Dreamfall: The Longest Journey review
It is. It does. You should. (But…)
Normally I wouldn't begin with a bottom line, but in keeping with the spirit of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, I figured I'd make the answers as easy to find as possible, without having to work much for them. But also like the game itself, if you want to experience the full benefit of deeper explanation, you'll need to follow along to know how we've arrived at this point.
If you've somehow managed to shelter yourself from the hype about Dreamfall, you're perhaps one of the few people who don't know which questions the opening line answers. For the many caught up in at least some of the anticipation -- and of course, controversy -- surrounding the sequel to one of the most popular adventures of all time, you've probably already narrowed down your points of interest to three factors:
1) Is it a real adventure?
2) Does it do justice to the legacy of The Longest Journey?
3) Should you buy it?
After years of speculation, at long last the game has arrived and the results can be shared, and while each of my favourable responses comes with a caveat, that has more to do with expectations going in than the experience brought out, and those can easily be addressed. However, an unexpected new question has emerged about how much of a "game" Dreamfall actually is, and that I'll leave for you decide, as it's a personal definition that may just make or break your enjoyment of what is otherwise an incredible cinematic achievement.
Dreamfall is, first and foremost, a triumph of interactive storytelling. This will come as no surprise to those who felt that The Longest Journey was a similar accomplishment six years ago, but the sequel has raised the bar further still, both in focus and in presentation. Now, when speaking of story quality in games, usually there's an unspoken "for a game" qualifier attached. Meaning, while any given plot might manage to fill the gaps and support gameplay effectively, as a similar story appearing in a book or movie, it would be in the 99-cent bargain bin or straight-to-video fare. Not so with Dreamfall, a sci-fi/fantasy epic that deserves its endorsement unconditionally. This is simply an impressive story, period.
The game begins with an account of a young woman named Zoë Castillo, a university dropout living at home in the futuristic city of Casablanca. Comfortable but bored, Zoë has lost her motivation and any sense of purpose in life. That is, until she agrees to help a friend with a seemingly innocent errand, and begins to see genuinely unnerving images of a little girl on electronic screens, imploring her to "save April." There's not a lot more I can say without starting to spoil the game's many layers of mystery, but suffice to say that Zoë soon finds herself caught up in an escalating adventure of dream technology that has her traipsing all across the world… and beyond it.
Yes, what would a Longest Journey plot be without multiple worlds, inter-dimensional travel, and the fate of the universe as we know it resting on our shoulders? Fortunately, there are more shoulders than just Zoë's to help carry the burden. While the bulk of the game is spent with Zoë, who proves to be an utterly endearing protagonist, at various (pre-determined) points during the game, players will also control two other main characters. One is an Azadi assassin named Kian, a devoutly religious "apostle" ordered to deliver a holy message with his sword. The other is the Azadi's sworn enemy, April Ryan, now residing permanently in Arcadia and leading a band of rebels against the tyrannical oppressors forcibly restricting the use of magic. April is of course the heroine from TLJ, though she's no longer the feisty but innocent girl she once was. Set ten years after the events of the first game, April is now a hardened woman, feared and respected for her dedication to the cause, and yet personally disillusioned by the demands of her fate. Each of these characters plays a key role in the story, but we're also taken on their inner journeys, as they come to question their convictions in a game that's as much about personal faith as it is about the unfolding drama around them.
This attention to character isn't limited solely to the central few, either. Almost everyone in the game has been infused with individual personalities and backstories that really help make the world(s) come alive. No cardboard cutout plot devices here; it's not they who are there to propel your story, but you who have arrived in theirs to affect it. With new additions like Theoretically Blind Bob and Wonkers the Watilla joining many familiar faces returning from TLJ, Dreamfall has a wealth of memorable characters that will surely leave a lasting impression. The quality of the writing is consistently excellent, telling a serious, mature story that doesn't shy away from uncomfortable issues or disquieting feelings, and yet offering just enough humour and hope to take you right through the emotional spectrum if you avail yourself of the opportunity. There's a great deal of dialogue that's completely optional, but the only reason you'll skip any is if you cave to the overwhelming temptation of the larger adventure beckoning you ever onward. Even if you found the dialogue in TLJ tedious at times, the more natural conversations here seem less gratuitous and do a better job of creating an emotional investment in the lives of the characters.
