Adventure Gamers Awards
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Once upon a time, in a magical land not unlike our own, a little game called Dream Chronicles was born. Small but beautiful, it displayed a bold, adventurous spirit that defied its limited stature, and seemed destined for great things. It was a unique new type of crossbreed – part casual, part traditional – that went on to quickly spawn two offspring of the same ilk. To their admirers, this trio came to represent the best of both worlds, with lovely visuals and streamlined, relaxing gameplay that far exceeds simple “seek-and-find” titles in scope and ambition. Their detractors, however, would argue that these games also display the weaknesses of each forebear, stripped down and yet still surprisingly inaccessible and overly obtuse at times.
All of this is true. This is no fairy tale, after all, though a fairy tale is exactly what the Dream Chronicles are all about. Before the likes of Return to Ravenhearst and Drawn: The Painted Tower came along to help popularize the “lite” adventure, KatGames’ series was already blazing the trail. And like many pioneers, there are both inspiring breakthroughs and discouraging setbacks experienced along the way. Since the variations between titles are largely superficial, I’ll take a page out of the “casual” notebook myself, covering all three in one fell swoop, stopping only long enough to highlight the significant differences in each.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Dream Chronicles is a series that seems to have been inspired by full-fledged adventures and scaled back to its current form, as opposed to the latest trend of adding adventure elements to simplistic designs to make them feel a bit more inclusive. Perhaps that distinction is too subtle to matter (and perhaps I dreamed it up entirely, in keeping with the subject matter), but the point is that in approaching this series, one mustn’t take for granted anything we’ve come to expect of casual games overall. Yes, you’ll spend plenty of time collecting scattered items, but no, it isn’t a “hidden object” game. Yes, the journey is often compact and linear, but there’s far more exploration than you might expect, at least in the later games. And yes, each game does have a built-in hint system, but heck no, it never lets you bypass, auto-solve, or otherwise sleepwalk through their many levels. The Dream Chronicles are games you’ll need to work your way through.
That probably sounds encouraging to puzzle fans and challenge-lovers. And indeed, there are certainly moments to admire from that perspective. On the other hand, make no mistake: the three Dream Chronicles are distinctly casual experiences that rarely reach for or achieve much beyond the minimum levels of personal freedom, puzzle relevance, or narrative depth to tie it all together. And unfortunately, a bit too much of the difficulty stems from the same problems that have plagued adventure games for years, most notably the dreaded pixel hunt and a reliance on ridiculous contrivances serving as obstacles. So while working your way through a game can be mentally stimulating, sometimes it’s inevitably bound to feel far more like work than fun. Such is occasionally the case here.
The setup for each game is virtually identical. A point-and-click slideshow adventure played entirely in first-person view, you’ll control a mortal woman named Faye, who’s pitted against the machinations of Lilith, the Fairy Queen of Dreams. For reasons that broaden only mildly over the course of the first three games, Lilith has designs on your fairy husband Fidget and your young daughter Lyra, and the goal of each game is to rescue one or both from Lilith’s clutches by following a (figurative) trail of magical breadcrumbs. It’s a very, very thin storyline that stretches just far enough to launch you on your way and occasionally propel you forward with periodic updates.
Faye displays very little personality in the text-only descriptions and reactions provided, and you’ll only ever meet one other character per game (two of which are plants, like miniaturized “Audrey II’s”), making the Dream Chronicles a very solitary experience – your experience. I’ve head the term “Myst-lite” in reference to this series, and that’s not an entirely inaccurate comparison, though the many significant differences soon become apparent. (And let’s face it, isn’t “Myst-lite” an oxymoron?)
Over the course of roughly twenty screens per game, players must solve a series of mainly self-contained challenges. That “mainly” becomes less true in the sequels, which offer a certain amount of openness through central hubs that branch in different directions, though it’s still usually clear where you need to go next and what you’ll need to get there, so don’t expect a lot of extra legwork. Just about every location includes at least one task of item collection, plus another minigame or puzzle to solve. The former is probably where the “hidden object” label comes from, but don’t confuse this series with the “find a random list of items in junk-filled rooms” games. Here the objects are always fully justified by the activity before you, and the environments are never unduly cluttered. So you’ll frequently find yourself collecting such things as machine parts, floor tiles, or wooden planks, stored in your inventory for imminent use. You’ll also collect scattered “jewel” pieces (that look merely like shiny marbles) everywhere you go, which have varying degrees of importance in each game, but at the very least provide something else to occupy your attention.
