Dreamfall Chapters review
Adventure Gamers Awards
Note: Various content updates have been applied to Dreamfall Chapters since it began in October 2014, addressing graphical, technical, and gameplay issues. These episodic write-ups are based on their original releases and do not reflect any backdated changes made since time of writing.
Book One – Reborn
As a sequel to a 2006 game that ended with major cliffhangers, Dreamfall Chapters has been a long time coming. For much of the time in between, it seemed we’d never know the fates of Dreamfall’s three protagonists: Zoë Castillo, a listless college dropout whose quest to find her missing ex-boyfriend entangled her in a corporate conspiracy; Kian Alvane, an Azadi assassin questioning his faith on a mission to take down Marcurian rebels; and of course April Ryan, the world-hopping, balance-restoring, art-student-turned-freedom-fighter who first appeared in 1999’s The Longest Journey.
Dreamfall Chapters was announced in 2007 as an episodic game, then shelved without ever going into production. In 2012, series creator Ragnar Tørnquist licensed the IP from his former employer and Kickstarted Chapters for just over $1.5 million. This time it was planned as a single, non-episodic game, but with production taking longer than anticipated, the developers reversed course again, announcing that they would split the game into five “books.” So here we are, finally able to see the end of Zoë, Kian, and April’s stories… or, at least, the beginning of the end.
Spoiler alert for Dreamfall
Book One – Reborn is a gradual opening to what promises to be another beefy Tørnquist tale, but at least those cliffhangers—Zoë hovering between life and death in a coma, Kian arrested for treason, and April felled by a spear to the gut—are addressed early. The episode focuses mostly on Zoë, with Kian briefly playable and April’s situation only teased in the opening cutscene and an intriguing “interlude” near the end. Still, it’s a start, one that should have fans of The Longest Journey particularly excited as loose threads finally start to make sense.
In general, playing The Longest Journey isn’t necessary to enjoy this first episode of Dreamfall Chapters. Dreamfall itself is more important because, as one character even points out, it was only the first half of the story. (If you need to refresh your memory, developer Red Thread Games has posted a recap video.) Book One opens in The Storytime, a snowy dreamscape where Zoë has been trapped for nine months while she lies unconscious in a Casablanca hospital. In the highly technological world of Stark, dream machine use has proliferated, giving rise to an increasing number of junkies addicted to lucid dreams. Zoë’s investigation in Dreamfall established that these machines are Very Bad and Dreamfall Chapters’ opening reiterates this with three puzzle sequences where she uses special mental powers to free people trapped in nightmares. This section also serves as a tutorial for the game’s interface, although the powers themselves (the ability to slow time, read minds, and create light) don’t appear again for the rest of the episode.
Dreamfall Chapters offers keyboard controls as well as support for Xbox 360 and PS4 gamepads. You walk with the WASD keys or left stick and pan the camera with the mouse or right stick. As you get closer to hotspots, an initially inactive circle cursor turns into an eye, hand, or talk bubble, or a gear icon that leads to a submenu if there are multiple possible interactions. This follows a certain real-world logic: you can only interact with something within reach. But during the early Storytime puzzles I didn’t understand that the cursor changed and mistook the inactive circle to mean I couldn’t do anything at all—not exactly the desired reaction in a tutorial meant to ease players into the interface.
This tutorial section also introduces the inventory, which is accessed with the Tab key or by pressing up on the d-pad. With the inventory tray visible at the bottom of the screen, you can examine items you’re carrying, combine them with other items, or try to use them on whatever hotspot is currently highlighted. Certain items, like a flashlight, are visible in the character’s hand during use and must then be pointed in the right direction—an additional layer of inventory use that I didn’t quite get the hang of, but was able to brute force my way through in the rare puzzle that required it.
As the Storytime sequence closes, Zoë must make a decision about returning to her life in Stark. Here’s where you’ll experience the first of several chances to shape the story by choosing between two discrete options, each with the potential to “shift the balance.” (If you’re unfamiliar with the previous games, this refers to the symbiotic relationship between Stark and its twin world, the fantastical Arcadia.) Though it’s obviously influenced by Telltale’s The Walking Dead, even down to the “so-and-so will remember this” messages that occasionally flash on-screen, Dreamfall Chapters positions itself not only as a game about choice but also about consequence (a point its characters keep making, in case you missed it). One such consequence emerges in this very episode, when Zoë’s first balance-shifting decision impacts several of the scenes, characters, and puzzles she’ll encounter later.
