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Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (PC) artwork

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (PC) review

"The central narrative arc is beautiful: this is a game which expands on its predecessorís coming of age story, and presents something altogether more grown-up. If The Longest Journey demonstrated the progression from the naivety of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, Dreamfall is a game about taking that newfound maturity and giving it back to those in need."

Have you played Dreamfall? Are you ever likely to? If you have, or you arenít, then I want to show you something. Here, take a seat. This will only take a few minutes. (If you havenít, or you are, then for goodnessí sake donít press play on the video below.)

This is what we can do in videogames. This is what the medium is capable of, in a mere cutscene. Turns out we donít have to accept anything less anymore! We can write extraordinary scripts, and deliver them through the medium of properly talented actors! Even with that animation glitch! Itís a revelation. Iím writing this article with the sceneís audio playing in the background, and a lump forming in my throat.

See, I missed Dreamfall when it was first released, back in 2006. Itís the sequel to Funcomís 1999 adventure The Longest Journey, which was a wonderful and formative gaming experience for me. The Longest Journey was a slow, and in many ways flawed, point-and-clicker, but its masterful storytelling eclipsed almost every single one of its problems. Yet this game passed me by, and itís only in the last couple of months that Iíve understood quite what I missed.

With events set ten years after those of the previous game, TLJís April Ryan is no longer the primary protagonist. That role instead falls to ZoŽ Castillo, a 20-year-old university drop-out living in a mid-future Casablanca. Sheís never quite as convincing a character as the astonishing Ryan, who began as an irritating teenage stereotype but blossomed into someone displaying real humanity and passion. But the events of the first game destroyed her, and now, sheís migrated to the magical parallel world of Arcadia, stubbornly refusing to leave.

ZoŽ, on the other hand, is in a coma. Thatís how the game begins, anyway, and the 15 hours that follow are her disembodied retelling of the tale that came before. Like so many great videogame stories, this one begins unassumingly, becoming ever more intricately strange as the stakes stack up, and the worlds of Stark and Arcadia once again begin to leak into each other. Itís simultaneously one of the most remarkable and one of the most infuriating gaming experiences Iíve ever played through.

There are three playable characters, ZoŽ being the most prolific, but with April also playing a major role. Thereís a third main character whoís so inconsequential that I canít remember his name, or much of his story, just weeks after finishing the game. His sections are the sort of filler which not only feels redundant, but also shines a bright spotlight on the absolute worst aspect of Dreamfall.

For no discernible reason other than that people like fighting stuff, in Dreamfall you can fight stuff. Kian - whose name I had to grab from Wikipedia just now - exists almost solely for this purpose, but the combat system is flailingly weak, and the characterís justification flimsy. Only towards the end does his tale integrate neatly with the main thrust of the narrative - and even then, Funcom obviously hadnít heard of subtlety.

Primarily still an adventure game, albeit with much of the puzzle difficulty toned down, Dreamfall suffers at the hands of these shoehorned action sequences. Controls are unresponsive, many fights transformed into brutally unfair encounters as a result. Of course, this does make certain battles unintentionally exciting, as you button-mash for great goodness in the hope of staying alive - but when thatís praise drawn from the incompetence of the gameís systems, itís difficult to come away impressed.

There are minor stealth sequences, too. Predictably, theyíre about as good as minor stealth sequences tend to be in an otherwise non-stealth-focused game. Dreamfall attempts to throw so many elements of so many different genres onto the table, in the hope that itíll all stick together, but never seems to take much care in ensuring that they do. The result is a worryingly staccato game that never quite finds its own feet - never quite locates its own mechanistic identity.

But oh my goodness, the story it tells, and the world in which it does so. Its engine is distinctly last-gen, adorned with characterless faces and blocky architecture, yet it still manages to convey an essential mood. Stark, the more earthly of the two parallel universes, flits between high-future technology and rustic, run-down city streets, while Arcadiaís organic world is more evocative than almost any of its fantasy peers. Returning to locations from the first game is revelatory in 3D, even though the engine struggles to render them as artfully as TLJís hand-drawn vistas. The atmosphere is moodier, more dismal - a theme which is captured the game as a whole.

The central narrative arc is beautiful: this is a game which expands on its predecessorís coming of age story, and presents something altogether more grown-up. If The Longest Journey demonstrated the progression from the naivety of youth to the responsibility of adulthood, Dreamfall is a game about taking that newfound maturity and giving it back to those in need. It is often utterly, heartbreakingly tragic - which, if youíve watched that scene embedded above, youíll know - but the way its central character deals with her situation is wonderful, even if sheís never painted quite as convincingly as youíd hope.

Itís this, and a compulsion to continue existing within its world, that spurs you onwards towards Dreamfallís conclusion. Unfortunately, the game manages to disappoint by not having one. The story is rounded off perfectly and hauntingly, yet Dreamfall continues, just for another 20 minutes or so, long enough to hurl a bunch of new ideas into the mix before ending on what might as well be a big, red, flashing ĎTo Be Continued...í message. It fails to tie up an important narrative thread, which would be fine if the game didnít feel the need to divert startlingly away from it, then just stop. Itís a baffling finale, and a crying shame.

Still, itís important not to understate the delightful storytelling that precedes it (silly Kian bits aside), the wondrous nature of the game world, and the countless ideas that Funcom bring to their game. Dreamfall is hugely flawed, often systemically broken, and dreadful in its concluding minutes. But rarely have I been so engrossed by a game, or so emotionally affected by one - and that, ultimately, is what leaves the lasting impression.


Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (November 14, 2011)

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zippdementia posted November 15, 2011:

I always thought that Longest Journey and Dreamfall should just be converted into a novel. Maybe even an illustrated novel a la Stardust. Because, between the two game's ages and some of their more major flaws, a lot of people are missing one of the greatest journeys.
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fleinn posted November 15, 2011:

"Only towards the end does his tale integrate neatly with the main thrust of the narrative - and even then, Funcom obviously hadnít heard of subtlety."

..this is where I apologise on behalf of Norway, isn't it. :p

But it is a pretty good story, no?

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