Reviewed: June 1, 2006
Released: April 17, 2006
I still remember when The Longest Journey shipped for PC more than six years ago. It was almost instantly heralded by critics and gamers alike as the best adventure since Myst, some even called it the best adventure game ever. I was in neither of those groups. I certainly respected the content as one of the best-written stories in the genre, but the PC title was plagued with bugs, and the gameplay was totally lacking.
Now, after many years, Funcom delivers the much-anticipated sequel, and I can firmly say that Dreamfall: The Longest Journey lives up to the original and remains one of the best adventure games I haven’t played.
Wipe that puzzled look off your face. I’m being sarcastic. I actually played the game – just finished it last night as a matter of fact. What I am trying to so eloquently say with wit is that Dreamfall is more interactive fiction than game. In the 15 odd hours I spent with Dreamfall, I’d guess that roughly five of those hours were actually spent DOING something. Otherwise, I was sitting back on the couch watching an endless stream of cinematics and lengthy conversations. How long? Let’s just say that my wireless controller would actually time out on nearly half these sequences and I would have to “wake it up” to start playing.
Don’t get me wrong. A strong story is imperative to an adventure game but not at the sacrifice of gameplay. And what a story it is…three stories actually, all starting at difference times and different places – different worlds even, then all converging to create one of the biggest, most surprising, and perhaps the most cryptic finales of storytelling history. I won’t dare spoil the end for you but suffice it to say that if you like all your plot threads sewn up neatly before the credits roll stay away from this mind bender.
Dreamfall deals with three characters, Zoe, a college-aid hottie with a Lara Croft accent that sounds better than Lara Croft, who has lost her momentum and purpose in life. She sleeps in late, watches TV, and plays with her stuffed robot ape, Wonkers, while daddy pays the bills. She is the crux of the story and the primary character that ties this epic together.
Later in the game you will meet up and play as April Ryan. You might remember her as the lead character of the original The Longest Journey. She has remained in Arcadia for the past ten years and is now some sort of rebel freedom fighter leading up a resistance against an invading country from the West.
Kian is the third character and you will play him the least, but don’t dismiss his part in the story. He is an Apostle, one of the most revered positions in the Azadi Empire that is invading April’s home. His missionary work is performed with cold steel. Head the Word of the Goddess or die.
After a cryptic opening (and somewhat interactive) movie we meet up with April in the present (which is actually the future). She kicks off the story by actually getting out of bed. We soon learn that she lives in Casablanca with her rich daddy who is about to go away on business. Party time!
But before the wine and girl gossip can commence April has a few things to deal with including a cryptic video message that seems to follow her around town and play on any screen she passes. The message is the same; a dark house on a white background and a lone girl pleading for you to “save her…save April…save April Ryan”. The whole transmission is very similar in style to The Ring movies.
After a quick trip to the gym for a workout and combat tutorial (see how they snuck that in) you meet up with your ex-boyfriend Reza for coffee. He asks you to run an errand for him. It’s simple really. Just go downtown and pick up a package from his contact at some company and take it to his apartment.
When you get to the company evil agents have imprisoned Reza’s contact and are hacking the computers. Once you get past this obstacle you return to Reza’s only to find a dead girl in his apartment, just as the corporate police kick down the door finding you over the dead body. Reza is missing, and the corporate police are asking a lot of questions you don’t have answers for.
Sound exciting? It really is. I was captivated after only 30 minutes, not only by the narrative but the extremely rich and detailed character development. You quickly learn about all the primary characters and get invested in their physical and emotional status. You empathize with Zoe as she tries to figure out what happened to Reza. You share her sense of wonder when she is transported to the magical land of Arcadia, and you shiver right along with her as you uncover a sinister plot to steal the thoughts and dreams of the entire world.
Dreamfall grabs you from the opening cinematic with its fantastic story, but leaves much to be desired when it comes to actual gameplay. When you are finally allowed to actually do something is basically consists of walking around gorgeous 3D environments waiting for a blue box to appear indicating you can look, interact, or pick-up and object.
A nice twist on the 3D interface is the Focus mode, which, by pushing down on the left stick, allows your character to stand still and rotate a blue line of sight outward from your position. Anything the line touches that can be interacted with pop-up hotkeys. Commands are assigned to the face buttons and are simple to input.
Funcom has tried to infuse the 3D exploration with a bit of action, but the combat system comes off as extremely lame and the opponent AI is non-existent so you can get through all combat with simple button mashing. If you get the initial strong punch timed just right you can take down anybody without ever taking a hit yourself. Even as Kian who uses a sword or April who uses a staff, the weapon combat is equally as flawed.
Puzzles come in a few flavors. You have the traditional item collection, often followed by combining that item with another before using it. This is all handled nicely with a simple D-pad interface, but you never have to worry about managing a huge inventory and almost any location that requires an item will have that item extremely close by. Everything is pretty obvious, almost as if the designers didn’t want to interrupt their storytelling with any lengthy puzzles.
