Platform: Xbox, PC
Review Date: 1/29/11
"Dreamfall" is the sequel to "The Longest Journey" (1999), which is widely considered the greatest adventure game ever made. While it's not necessary to have played the original, it certainly helps fill in some of the gaps and flesh out some of the characters that you meet. The main character in the game is a 20 year old girl named Zoë Castillo. She's a disenchanted youth who dropped out of college, moved back into her dad's place, and does nothing but sit around and watch TV all day. She also recently broke up with her boyfriend and can't seem to get her act together. Things take a dramatic turn for the worse when her ex-boyfriend disappears, which causes Zoë to get involved in a dangerous global conspiracy. She's also haunted by visions of a ghostly little girl who pleads with her to save April Ryan, the hero from the original game. So Zoë gallivants across the globe in search of answers, and discovers Earth's twin world, Arcadia. In Arcadia, the gameplay shifts between Zoë, April, and an Azadi assassin named Kian. While things are bad on Earth (or Stark, as it's known), Arcadia is arguably worse off. The Azadi are waging a religious war of oppression on the unbelievers in Arcadia, and April Ryan is leading an increasingly hopeless effort to resist their occupation and persecution. Ultimately, events on Stark are affecting Arcadia, which is bringing about their mutual destruction. Can Zoë stop this epic disaster from happening?
"Dreamfall" is a point-and-click adventure, and is difficult to classify as a game. It's more like interactive fiction with an occasional action scene or puzzle to solve. The majority of the game consists of walking around and talking to various characters you meet, and while you're given several options for interacting with people, the end results are always the same. Zoë has no way of altering events or changing outcomes, and her responses are simply a way for the player to bond with the character. That would be frustrating and even boring if it weren't for the excellent writing. "Dreamfall's" greatest strength is in its writing, which is well thought out and brings the game's people and places to life. By talking to people, you learn about them, yourself, and the world around you, which creates a compelling and immersive experience. You learn to care for the people you meet, which creates some strong emotional bonds, and when terrible things happen to people you know, the effects are tangible. The writing is narratively challenging and tackles some dark, heavy, and complex topics. It explores science, technology, magic, religion, faith, love, life, death, war, persecution, freedom, reality, responsibility, and destiny. Unfortunately, the writing tends to be vague and open ended, and the game ends on a frustrating cliffhanger with lots of unanswered questions. Even more annoying is the fact that the game's writer, Ragnar Tørnquist, insists that it's a complete story. I suppose it is from the perspective of one character, but that character has less than five minutes of screen time.
The game's presentation and production values are excellent, and it's a delight to simply walk around and take in the scenery. The environments are very well designed and compact enough that it's quick and easy to get wherever you need to go. Stark is full of futuristic technology and familiar looking architecture, while Arcadia looks like a medieval fantasy world. Both are stunning to look at and fun to wander around in. The music is very good and the voice acting is superb. While all of the actors are very good, Ellie Conrad-Leigh's heart-felt interpretation of Zoë is phenomenal and stands out as a high point in the game. Sarah Hamilton's delivery as April Ryan is quite good, but her tone is inconsistent and doesn't always match the conversation she's having. The game has one of the largest voice casts I've ever seen, and every character has their own dialog and personality. I love this aspect of the game, which is an area where so many other games fail.
However, the game isn't without its fair share of technical problems. Since the game originated on the PC, some of the problems with the Xbox version are simply due to the inherent differences in design paradigms and control schemes. "Dreamfall" was intended to be played with a mouse, which obviously creates problems for a game controller. The most severe problem involves trying to interact with objects. The game has a "focus mode" where you can look around and identify objects that you want to interact with. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with objects that are vertically stacked, which forces you to get extremely clever with where you are standing. It's an unfortunate nuisance that can cause you to get stuck, simply because you can't see or select the object that you need to in order to proceed. Accessing and using inventory is awkward and confusing, and the use of the action command is inconsistent. Reading e-mail is totally confusing, and I still haven't figured out those controls. I ended up just hitting buttons and hoping to eventually get lucky. The "save and quit" option is also completely broken, as it neither saves or quits. That's really embarrassing from a QA standpoint. The movement controls are fidgety and it's difficult to maintain a walking pace. I guess the developers just assumed that you would be running all of the time. The camera is fussy and doesn't allow you to see everything that you want. It's also a bit jumpy, but never nausea inducing. Combat is definitely the weakest element of the game, and simply involves pounding on the attack button. Fortunately, none of the adversaries you run into put up much of a fight.
Apart from the porting issues, the game also has several bugs that I ran into. I got trapped in an airlock once and had to reload my game into order to get out. There was also a door that I opened, but I couldn't walk through it. I guess the assumption there was that once I walked through the door, I wouldn't want to go back through it in the other direction. It was definitely odd. The strangest bug I encountered (which actually worked to my advantage) was when I was trying to reach an elevator to escape a group of security guards. As I rounded the last corner, there was a guard standing there with his gun pointed at me, but completely oblivious to my presence. I thought I was dead, but he never moved and I simply walked right past him and into the elevator. Curious... One design issue I ran into involved a broken puzzle. At one point in the game, you activate a machine and it plays a series of tones. Then ten minutes later, you're required to play back those tones. That seems fair enough, but by that time you've forgotten the sequence and you were never given any indication that you needed to remember it. There's also no way to replay the tones, which leaves you stuck with three options: 1) Methodically enter all 256 combinations of tones until you hit the right one, 2) reload an earlier saved game and hope you don't have to do too much backtracking, or 3) consult a walkthrough.
Still, for all of my nit-picking, "Dreamfall" is a wonderful experience and worth playing multiple times to try and piece together the fragmented narrative. The writing is deep and interwoven, and contains lots of subtle nuances and brilliant moments of clarity. The characters are wonderful, if not a bit eccentric, and the dialog is smart and entertaining. The whole thing plays out like a good science fiction fantasy novel, and creates a rich and believable world that you can lose yourself in. While there's not much of a "game" here, it's still a rewarding experience and a journey worth taking.
"What a mysterious, and completely irrelevant door."
"All this stuff, it's like something out of a fantasy role playing game."
"Potions, herbs, curiously shaped cookies..."