Release Date: April 17, 2006
There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike about Dreamfall. It’s one of the most creative games in recent memory, with a genuinely touching, well-told story. It’s also not so much a game in its own right as an interactive novel with occasional, unwieldy stealth and combat segments.
It’s a sequel to 1999’s The Longest Journey, which may have been the last great “classic” adventure game, and based on that, a few people – like me – were expecting it to breathe new life into the genre. Instead, it pretty much throws a last spadeful of dirt onto the coffin.
Dreamfall is an adventure game the same way that, say, Syberia is; the puzzles are simplistic, you spend most of your playtime listening to dialogue, and half the time, all you need to do to progress is show up.
Dreamfall begins in Casablanca in the distant future, ten years after the events of The Longest Journey. When the game begins, a former college student named Zoe Castillo is lying in a terminal coma, slowly fading away.
She begins to tell us the story of how one day, she began seeing strange visions on television screens, of a strange white place where a little girl begged her, again and again, to save April Ryan. On the same day, Zoe’s ex-boyfriend asked her for a favor, which winds up leading her across the world, into the middle of a corporate conspiracy, and from her world, the science-based Earth we know, a.k.a. Stark, into the magical world of Arcadia. Along the way, she will get ambushed and knocked unconscious approximately a dozen times. It’s how she is.
April Ryan, on the other hand, has changed a lot since she was the protagonist of The Longest Journey. She’s gone from a sarcastic art student to a sarcastic revolutionary who answers to the name “Raven.” In the years since she saved the world, the city of Marcuria in Arcadia has become overrun by a crazily monotheistic race of warriors named the Azadi. They’re oppressing the non-human population and killing off the magic-users, but they’ve also improved the standard of living for most of the humans. April and her allies are left in the unfortunate position of attempting to free a populace that isn’t entirely certain it wants to be free. She’s also got permanent eyeshadow for some reason I don’t pretend to understand.
In the middle of all this, a missionary and assassin named Kian is sent to Mercutia to kill one of the revolutionaries’ leaders. He’s chosen for the task due to his unwavering faith in the Azadis’ Goddess, but as is usually the case with these things, what he sees and does during his mission will begin to shake that faith. He’s kind of blatantly unnecessary, honestly; he has maybe a tenth of the game for himself and he spends most of it fighting.
These three characters are your protagonists for Dreamfall, and you’ll be controlling at least one of them during each of the game’s thirteen chapters. Most of the game is spent exploring your environment, solving simple puzzles, discussing things with NPCs, or trying to find the one widget in your environment that’ll let you progress. Sometimes, especially when you’re playing as Kian, you’ll have to engage in combat using what’s arguably the world’s clumsiest combat engine; other times, usually as Zoe, you’ll have to use a touch of stealth to accomplish what you need to do.
I should make myself clear; while I wasn’t always fully on board with it, Dreamfall tells an excellent story, which is leaps and bounds ahead of The Longest Journey’s fairly predictable magic-vs.-science boondoggle. It’s also a story that relies to some extent on having played The Longest Journey, so if you’ve the means, play that before picking up Dreamfall.
Just about all of Dreamfall’s problems stem from its gameplay. As a sort of interactive film, it’s top-notch entertainment; as a video game, it’s pretty astoundingly mediocre.
Dreamfall will often present you with a series of obstacles, most of which can be overcome with the use of an item found in the same room as the obstacle. There’s remarkably little room for clever solutions to anything, and you actually spend a lot of time with your inventory completely empty. Most of the “gameplay” involves running all over town performing fetch quests, or retracing your steps yet again. Hell, near the end of the game, you have to go through the same area three times as all three characters. They might as well have had “PADDING” flashing at the bottom of the screen.
The Xbox port is hindered by a fairly clunky control setup, which pairs an occasionally rebellious camera with an inventory system that’s never less than awkward. Finding objects to interact with in the environment is a question of spinning your character in place until she finds what you want her to work with, and the “focus field” you can pull up with the left thumbstick is practically useless.
The stealth system is okay, although it would’ve been better if you could voluntarily opt to go into the game’s combat mode; there’s a particularly aggravating sequence where if someone sees you, they’ll trigger an alarm about fifteen seconds later, which is more than enough time for Zoe the black belt to run up and kick their hairstyles in.
The combat system, though, is atrocious. It’s Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots for a new generation, and feels like it was added in as an afterthought by somebody who really didn’t care. There’s no strategy to it and less fun. It’s basically just about tricking the AI into blocking a lot, then abusing your heavy attack to break their block.
Above all else, though, Dreamfall isn’t, um, complete, exactly. It ends on a blatant cliffhanger with a number of plot hooks left hanging or ignored. I will be slightly irate if we have to wait another seven years to see what’s next.
Anyway, that’s Dreamfall, a game I love to be frustrated by. It’s too damn easy, it’s almost not a video game at all, and the combat system is worthless, but I was pulled through it regardless simply on the strength of its story. If you’re interested in interactive storytelling, you’re an adventure gamer in need of a fix, or you’re a big fan of The Longest Journey, pick this up; no one else should feel compelled to bother.
Score : 7.4/10
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