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The Longest Journey (PC) artwork

The Longest Journey (PC) review

"The Longest Journey begins with a single step."

The L Space conundrum. The besting of That Damn Goat. The Rubber Ducky solution.

Most of you are now wondering why these random words have been slapped together and if there’s any meaning behind them. There is. Because there is, a few of you are now either groaning in recognition or beaming with self-satisfaction, because what this seemingly indiscriminate collection of words represent are some of adventure gaming’s most famous and most perplexing puzzles. Navigating L Space in Discworld; getting past that bloody goat in Broken Sword; finding the obscure and abstract combination of items to make use of the rubber ducky in The Longest Journey.

These are puzzles that wouldn’t hold their value so much if they were present in today’s age of readily available FAQS and numerous video walkthroughs, but if you were hardy enough to be playing these games at their time of release, you did not have these resources as close to hand. In the case of The Longest Journey, having to find the relevance of that accursed duck hits relatively early in the adventure and was probably the furthest a lot of people got before hitting the wall. This is a shame for many reasons, but one of them being that, after this puzzle, a lot of the game unfolds using only basic problems to overcome and instead displays large stretches where The Longest Journey relies purely on its narrative.

It says of lot that these are probably the strongest sections. The fact is, viewed as just an adventure game, The Longest Journey is shockingly mediocre. The obligatory inventory puzzles that the genre thrives on mostly being either far too rudimentary to provide much satisfaction or far too busy for their own good. Running around the ruins of a mostly deserted island shifting magical totems to create a dodgy network is irritating, fiddly work while the defeating of an evil alchemist is ill explained and often solved through the tried and tested method of clicking everything against anything and being confused at what works. Scant moments of danger have you standing motionlessly while a hideous monster that wants to eat your face chills nonchalantly in the corner while you patiently work out a way to bypass them.

There are sections of The Longest Journey I could isolate and tear to shreds, things that don’t make sense in or out of context, mini quests and obtuse solutions that cause befuddlement and frustration or solutions hidden behind seemingly endless backtracking through numerous screens. It’d be fair, but it would be missing the point. The Longest Journey is far greater than the sum of its parts. It manages to drag itself way above its humble mechanics.

April is a teenage art student and you’ve already formed a little opinion of her that’s mostly correct. She’s a little pretentious; she’s at that age where she’s decided she’s figured the world out but doesn’t really have a clue. She’s a little bit of an unlikable brat in that same way you were a bit of a know-it-all dick in your teenage years but she still has a bubble of naivety around her that’s hard not to find endearing. She has teenage problems such as the arse of a guy who lives across the hall always perving on her, or the unfinished state of her college homework, or that her crumby part time job is crumby -- she just happens to have these problems some 200 years into the future. You wouldn’t guess it to begin with; her idyllic surroundings are preserved as purposefully timeless, the run-down but new-age boarding house she lives at, the art collage that exhibits paint and canvas work alongside holographic sculptures.

Hints of the state of the future are slowly dripped into the game; skateboarders held at gunpoint for ignoring no skate zones; free public computers shilling wares before allowing you to log on. Soon you’ll be forced to leave April’s picturesque corner of the world and explore dystopian hubs filled with Blade Runner-esque hulking towers, floating neon advertising and a heavily-sponsored police force just as concerned with selling you their sponsor’s back catalogue as keeping whatever law their taskmasters feel is currently relevant Outside of her little safe bubble the world is less, well, safe. Users shoot up in front of struggling art galleries, pre-teen gangs claim home to abandoned warehouses while the rich and the powerful board turbo lifts to exist among the clouds equipped with shuttle services to take them into space, high priced boutique stores and pizza vending machines. They’re gracious enough to admit that the pizza does taste a little too much like cardboard to be ideal, though.

Perhaps April isn’t fully aware of this side of the world, or perhaps she doesn't care. She spends all her time hanging with fellow art students and finding excuses not to work on her paintings. That is until she starts having dreams, Vivid dreams that feel too real to be easily dismissed about forest spirits and glowing white dragons. It’s hard to dismiss, but harder still when her dreams start leaking into her world for all to see.

Slowly and cynically, she starts to learn about the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia, worlds of science and magic respectively that are intertwined and governed by the Balance. Aided periodically by people who certainly know more then they let on, she finds herself hopping between these two worlds, having to juggle very different issues. From trying to find a way round that heavily armed guard to steal an anti-grav drive from a crashed hoverplane to trying to save the wind itself from inside a floating tower. From using their own choking bureaucracy as a weapon to sneak further into the heart of a police station to trying to save a lost mole-like Bandu child from the jaws of an evil Gribbler. From bargaining with a half mad hacker to trying to make use of a trio of stickmen’s plan to build a giant crossbow that will launch them to the moon.

Arcadia is a very different world from Stark, inhabited by more than just stock humans content with lazing around in front of huge holoscreens, but it’s never subjected to massive info-dumps of explanation; the world simply is. An obviously curious April will ask about her new surroundings, and is often given replies in keeping with the answers we’d offer if a suspiciously awed and confused girl kept pointing at something as everyday as a car and kept asking what the hell that was. It’s very much this sense of drowning in an alien world that brings the best moments of the game into sharp focus. The ducky solution happens, there’s no getting around this, but as The Longest Journey progresses, it evolves. It finds way to marry its oft-muddled gameplay with the unfolding plot.

Lost at sea and contemplating a long, painful death, April is pulled into the ocean by creatures unknown and placed in strange plant on the seabed that produces oxygen enough for her to survive. Trapped with only death awaiting her outside her haven and with no way to communicate with her captors, she has to make sense of the pictures scrawled on the wall to progress. Asked to provide an understanding of a dying race of winged people’s history, she needs to explore an island and listen to the sacred tales of their people by conversing with the remaining members of the tribe. Only by befriending these people and showing genuine care about their plight will allow her to move forward - a much more engrossing and enduring enigma to crack.

Within it all, a bewildered April is forced to grow as her understanding of the world is routinely shattered by the things she sees and the actions she has to take. Where her quest was once fuelled by crushing fear and unwanted obligation, she’s forced to accept her role in things, personally investing in the worlds and the people she aids along the way. The twenty or so hours from the start of The Longest Journey until the end exhibits two very different April Ryans. Not necessarily better, but certainly different. It’s a story before it’s anything else; a tale of change and acceptance and hardships and how a simple rubber ducky could easily have led to the death of two worlds. It’s hard not to fall to that particular obstacle, but an unforgivable wrong not to find a way through. There’s too much at stake.

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (November 14, 2015)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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