With Zoë’s path established, the game shifts to Arcadia, where Kian is imprisoned in Friar’s Keep prison awaiting execution when one of the Mercurian rebels appears to help him escape. Like Zoë’s appearance in Storytime, this serves as a prologue to Kian’s story: we get a recap on the current political situation, solve a few dialogue and inventory puzzles on the way to freedom, and make at least two more crucial decisions that may impact Kian’s story later on.
Before making these story-altering decisions, you have the option to see what other players have done. At the first major decision point, I actually changed my mind when I saw that more than 80% of players so far had chosen the path I was leaning toward, and decided instead to take the road less traveled. But confronted with moral dilemmas while playing as Kian, I couldn’t bring myself to go against the grain even though the percentage skewed even higher. In theory, branching paths add replay value, but I don’t want to muddle my choices and understanding of the story before the rest of the game is even finished. (The save game system doesn’t allow for separate profiles, either. It saves automatically at certain checkpoints and continues from these when you load, with no straightforward way to create a second, alternate playthrough that won’t overwrite your first.) Knowing that these choices will potentially unlock entirely different scenes and puzzles, and that episodic games are sometimes adapted to fit how the audience is playing them, I’m curious how this will shake out over Chapters’ five-episode run. Will the fact that most players leaned a certain way change Red Thread’s plans for content only a handful will see? Time will tell.
The last major section takes place in Europolis, the sprawling technopunk location where you’ll spend the most time in Reborn. Three months have passed since Zoë awoke from her coma. She and Reza are back together, and she’s in therapy trying to deal with her reintegration into society and recover repressed memories—what happened in Storytime is totally lost to her. This sets up a dilemma where the player knows more than Zoë about her own situation, and coupled with the emphasis on choice and consequence, it puts you in the unusual position of deciding whether to focus on Zoë’s future, or try to tip her off to what happened in the past. Chances are the story will be roughly the same regardless of what Zoë reveals to her psychiatrist or says to Reza during a disagreement, but there’s nuance to even these non-balance-shifting choices that makes them more than a gimmick.
Similar to early gameplay in The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, the Europolis section shows us a “day in the life” as Zoë has a therapy session, brings Reza lunch, goes to work (either at a bioengineering lab or a droid shop), and volunteers at the campaign office of a politician running in the upcoming election. Even though it’s set 200 years in the future, this series has always stood out for its true-to-life female protagonists, and Chapters continues the tradition by letting us get to know Zoë (again) through seemingly mundane activities and the lively entries in her journal. The gameplay here is leisurely paced and feels like an intro to a larger adventure, but in a self-contained episode it does have a listless quality. I appreciated how the gameplay fits in with tradition, but I reached the end of Book One regretting that not much had happened.
The meandering pace is compounded by the difficulty of navigating the sprawling Europolis, whose streets and alleys can be freely explored right away. Overcast, overrun with neon lights and lens flare, and bustling with activity, Europolis’s Propast district is a place teeming with NPCs (many named after Kickstarter backers), where aircraft fly overhead and ad-bots zoom past at eye-level, graffiti artists leave their marks on building walls, merchants hawk their wares, and junkies lie on benches and sidewalks with their faces hooked up to dream machines. The city exists on three levels with distinct areas, including a Chinese market, riverside docks, and the ironically named Sonnenschein Plaza, the only place in Propast with (albeit artificial) sunlight.
Unfortunately, all this activity comes with a price, as Europolis is a serious resource hog. I went from having no performance issues in Storytime and Friar’s Keep to the game slowing to a dead crawl the first time Zoë emerged onto the city street (followed by a blue screen crash). Turning the graphics quality and anti-aliasing down improved things—and I didn’t even notice much difference; the game is beautiful even on low settings—but I still had occasional frame rate issues in Europolis consistent with problems many other players have reported. [Note: Red Thread has released a patch that addresses some of these issues.]
Performance issues aside, Europolis is a maze-like place that you need to find your way around as Zoë goes through her day, and even if you don’t keep getting lost (which I did!), traversing the area on multiple errands takes time. The developers have stated their desire to create a big open world to be explored, and they’ve certainly done so here: Zoë can eavesdrop on conversations, make observations about people, landmarks, and posters on the walls, and even have side interactions with a few NPCs. All of this supplements your understanding of the game world, and the script is consistently well written, but I didn’t get enough out of my wandering to justify the amount of it I had to do to find each necessary location. “You are here” shopping mall-type maps are distributed around town but no corresponding mini-map displays on screen, so as soon as you walk away it’s easy to get turned around again. I hope the developers add an option to quick travel from a map to the desired location in future episodes.