While intentional, there are two consequences of the narrative approach used in Dreamfall that are worth pointing out. The first is that you begin with only little (and often cryptic) pieces of a story so complex that you'll undoubtedly feel lost at times. Like Zoë, you'll find your mind reeling at the many things you don't understand, and each new bit of information seems to create more questions than it answers. That's part of the challenge and part of the fun, but the kicker is that the game never offers full disclosure, or any closure at all. Dreamfall's director and co-author Ragnar Tornquist has never made a secret that The Longest Journey is meant to be a trilogy, but in case there was any doubt, the mind-blowing conclusion of Dreamfall leaves so many questions unanswered that this game really needs an "Episode 2" marked on the box. Hey, if it takes three parts to fulfill a story worth telling, that's okay by me. But if you felt cheated by the ending of Syberia or even Still Life, that's nothing to how you'll feel when the Dreamfall credits roll (or more specifically, finish rolling, as there's one more scene waiting at their conclusion.) Being left wanting more is always a double-edged sword. Wanting more is definitely a good thing. Being left wanting, not so much. Don't let that dissuade you, but consider yourself forewarned.
Fortunately, such a clever story and engaging characters are presented with production values that manage to do them full justice. And while graphics typically get all the headlines, here it's the audio that deserves the kudos first. Dreamfall has absolutely exceptional voice acting that is as good as any game I've ever played, and its importance cannot be understated in making such a fantastic tale believable. It doesn't happen often, but when a developer shows it understands the necessity of good voice direction, it makes such a difference. Most notable here are the main protagonists -- Zoë I could listen to all day long, and April is portrayed by the same actress from TLJ -- but really that's just a matter of quantity. There's not even a single minor character that doesn't deliver a first-rate performance. But not to be outdone, both the instrumental music score and sound effects are equally impressive, creating just the right atmosphere and ambient support to keep players fully immersed.
The graphics have been a point of contention since it was first announced that Dreamfall would leave behind the pre-rendered backgrounds of TLJ and replace them with a full 3D environment. For some, this represents an unnecessary move that compromises the visual quality, while others laud Funcom for being one of the few developers able to drag the genre kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The amusing thing here is that the results will probably be pointed to by both camps as proof of being correct. No, the graphics aren't as detailed as pre-rendering can achieve, but the world is so much more dynamic, so it's a positive tradeoff. But ultimately it's not about either pixels or progress. Quite simply, Dreamfall wouldn't have been Dreamfall had it not moved to 3D, and I'm pleased to say that it's still a feast for the eyes. Technologically it's less than cutting edge even at its highest detail settings, but what it lacks in polygons it surpasses with stunning art direction, imaginative locales, plenty of animation, and lots of little touches that put Dreamfall pretty much in a class of its own among adventures.
Better yet, the graphics are untarnished by the game's interface, at least by default. There's no cursor, reticle, or onscreen display of any kind until you reach an interactive hotspot, which automatically calls up a menu with context-sensitive options, very similar to Broken Sword 3. Along with the standard look/talk/use options, you'll sometimes get a jump, push, or climb icon to select. Performing these moves is a simple as a button press, as the character does all the work with no further input from you. The game's much-publicized focus field can be turned on manually, which emits a maneuverable blue light that lets you scan your surroundings from afar. However, apart from the rare circumstance that requires it, you'll probably find yourself leaving it off, as the game's hotspot detection is more than adequate, and it's much faster to move your character around than to stop and have a blue beam gander.
Navigating these 3D worlds is done through several different direct control options, making Dreamfall a much different experience than its point and click predecessor. The most popular method will likely be the keyboard/mouse combination common to many action games. The keyboard provides character movement, while the mouse directs the camera rotation. The setup is comfortable and intuitive (and yet fully re-mappable if so desired), the controls responsive, and most players will be zipping around in no time. If you've got a gamepad, Dreamfall also handles like a charm, although there's really no obvious benefit to choosing this option besides the more tactile feel it provides. And for those with an incurable keyboard aversion, there is also a unique mouse-only method that will definitely take some getting used to. Moving the mouse will steer your character in the direction and speed desired, with the camera slowly swinging around behind. This works surprisingly well during regular exploration, though it may prove problematic when called upon to perform more subtle moves in the game's combat and stealth sequences.
