Release Date: December 18, 2007
Of all of the games that came out for the Saturn, perhaps the one that is remembered with the most fondness is the obscure cult hit, NiGHTs: Into Dreams. A well designed and interesting arcade-style gaming experience, NiGHTs captivated many a gamer's hearts despite the relative obscurity of its release and the requirement of a special controller to play. Unfortunately, despite its popularity, NiGHTs was overshadowed by the release of titles like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot, and when combined with the Saturn's general unpopularity, it fell into obscurity. Now, over 10 years after the release of the original title, Sega has finally decided to bring the enigmatic jester out of retirement, with a new development team at the helm. Is NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams the sequel that gamers have been waiting for, or is it simply an attempt to cash in on the nostalgia of a cult classic? Unfortunately for gamers, it looks like the latter is closer to the truth.
Much like the first game, NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams stars two children, Will and Helen, who have been sucked into the World of Dreams, also known as Nightopia, as part of a plot by the evil Wizeman to use the power of their nightmares to take over Nightopia. The only thing standing between Wizeman and success is NiGHTs, an enigmatic jester (genderless in the original title, but repeatedly referred to as a "he" and "boy" in this game), who has the power to battle Wizeman's army. To do so, he needs to "dualize" with the children, fusing their bodies together and allowing their natural power to combine with NiGHTs' own to supercharge the jester. Together, NiGHTs and the children have to work together to overcome their own self-doubts and fear and regain control of their dreams. The plot is rather childish and simplistic, and it remains predictable and clichéd at every moment. It might appeal to young children, but will certainly leave older gamers bored stiff, especially since the game features lengthy cut scenes before and after each mission, although a good number of these can be skipped.
The first thing any gamer should do after placing NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams into the Wii is to toss away the Wiimote. Despite being designed for Nintendo's newest system, each of the control schemes that supposedly take advantage of the Wii's unique controller come close to rendering the game unplayable. Gamers who wish to just use the Wiimote end up using an awkward method that involves using the Wii's pointer to guide NiGHTs; trying to perform the acrobatic maneuvers the game requires with this method is an exercise in futility. The Wii Classic Controller is slightly better, but the analog stick's octagon-shaped groove actually causes a few problems when trying to guide the jester, and he doesn't respond very smoothly. The controller that one should use for NiGHTs is the Nintendo GameCube controller, which functions nearly perfectly and gives the player swift and accurate control over the hero. For some reason, the Wiimote's capabilities were barely factored into the game at all, and the control methods that do take advantage of it feel half-finished and broken compared to the GameCube controller. If it weren't for the fact that you were putting the disc into a Wii, NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams might as well be a GameCube title.
Once you've got a good controller, you'll find that NiGHTs hasn't changed too much from his Saturn incarnation. Much of the controls are basically identical to the last title, and experienced gamers will not have a difficult time picking up the mechanics again. For those unfamiliar with NiGHTs: Into Dreams, NiGHTs is a magical flying jester who travels through 2D levels, weaving his way through obstacles while attempting to fly through various loops and collectible chips in order to form "links" that increase his score. The more links a player makes before the combo is broken, the higher a bonus he gets. Beyond his flying ability, NiGHTs can also use a drill dash to speed forward and damage enemies, although this ability is limited by a dash meter that is refilled by flying through loops, and the power to perform a Paraloop, in which NiGHTs creates a miniature black hole to suck in anything, friend or foe, that is encircled by the loop.
One of the biggest letdowns in Journey of Dreams involves the new Persona masks. Persona masks allow NiGHTs to change his form at will, and they're earned at the end of every world, giving the jester the ability to transform into a dolphin, rocket or dragon. They are also utterly useless. NiGHTs' own natural form is better to use almost all of the time, and the only moment when you'll ever consider transforming into his other forms is when the game requires it, and the game only requires it about five times throughout all 30 levels. You don't even get the dragon form until right before you're about to face the last boss, meaning it is only useful if you want to go back and play older levels, and even then, its use is extremely limited. For example, the dragon form can fly through windstorms, but only one or two levels have windstorms that are worth flying through. Likewise, the dolphin form allows NiGHTs to travel underwater, but NiGHTs automatically transforms into a dolphin when he needs to, and underwater sections occur perhaps even less often than the windstorms. The Persona masks were such a highly touted feature that it's a pity that they didn't figure more prominently into the gameplay.
The first level of every dream is a chase stage. NiGHTs, being quite the unlucky devil, ends up captured almost all of the time, and it's up to Will or Helen to save him. They do so by dualizing with NiGHTs, allowing him to escape from his cage for a brief period. NiGHTs then has to fly around the various stages, chasing after dragons that hold keys to the NiGHTs cages, and then destroy those cages before his time runs out and he's sucked back in. Of all the stages in the game, these are the only ones that are anything like the original game, and likewise, the only stages that are any fun. Players have to fly through a series of obstacles, both environmental and laid by the enemy, as quickly as they can, in an attempt to keep up with and ultimately catch the dragon. Each chase stage is made up of three sections; NiGHTs has to catch a dragon in each, and these sections are actually quite well designed. They involve trying to discover the proper way to keep going as fast as possible while flying through enough loops to keep up your link score. They're not particularly challenging, mind you, and even unskilled gamers should be able to achieve top rankings after only a few tries, but they're enjoyable enough to make one overlook the difficulty.