This series is known for lots of talking, and dialogue is certainly present here, but much of it is optional and up to the player’s curiosity. For example, at the end of her therapy session, Zoë can leave right away or linger and make small talk with her psychiatrist, an option that unexpectedly veers off to shed light on Zoë’s insecurities about her relationship with Reza. Skipping the chat likely wouldn’t have changed the overall story, but this insight did influence my decisions around Reza later on, including during a balance-shifting moment.
Though both the writing and voice acting are high quality, conversations would be more rewarding if they included dynamic character animations and more camera cuts. It seems like a waste of 3D to have characters just standing there as they chat back and forth. Plus the lip-syncing is weird: characters’ mouths barely move for multiple words then suddenly open, in a puppety sort of way. (This might be related to performance issues, but it was a consistent annoyance for me throughout Reborn.) Still, the well-written dialogue is engaging, often funny, and generally worth seeking out. By the end of the episode, Kian remains an enigma, but I felt I got to know Zoë well through her conversations with others, and considering we’re going to be spending a lot of time together, that’s crucial.
This getting-to-know-you period is helped along with insights into what the player character will say before they say it. In so many games, you pick an option thinking you know what you’re doing and find, too late, that you misinterpreted the writer’s intent. In Dreamfall Chapters, you get to know the protagonists not only through what they say, but also by exploring what they intend to say, which is presented verbally when you mouse over each dialogue choice. So to an extent, you can sync the character’s dialogue and actions to your own feelings about what’s happening. This mechanic doesn’t prevent the occasional mix-up; in fact, one late interaction with Reza went so differently than I expected that I replayed it to keep the unintended consequence off my permanent record. But overall, Dreamfall Chapters gives players a refreshing amount of control over how the protagonists present themselves to the people they encounter, and this made Book One enjoyable beyond the more obvious puzzles and story beats.
Speaking of puzzles, this episode has some, but not many considering its 5-6 hour runtime. (My playthrough included a fair amount of optional dialogue but even more time lost in Europolis.) Though the mind tricks we learn in The Storytime don’t reappear, the Friar’s Keep and Europolis sections are peppered with more traditional adventure puzzles where you use dialogue, inventory items, and deductive logic to get past blocking obstacles. (Thankfully, the finicky combat and stealth sequences that blighted Dreamfall are nowhere to be found.) In either of her job paths, Zoë interacts with a droid she can direct to enact certain puzzle solutions. I found these sequences inconsistent—one where she and the droid work together to clear debris from a river got my puzzle-brain firing, while another where Zoë literally tells the droid to move left, right, up, and down around a simple grid felt like pointless busywork. Especially considering how much of my experience was spent finding my way around Europolis, I have to admit that a lot of what Book One had me doing didn’t wow me, but I was engaged enough by the writing and getting to know the characters and the world to be sucked in anyway. And that interlude at the end—I don’t want to spoil anything, but it has me seriously intrigued.
This is the sort of storytelling and emotion I know Ragnar Tørnquist and team are capable of. That’s why so much of the chaff in Dreamfall Chapters has annoyed me so much. I don’t know what Dreamfall Chapters was originally intended to be, if the episodic release changed it or only stretched it out, if the budget was enough to make the game the developers wanted, if the result matches their original vision. Making games is hard, especially one based on a license with such pent-up expectation, and even more so under the watchful eyes of 24,120 Kickstarter backers. Red Thread has delivered what they promised: a true sequel to Dreamfall, a conclusion to a story that didn’t have proper closure. And they’ve done a lot of things well. The graphics are stunning. Vast worlds have come to life, from Stark to Arcadia to the Storytime in between. Patches have been issued throughout the episodic run to improve technical performance and address player feedback about certain gameplay issues. I’m sure it’s been an exhausting process, and I genuinely feel bad that I didn’t like this game more. I wanted to love Dreamfall Chapters, I truly did.
If you’ve been playing the episodes as they release, we’ve reached the end of our journey together—either you agree with me or you don’t. (For your sake, I hope you don’t!) But if you’re someone who was waiting to play Dreamfall Chapters until all five books were out, my advice is this: play Dreamfall first. Maybe even start with The Longest Journey. Make an event out of it; play them all in a row. The story is just too hard to follow without that foundation, and if you’re not enjoying the story, what remains of Dreamfall Chapters isn’t enough to carry a 25-hour game.
Replacement review copy provided courtesy of GOG.com.
An ambitious sequel to 2006’s Dreamfall, Chapters is worth playing to see how the saga ends but doesn’t hold up as a standalone adventure.