Other puzzles include hacking computers with your mobile (cell phone) and this is basically a test of how well you can identify and pick four symbols off a grid of about twenty. It’s made a bit harder since the location of the symbols changes about every five seconds.
The third puzzle is quite clever but entirely too easy. It’s basically a lock-picking exercise where you must line up two symbols at 6 and 12 o’clock on four different rings. You can exchange symbols between the rings by putting them at 3 and 9 o’clock.
All of these puzzles make only a few appearances within the game, and none of them are terribly challenging. Again, the idea of Dreamfall is apparently to tell a story, and puzzles and inventory seem to be adventure game clichés that only get in the way of that goal.
I have to comment on the Mature rating. The script drops the F-bomb twice (maybe three times), and other than that there is nothing here worse than a PG movie (not even a PG-13). You see Zoe in her underwear but even that is tastefully done. There is no violence of any substantial content, so parents should not be concerned to let teens play this game. It’s a shame the game got the dreaded “M” rating in the first place, as most retailers will deny the sale to minors.
Visually, Dreamfall is a masterpiece, at least in design. Technically, I’m guessing the PC version is going to look a lot better than the Xbox since it can run at higher resolutions and remove those terrible Xbox jaggies with some anti-aliasing. On any given scene the jaggies aren’t terrible, but the game uses frequent cinematic pans and zooms, often at slow speeds so you can just see the hard lines of polygons and textures and their animated “stair steps”.
Character design is outstanding and Zoe is probably the most engaging and emotive character I have ever had the joy of playing in any game on any format. Maybe it’s those dark doe eyes that dart about, or her complex facial animations that truly reflect her emotions at any given moment. Even her dialogue is perfectly lip-synced including her inner dialogue (narration) when you look at something or somebody, which is odd. Obviously, she speaks her mind.
April, Kian, and the rest of the cast are all exquisitely modeled and richly detailed in both texture and animation. Non-human encounters like trolls and a giant creature that looks like a Bantha in the city square are also incredibly original and well animated.
The levels are large and quite engaging, some bordering on the creativity and complexity of designs you might see in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The art department did a great job of packing a lot of environmental detail into areas which are forced to reload at frequent intervals on the Xbox due to limited RAM, but at least the load times are reasonable if not downright fast.
Each area has stunning scenery and interesting details. Casablanca blends an African theme with some Arabian design, while Russia and Japan have a cool futurist flair about them. You’ll even visit Newport (where it all started with April) and explore some dark and creepy back streets.
The 3D look and design of the game is a much nicer approach to contemporary gaming, but I do miss those wonderful 2D “paintings” from the original game. Given the abilities and limitations of the Xbox, Funcom has done a great job with this game. I’d love to see a high-res version on the Xbox 360.
Sound is a major component of Dreamfall’s presentation starting with an epic soundtrack that could easily be in a major film. This is quality stuff and a CD soundtrack is in order. There is a fantastic ambient score along with feature tracks complete with lyrics that highlight major transitions and emotional plot points.
Sound effects are standard stuff and include environmental sounds as well as direct noises like combat, footsteps, and interaction with the world. You’ll hear water, grinding stone, crackling flames, and a few low-frequency rumbles that really kicked my sub into overdrive. The Dolby Digital mix gives this game the movie-like treatment it deserves.
Of course, the best part of this game is also the biggest part. Since you’ll either be talking or listening to someone else talk for upwards of ten hours anything less than top-quality voice acting would send this game packing. Each character appears to have been perfectly matched with an actor that delivers their lines perfectly. The voices not only match the character design but the real-world attitude you quickly assume for each cast member.
Zoe is obviously my favorite – I’m a sucker for a sexy British accent, but other voices that come to mind are Wonkers, the robot-monkey, and an extremely sexy white dragon who has assumed human form. Of course the real scene-stealer and possibly the winner of best dialogue and delivery of any video game character to date is Crow. Every line that comes out of that bird’s beak is solid gold.
Dreamfall is as linear as adventure games come. Some of the dialogue trees have multiple branches, but they all almost always lead to the next logical topic of conversation. Even if you are purposefully rude or pick the obvious wrong option, nothing bad happens.
So it all boils down to a ten-hour movie with about five hours of rudimentary wandering around and obvious decision making to advance the plot every 10-15 minutes. If you enjoy a good show and don’t mind jumping through hoops to watch it then Dreamfall is perfect.
I probably haven’t been waiting for this game with as much anticipation as a lot of you, but as the launch date grew near I have to confess I was eager to see what Ragnar Tørnquist and his team were going to come up with. After finishing the game I can say I was neither disappointed nor terribly impressed.
They team at Funcom can tell one helluva story, but they still need to work on putting gameplay into the game. If you are the type of gamer who mashes the button to skip cinematics so you can play the next level then stay away from this title, but if you want to participate in one of the most interesting and philosophical stories of our time, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey is in a class of its own.