After each chase stage, players are sent up against a boss Nightmarian, sent by the evil Wizeman to stop NiGHTs once and for all. These boss stages are all actually rather fun and don't play anything like what one would expect of a boss fight. To beat a boss, NiGHTs has to complete strange tasks, like knocking a balloon-like monster into spikes, turning a giant fish into balloons and sucking up enough of those balloons to turn it into a harmless guppy, or smashing the web under a giant spider. These boss fights are clever and well designed, and while they're not very challenging once a player has figured out the boss's weakness, they're certainly enjoyable battles. After a boss has been defeated, it returns again at the end of the dream in a slightly harder form, requiring more hits and occasionally new tactics, but remaining identical, for the most part. This is actually the one disappointment with boss fights, since what was a fun fight becomes rather boring when you have to do it a second time, and for most of the bosses, the minor changes to their patterns don't really vary things enough to make the second fight any fun.
While the chase stages are fairly fun, they only comprise a minority of the total gameplay. Between the chase stages and the boss fights, the classic NiGHTs gameplay is thrown aside in favor of what can only be described as "filler" stages. While it's nice that the developers tried to vary the gameplay a bit, these filler stages are almost all unbelievably uninteresting deviations from the bits of fun gameplay that NiGHTs offers. Instead of high-speed races through detailed environments, players are instead charged with boring tasks like collecting falling gems or rafting down a river. Not only are these tasks unmemorable, but they're also incredibly easy, and there are a few that are basically impossible to lose. Achieving an A ranking on these stages doesn't take much effort at all.
Perhaps the worst parts of the game are the few stages where you leave NiGHTs behind and take control of Will or Helen. These stages remove the flying aspect of NiGHTs altogether, which is rather like removing jumping from a Mario game, or running from Sonic the Hedgehog. Instead, you're stuck in a series of incredibly awkward and poorly designed platform-jumping sequences involving one of the two kids, which does not remotely resemble fun. These are unbelievably slow and boring treks through some of the most tedious levels to be found in the game. The best thing one can say about these levels is that there are only a few of them, and they're easy enough to achieve a high ranking so you'll only have to play them once.
NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams is an incredibly short game. Once players have finished the main story mode, which takes roughly two hours for each character, there is little else the title has to offer. A slightly expanded ending is offered to those who complete the game with every mission finished with a C-ranking or higher, but that will only add roughly an extra hour of gameplay. Gamers who've finished all of the levels will find their only remaining options are to search for hidden Dream Drops in the game stages, which doesn't take too long, or to fool around with the A-Life system, which lets you take care of a mini virtual pet. You can capture Nightmarians and Nightopians by Paralooping them and send them to the My Dream area, where they sit around so you can look at them. You can perform a poorly explained set of tasks in some missions to create special creatures to send to My Dream, but there's little reason to bother. The My Dream area changes slightly depending on the creatures you've sent to it, but the differences are only uninteresting visual changes. Likewise, players can visit other My Dreams and see what other players have done with their A-Lives, but that is the extent of the feature.
Gamers who are interesting in multiplayer will be slightly happier than those who bought NiGHTs to play around with on their own. There are actually a couple of two-player modes: race and battle. Race involves two players racing through some of the chase stages, while battle involves the two throwing balls at each other to try to damage one another. Neither is particularly interesting, unfortunately. Race is rather fun the first couple of times you play it, but the extremely limited amount of stages (four in all) means that it quickly loses its luster. Battle is slightly awkward and boring; it's simply a multiplayer version of one of the game's boss battles.
One good bit of news is that the race mode is available to play online against other gamers, and the online mode actually works surprisingly well. Players can face off against friends or other random gamers in any of the race stages, and the matches I played were swift and lag-free. It's not quite enough to make up for the lack of stages, but it certainly adds some much-needed extra gameplay to NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams.
As with the rest of the game, NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams' visual presentation has moments of excellence, but it's marred by an overall lackluster performance. The actual in-game levels vary in quality, with some looking surprisingly excellent, while others appear bland and boring, which is fairly unforgivable considering that there are only seven areas in the entire game. However, while the in-game graphics sometimes look good, the cut scenes never do. Any time the game decides to move up too close, you get treated to a set of character models that look more fitting for a Dreamcast game than a Wii title. NiGHTs has gone from a charming enigmatic jester to a creepy bug-eyed monster, and the kids look awkward and inhuman, especially with their solid blocks of hair. The cut scenes inexplicably lag and suffer from frame rate drop during some of the busier scenes! The few good stages simply can't make up for the problematic cut scenes, especially since you'll be spending as much time watching them as playing the game.
The one area where NiGHTs performs well is in its soundtrack. While not every song is good, the game has a fantastic musical score, and it helps transform the lackluster levels into something quite a bit more fun. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of its voice acting. NiGHTs' voice acting suffers in a number of ways. The actors' accents can vanish or return seemingly out of nowhere, and there are some very noticeable audio mixing issues, particularly with Helen, who often sounds muted and low compared to the rest of the actors. Ignoring the mysteriously vanishing accents and sound issues, the voice acting is fairly good, although longtime fans may be rather annoyed that NiGHTs has become quite the blabbermouth, compared to the silent and enigmatic jester found in the original title.
There is really little to recommend NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams to gamers. It's unbelievably short, not very fun, and quite unpleasant on the eyes. The potentially fun online play and solid soundtrack manage to save NiGHTs from total failure, but even these elements can't do much to improve the overall experience. While there are a few shining moments of quality to be found within NiGHTs, they are buried beneath an avalanche of mediocrity. It would be difficult to recommend NiGHTs: Journey of Dreams even at a budget price, but at the full $50, one would be better off passing on the game.
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