 10 on the difficulty scale). It’s odd that an adventure game so gorgeously developed would skimp on puzzles. Dreamfall’s developers should have revisited the smart and rewarding text adventures of years past for some inspiration.
But what those text-adventures couldn’t do, Dreamfall does in spades. The graphics are simply superb, not just in detail but in design and conceptualization. While scurrying from market to market in Arcadia, for example, you will have time to take in the sight of the giant tower rising into mist above the bustling marketplace. In another breathtaking moment, you will climb into an unfolding doll house in a particularly abstract dream. The graphics may not be next-gen, but they certainly are at the peak of the present.
The sound, also, is stunning. The music is well-composed; strange yet melodic harmonies pace the leisurely story. The voice-acting is nigh superb, each actor using a full range of volume, dialect and pause to infuse personality into their pixilated avatars.
It’s a shame that with such outstanding production values and such a beautifully realized story and world, Dreamfall doesn’t do more as a video game. It adheres quite strictly to its adventure roots but fails to provide a satisfying challenge. I suppose some dreams just aren’t mean to come true.