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Over the course of its six-plus-year development cycle, the episodic point-and-click adventure The Dream Machine has truly become a work of passion for its two main indie designers, Anders Gustafsson and Erik Zaring. Adopters of the early chapters have been forced to bide their time waiting for each new episode, some with more than a year between releases. Chapter 6 may have stretched the patience of the faithful to its breaking point; with a nearly three-year hiatus, the finale has spent almost as long in development as the previous chapters combined. So with the concluding installment released at last, two questions remain: Was it worth the wait for longsuffering fans, and is the series itself deserving of attention from those who’ve held out ‘til now? In short: Sort of, and yes.
The majority of those who have stuck with the game since its beginning in 2010 will surely pick up this episode no questions asked. After all, the previous chapter ended with a great cliffhanger, and players will want to see for themselves if and how Victor Neff saves the life of his unborn child and releases his wife and neighbors from the evil influence of the Dream Machine. Simply by virtue of tying up the loose threads, this game has a lot going for it.
The sixth chapter not only builds on what has come before, but in a first for the series, it revisits many previously-seen dreamscapes, in essence providing a quick tour of past events. It also seems to be the most streamlined entry so far, unfortunately focusing more on finishing its narrative at the expense of featuring as many puzzle sections as before.
Events move along at a brisk pace for most of the episode, requiring player input to proceed but usually more in the form of moving from one location to another or interacting with something via mouse-click, rather than full-fledged puzzles to dig into. In fact, during the entirety of Chapter 6’s 2-3 hour run, there is only one puzzle sequence worth mentioning. This one section, however, is well-designed, making use of the new fast travel option to transport yourself to a number of previous chapters’ dream worlds to collect items Victor needs. It’s not the most challenging puzzle the series has ever seen, but by no means is it an entirely throwaway task, either.
Beyond its inventory-based obstacles, the story goes through some interesting developments. Each of The Dream Machine’s six episodes has had its own distinct flavor, culminating with the brilliant dichotomy between virtual cyberworld and creepy fairytale in the fifth installment. This time around, the running theme seems to be more cerebral, exploring the immaterial boundaries between life and death, conscious thought and dreams. It’s perhaps the most philosophical the series has ever been, and it succeeds with mixed results. While far from my favorite chapter, it does manage to present some wholly original situations in a series already brimming with original situations. You will take a trip into Victor’s distant childhood, ponder what it means to be God, and be tasked with finding a way to enter the dreams of the unborn.
Graphically, one of the big draws of The Dream Machine has always been its hand-crafted aesthetic, with assets and environments entirely built out of clay and cardboard. While that hasn’t changed, it feels a bit less impressive this time around. Part of the reason is undoubtedly the handful of recycled areas, though there are still quite a few new ones on display. The series’ real-world locations have always benefitted most from the claymation aesthetic, as the wonky dimensions and alien textures juxtaposed greatly with the reality of everyday objects. However, the main new environment in Chapter 6 is a kind of psychedelic forest, complete with giant neon-colored mushrooms against dark backgrounds. This surreal landscape obfuscates the level of detail normally visible in the hand-made artistry, effectively hiding rather than celebrating the work that went into it.
The sound design remains largely unchanged, as well. Since the beginning, the soundtrack has been one of the series’ least impressive points, actually making me cringe at certain song selections in earlier episodes, and the latest installment doesn’t do much to remedy this. The sound design within dreams has always been very understated, adding to the surreal vibe. However, with the final episode being set entirely in the dream world, there is very little to alleviate the unpleasant and discomfiting feelings of loneliness and isolation. While that may have been the developers’ intention, it can become a lot to handle. Without some occasional relief, it just ends up being a bit too drab to be appreciated.
The conclusion to The Dream Machine has been a long time coming, and in its own right it probably doesn’t justify the extended delay. Scoring a little lower in the presentation and interaction departments keeps this episode from rising to the same levels as the best of the earlier installments. Indeed, it seems that the series hit its zenith with Chapter 5, and is now left to tie up the last of its loose ends in a less spectacular manner. The final chapter does manage to keep things thematically fresh, however, despite recycling a good chunk of previously used environments. With one meaty puzzle section and an emotional climax, this is a satisfying, if not perfect, cap to a stellar series overall. After the better part of a decade since its debut, it’s gratifying to finally see how Victor Neff’s battle against the nefarious titular machine concludes, and those who’ve been holding out until the end can now experience this unique game from beginning to end, uninterrupted at last.