Hey, wait a sec… 3D, direct control, and now combat and stealth… is this an action/adventure after all? No. Really it's not. The two activities represent such a tiny fraction of the overall game that it just doesn't warrant much consideration, and both the mechanics and execution are so simplistic that they shouldn't pose much problem for even the most action-phobic adventurers. Fighting occurs only a handful of times at most, and some of them are avoidable entirely by choosing a peaceful approach. When you are forced to square off, it's a real-time but basic affair composed of two different attacks and a blocking move, each of which is carried out with a single button click. The goal here is tension, not difficulty, though the sluggish controls will invariably result in a dramatic slow motion death or two. But likely not more than that given the total absence of any artificial intelligence in your opponents.
Stealth scenarios are equally elementary and forgiving, often involving nothing more than identifying timing patterns, with the occasional puzzle element thrown in for good measure. The game lets you save anywhere, any time, but even if you forget, it auto-saves at the beginning of each combat or stealth sequence, ensuring that failure won't involve much repetition until you get it right. Of the two, the clumsy combat feels like the more poorly conceived gameplay filler, while the sneaking seems to flow more naturally from the plot, but it's unlikely that either will affect your enjoyment of the game significantly, for better or worse.
I use the word "puzzle" loosely where Dreamfall is concerned, as the sometimes-contrived, conventional puzzle approach of The Longest Journey has been replaced here with more organic, story-driven obstacles. Sure, you'll still collect and combine objects, match patterns, and perform fetch quests on occasion, but these tasks are few and far between, and offer nothing that should cause you to break a mental sweat. Mind you, once you stumble upon the puzzle made completely unfair with an obscure, time-critical clue, you'll likely be thankful the developers didn't include more of the same. But still, seriously compounding the simplicity of Dreamfall's puzzles is the general lack of them entirely.
Here at last we return to the issue that not only prevents the game from reaching masterpiece status, but might threaten to send it tumbling out of consideration for some people altogether. There's no way around it: Dreamfall is a game that simply doesn't have much actual gameplay. Of the fifteen or so hours you'll spend playing, the vast majority of that time will consist solely of moving your character from place to place, person to person, and task to task, without any real challenge or even much of an interactive role. Those fabulous dialogues I described are largely automated, with only occasional keyword input from you to propel the conversation along. What few choices you have offer some replay value, but make only a cosmetic difference, so while that adds to the narrative quality of Dreamfall, it has little bearing on the gameplay aspect of it. Meanwhile, the streamlined interface and limited item interaction leave little room for doubt as to what will work where. And while you're free to explore some areas at leisure, there's even less to do outside of the linear story progression, so it won't be long until you fall back into line.
Taken alone, none of these factors are inherent weaknesses, and I personally applaud the design decision favouring naturally-emerging obstructions. But they need to actually emerge, and in Dreamfall they appear far too infrequently. In fact, several times I encountered scenarios that were tailor made for increased player participation, but glossed over by the developers, presumably as an undesirable plot hindrance. Between safes I didn't need to crack to codes I didn't need to decrypt to inventory items I didn't need to procure, the real disappointment here is that the game didn't utilize the opportunities the story DID provide, leaving me feeling more like a passenger than a player. It didn't by any means ruin my overall enjoyment, but it did diminish my involvement in the game, and with that my sense of accomplishment.
While I believe in judging a game by what it seeks to be rather than what I might prefer, at some point its own ambitions need to come under scrutiny if the discrepancy becomes too large to ignore. And that's the regrettable but unavoidable case with Dreamfall. Funcom has clearly sought to create one of the finest stories ever presented in a game, and they've accomplished that goal with room to spare. Yet in the process, they've provided only follow-the-bread-crumb exploration and paint-by-numbers gameplay for players to guide that story but rarely influence it, and it's ultimately a lesser experience because of it. Like science and magic, Stark and Arcadia, there's a delicate balance between story and gameplay that Dreamfall fails to fully achieve, settling instead for a wildly entertaining but overly passive ride.
Still, when all is said and done (and in this case, certainly a lot more is said than done), let's return to where we began. It is, it does, and you should. Dreamfall offers more "adventure" than any game in recent memory, and while less a sequel than a successor, it's certainly deserving of its Longest Journey subtitle. Its limited interaction will prevent it from being unanimously embraced, but Dreamfall simply deserves to be played, with expectations set accordingly. What it lacks in challenging gameplay, it more than makes up with its scope, style, and maturity of storytelling. Like a good book or movie, its brisk pace, gripping plot, engaging characters, and lavish production values make Dreamfall a modern classic that falls just short of being the gaming masterpiece it could have been. But then, that's what the series finale is for, right, Funcom?