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The Longest Journey (PC) artwork

The Longest Journey (PC) review

"The Longest Journey isn't perfect, but in that imperfection lies something hugely special: something so magical, and so human. It isn't the best adventure game I've ever played, but it is the one I adore the most."

I want to write two reviews. Can I write two reviews? I'm going to assume that's not allowed, which makes The Longest Journey an incredibly difficult game to tackle. It's genuinely brilliant, but plagued by fundamental problems. It encompasses everything I want the future of gaming to be, yet by now it feels almost entirely obsolete.

Let's try to work this out.

The Longest Journey is a point-and-click adventure game from 1999, mechanistically quite ordinary, yet wondrous and creative in so very many ways. It's dated not just by its engine, but also by its format. But it does things no other game has done. You play as April Ryan, a character who initially grates, but for all the right reasons. An 18-year-old art student, she's left her dismal childhood for a life in the big city: Newport, a place split between modestly run-down suburbs and an extraordinary, high-tech, hover-carred centre.

The game's settings are improbably brilliant. Positioned 200 years into the future, The Longest Journey's universe is credible yet deeply rooted in fantasy. Newport soars into the inky sky across several levels, corrupt police officers guarding its many doors. The outskirts are sleepier, and imbued with character. These are the places in which you begin. The places you eventually travel through defy expectation.

April is about as tangible a protagonist as any Iíve seen in a videogame. I think that's what still sets The Longest Journey apart from not only its genre peers, but any peers in storytelling across all of gaming. In the few weeks I've been replaying this game, I've begun to think that perhaps the medium shouldn't be getting so caught up in new and inventive ways of weaving tales. Ultimately, stories aren't about how they're told: they're about the people they involve. So it's great to present a blank slate of a lead character, onto whom you can project your own personality; and it might be wonderful to have branching paths with multiple endings, and consequences which are directly determined by your own choices. But actually, when you sit back and think about it, you realise none of those games have managed to be quite as strikingly touching as the plight of April Ryan - a character who feels as real as a videogame lead will ever need to be.

Which means that because she's an 18-year-old, she's initially dreadful, in that endearing way that 18-year-olds are dreadful. The way I certainly remember the 18-year-old me, anyway: understandable naivity, masked by a front of pretentiousness, speaking in whatever the lingo de jour, like, so totally happens to be. Crucially, she's a person you both believe and invest in, for all her irritating foibles. She has dreams - both literally and figuratively - which will shape her entire life. As do we all, of course. It's just that April's dreams are also intrinsically linked with the very nature of reality itself.

This is a huge game, sprawling, never-ending in depth but also in sheer length. Its name can't be a coincidence. It stretches out over tens of hours and beyond. Huge segments are less interesting than others. The Longest Journey requires a hefty investment, but there's a reason it asks that of you, and by the end you'll understand. You embark on this journey with April, and the more arduous, frustrating, affecting and magical it at once is, the more you come away learning from the experience.

Which sounds like fluffy nonsense. But it's important to emphasise just how wonderful The Longest Journey's storytelling is. It's almost easy to forget that its dialogue is so adeptly written, because its quality is such that you don't notice it. These are characters who appear to just exist, communicating as people communicate, and for all the magic and fantasy it's never any effort to suspend disbelief. It's remarkable. I'd honestly say no game has done story better.

And that's why it's a tricky game to write about critically. Because, well, what are we talking about here? I've always looked back at The Longest Journey with such fondness. Playing it through again recently, I found myself delighted or moved or taken aback so many times. But that was primarily my reaction to the narrative, rather than anything that distinguishes it as a game. And I also found myself enormously irritated by a couple of elements.

Like the puzzles. It's easy to berate almost all adventure games for their puzzles. It's important to remember that this is because almost all adventure games have terrible puzzles. It doesn't have to be a trait of the genre. Penumbra's environmental quandaries were exemplary. Recently, a great deal of Machinarium featured fabulous, deviously challenging but perfectly smart solutions. It can be done. And it's tragic that The Longest Journey - surely among the adventure greats - didn't manage it.

Many people have spoken of how The Longest Journey frequently featured long stretches of little challenge. I'll happily go against the grain and say these are by far its strongest sections. When it feels the need to complicate its puzzles, they become immensely wearying. Some are just plain bonkers. Others make some sort of basic sense, but are so unnecessarily drawn out, literally across several locations and taking perhaps hours at a time to solve. And where The Longest Journey really fails itself as a literary work - and seriously, it is one - are the sections in which it forgets to be about the story. It drops in huge, convoluted periods where the puzzles just keep on growing and growing, and it forgets what made it so remarkable just a little while before. It struggles with itself, and becomes - if you're honest about it - a very ordinary adventure game.

I never thought I'd write that about The Longest Journey.

It's inescapable, though. And it's the only thing that seriously threatens the game's status today. Its mixed bag of looks certainly takes some getting used to - gorgeous backdrops sit behind angular characters, while spectacular art design is muddied by huge pixels - but it's fine. You quickly learn not to notice. But the puzzle issue is forever present. While ever you're chasing rubber ducks down a canal so you can use them to reach a key, at least.