Unfortunately, along with this very adventure-like inventory search comes an equally adventure-like bugaboo. Pixel hunts are a very real and common problem in the Dream Chronicles. While objects in standard seek-and-find games are really in plain view but camouflaged somehow, here they can be simply hard to see. Sometimes impossible to find, at least without some random clicking. The first culprit here is some object placement to begin with. The items themselves can be very small (keys, chalk, tiny stones), and some items are blatantly hidden or outright concealed behind other things. A needed object might be inexplicably “found” inside a pot (requiring you to click on every pot to find out), or notes will be tucked invisibly inside random books on a full bookshelf, etc. One hotspot is located in pitch darkness, and at another point you’ll need to find multiple spots of “loose earth” that look exactly like all the rest of the dirt. This is bad form in any case, but here it isn’t alone.
While far more of a conceptual complaint than a practical one, each game also uses the same cheap tactic of removing key items right before your eyes. Invariably, you’ll arrive at a new location only to see the very equipment you need suddenly become dismantled, its parts scattered on that same screen and beyond. It’s all passed off under the guise of Lilith’s carefully planned mischief, but it’s too blatant, too excessive to carry the gimmick. Your character dismisses them with reactions like “It’s as if some kind of strange magic is at work.” or “It’s like someone wants to make sure I can’t…” You’re right, Faye, it’s the developers. A Fairy Queen would surely be a little more thorough. The same ploy is used for your benefit on occasion, but it still feels totally artificial. Items that help you can pop up out of nowhere, and often your next instruction will simply appear onscreen unbidden, causing Faye to exclaim such things as “It’s almost as if Fidget were beside me.” Yeah. “Almost”. But more like the game simply couldn’t work the feedback in naturally.
The final accomplice in this annoyance is the surprisingly unhelpful interface. Where most casual games bend over backwards to be user-friendly, the Dream Chronicles don’t even do as much as regular adventure games. There is no cursor change when passing over interactive items, just a text label and a whoosh-like sound effect. That sounds sufficient, but both are extremely slow in responding. You can easily miss objects in a standard cursor sweep simply because you’re moving too fast for the slowpoke interface to keep up. Equally disappointing is the lack of hotspot highlighter to indicate remaining items, replaced here by an intermittent twinkle of interactive hotspots. Again that seems fine in theory, but fails in practice. The twinkles are few and far between, and simply sitting and staring at a screen for minutes on end hoping a tiny spot might gleam momentarily just might be the definition of boredom. And even when it does, it could very well be indicating a hotspot you’ve already dealt with. Replace boredom with frustration here.
While this might sound like nitpicking the (ahem) little problems, it really mars what is otherwise quite an enjoyable experience for the most part. Puzzles and minigames range from game to game, but between them there are many inventory collections to assemble, plus a nice variety of thematic sequencing puzzles, the odd weight or math challenge, some very manageable tile puzzles, and complex riddles to solve. There are other old standbys as well, plus a few mazes to trip up the directionally-challenged, and some colour puzzles that may give others some trouble. The worst offender, however, is what starts to feel like an endless stream of “Simon” minigames, some of which can be quite challenging, with over 15 symbols playing very quickly. Those are fun… once. Each game has some notable examples of quality puzzles, but I’ll get into specifics momentarily.
When not straining your eyes to make out that vague beige thing that looks like nothing in a swatch of long grass, the Dream Chronicles are graphically very pleasing to look at. The artwork is done with a nice fairy tale sensibility, grounded in real-world conditions but taking us places like a spacious treehouse, a nexus center, a tower gondola, and an underwater retreat with its submerged ocean windows. There are also plenty of recognizable environs like scenic gardens, libraries, and bedrooms, all with a slight hint of fantasy. There are no cinematic cutscenes to speak of, and most game screens are static, though there is an occasional ambient animation, from clouds rolling to leaves blowing to a thundering waterfall in the background. And water is something these games do exceptionally well, as you’ll probably want to take a dip in the gently rippling pools and lakes you encounter. Technically, each new game in the series shows a marked improvement over its predecessor, as you’d expect, though the same general aesthetic still remains. Aurally the games are far less accomplished, with no voice acting, limited sound effects, and pleasant but occasionally repetitive and overdone orchestral arrangements accompanying the adventure.
So how does each game fare on its own merits? Let’s break down the specifics.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Dream Chronicles: The Chosen Child
Posted by Houie on Apr 10, 2014
Not as good as the first two.
Play time ~ 8 hours I think I liked the first 2 better (I really liked them, in fact). This one was a bit more hidden-objecty than I like. Although the game time was longer than the first 2. Also the story was not as involved as the first 2. The game still...