It's interesting, though, because in some bizarre way, I think the frustration works. Itís not ideal, and Iím certain there would be better ways to challenge the player than asking them to perform endlessly confounding tasks until something finally moves the story on. But sometimes, a great game works not despite its faults, but because of them. I kind of feel that's the case with The Longest Journey.

Your patience is tested repeatedly. But there's some sense of satisfaction in breaking through. And against this backdrop of the fantastic, one of The Longest Journey's key messages is that, sometimes, the mundane is just fine.

So it's a tricky one to write about. Returning to The Longest Journey, I found that I didnít always enjoy it. But crucially, I never stopped loving it. And when you look back at a game, a really special game, and think about how desperately you want everyone else to have played it, one of those concepts becomes a lot more important than the other. The Longest Journey isn't perfect, but in that imperfection lies something hugely special: something so magical, and so human. It isn't the best adventure game I've ever played, but it is the one I adore the most.

Lewis's avatar
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 25, 2010)

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EmP posted August 25, 2010:

Stop writing the reviews I was going to write almost exactly how I was going to write them before I write them.

I knew I should have dealt with you when I had the chance....
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zippdementia posted August 25, 2010:

You had your chance EmP! I remember you saying you wanted to write a TLJ review after reading mine what... two years ago?

This is truth, Lewis. This review is truth.
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Lewis posted August 25, 2010:

EmP: I'm working my way down a list. Jason has a copy. You'd better not steal anything on The List. ;-)
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EmP posted August 25, 2010:

It has now become my aim in life to disrupt this list.

I'm dumping all console reviews from here on out to aim for random, retro PC games.

To the mostly forgotten draw of dusty CD-ROMS!

EDIT: Hear that? It's the sound of my laptop trying to load up my old, scratched copy of Nomad Soul. Ha!
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CoarseDragon posted August 25, 2010:

Very well done and I really liked this line.

I've begun to think that perhaps the medium shouldn't be getting so caught up in new and inventive ways of weaving tales
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jerec posted August 26, 2010:

I've always wanted to play this. Now you make me really want to play it. Excellent review!
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Lewis posted August 26, 2010:

EmP: You're not allowed nooooooooooooooooo!
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zippdementia posted August 26, 2010:

Anyone with an interest in a good story should play Longest Journey. No exceptions. And probably the best voice acting I've heard in an adventure game.
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EmP posted August 26, 2010:

Lewis: Ha!

Zipp: Go play Broken Sword. Or you're dead to me.
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zippdementia posted August 26, 2010:

Which one?
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EmP posted August 26, 2010:

First one first. PC version preferiably, PSX version if you must. No other version!

Go now!
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jerec posted August 26, 2010:

In Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush breaks a sword and drops it down the sewer, remarking that it's a broken and very stinky sword.
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zippdementia posted August 27, 2010:

I shall obey, EmP. PSX version it will have to be. Wonder if I can find it on PSN...
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Lewis posted August 27, 2010:

I finally played Dreamfall this week too! What an interesting game!
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EmP posted August 27, 2010:

I really liked Dreamfall.

I'll do a deal with you Lewis: I'll finally get around to the TLG review and you do Dreamfall. I'm curious on how you found it.
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Lewis posted August 27, 2010:

I may be writing about Dreamfall elsewhere. But if not, I'll run it past Jason. Short version: loved the setting, atmosphere and lightweight puzzles (except the one in the underground bit with the stupid instakill trolls), but the story was disappointingly contrived.
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EmP posted August 27, 2010:

If that's the sum of your review, then the tables are turned! I already wrote that review and even squared up on that exact example. Ha!
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zippdementia posted August 27, 2010:

Well, I beat you both to both of them, AND SAID THE SAME THING, so there!

Dreamfall was an odd experience for me, Lewis. I really REALLY wanted to like it and I think I did... a little bit. But after the epic adventure that made up Longest Journey and the in depth character of April Ryan, Dreamfall felt... flat.

And yeah, it's highly contrived. Or rather I should say it feels like it MIGHT BE contrived... the truth is, there isn't enough of a story there to know if it's contrived yet. And I guess the new games are coming out episodically at some random point in the future...?
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Halon posted August 28, 2010:

Great review, I loved TLJ. It has plenty of flaws that I'm aware of, but in the end it was an excellent experience.

Dreamfall... not so much.
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Lewis posted August 28, 2010:

However, Dreamfall does feature what I consider to be one of the most effective scenes I've ever seen in a videogame. Mainly down to Ragnar's phenomenal writing, and some fantastic acting.

Click here to see it and MASSIVE SPOILERS etc.
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zippdementia posted August 28, 2010:

Ragnar did have excellent abilities in writing. Even if this whole scene reminded me of something out of Parasite Eve 2.

Unfortunately, it's also a good summation of the game as a whole... lots of hints and big WAHAY! moments but without any real foundation to understand what it means or conclusions to tell you why you should care.

I go back to what I said in my old review... if the remaining games are good, then Dreamfall will become a celebrated game in my memory. But otherwise it's just carrying on a story that had ended quite well.

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