Friday, April 5, 2013

Not Comic Review: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

I really should have had this category all along given I've done a few of these now.  The other day I sat down and finally played Dreamfall:  The Longest Journey.  I've owned the game for about 6 years at this point, and I never installed it.  Initially it was because I couldn't run it, later, I just found other things to do.  So I finally sat down and finished it and I'd like to talk about it a bit.  And I'll be linking to Let's Plays of these games because I like links, though I encourage a playthrough first.


Before I get into this, I need to talk about the original game, The Longest Journey.  TLJ is on of my favorite games of all time.  It's an old school point and click adventure game, kind of like Grim Fandango.  The adventure follows a girl, April Ryan, who discovers that there is more to the world than just the Earth we know, that it's all in danger of being destroyed, and she has a role in saving it.  The story isn't all that special, honestly.  Kind of a standard heroes quest sort of thing, but not quite.  What really drew me to the game was the world it created.  Or worlds as the case may be.  It drew me in and stuck with me.  I mentioned last week that I've written a few fanfictions in my time, and one of them, the only one that went very far, was for this game.  So I REALLY liked the game.  The game ends with the world saved, April's destiny not quite what she thought, and her stepping into a portal leading her somewhere.

Dreamfall is a half sequel.  Since the original game was wrapped up pretty well, with very few, if any, loose ends.  As such Dreamfall is free to build practically from scratch in the same universe.  New game, new main character, new story, all that kind of stuff.  We'll get to the story and characters in a moment, let's talk about the actual game itself.  From the perspective of game play, this is not a good game.  It's not godawful, but it's not good.

At it's heart, Dreamfall is an adventure game like TLJ before it.  That means puzzles, but compared to TLJ, the puzzles in Dreamfall are a complete joke.  This is kind of on purpose from what I've read, as there were a few puzzles in that game that were so convoluted as to stop people from getting very far.  Hell, one is damn near infamous.  So they made Dreamfall easier.  That's fine, but they went a bit too far.  On top of that, they provided a couple of mini-game puzzles that were shockingly underused, to the point of silliness.  At best, the two games are used a grand total of 6 times in the entire game.  Maybe it isn't so bad, given that the game is paced much quicker (it's shorter for sure) and the mini-games only work for effectively half the game anyway, but I still feel they were underused.  Otherwise the puzzles generally hand hold the player through them.  Only a couple of times I got stuck, either due to the hint not being all that clear or the camera not helping me see the issue (and then there was the music puzzle, I hate those and look them up instantly, I'd be terrible at Loom).  Of course, Dreamfall doesn't just have puzzles, and this is where things start getting odd.

Dreamfall has a combat system.  This is an old school adventure game with at COMBAT system.  And not something like out of Secret of Monkey Island.  No, there is actual fighting, with potential of loss in this game.  It's stiff, hard to perform, and as sporadic as the mini-game puzzles.  There are maybe 5 battles in the entire game that HAVE to be fought, with two optional fights that can be done via another method, which I'll get to shortly.  It kind of makes sense from a story perspective, but it's so clunky and underused that it surprises the player and results in a lot of button mashing for each fight.  It's not strictly hard, but it feels awful and really kind of drags the game down.

And then there's the third gameplay element, stealth.  Yeah, a stealth mechanic is in this game.  It kind of works, but I've seen it done better (actually I've seen all three done at the same time better, I'll get to that).  From a story perspective, again, it kind of makes sense, but it also adds undo stress, especially when it's combined with a puzzle.  Oh, and more instant death, how wonderful.  It works, not well, but it works.  It just feels, well, not great.

Combined with odd controls and a poor camera, this should be a complete mess of a game.  Want to see a game that does all these things together and does it well?  Go try Beyond Good & Evil.  It does everything this game does, but does it right and makes it easily a superior game.  Of course, it's not perfect in those regards, it just does it better than Dreamfall by miles.

And yet, this isn't a bad game as a whole.  Why?  It all comes down to the story, which is pretty good.  Very good actually, and one that is a bit deeper than one could expect for such a game.  The original game drew me in with a world, but not so much the story.  Here the world is established, for the most part, and so the story had to take charge.  It came through, except for the ending, as it were.

In many ways, I'd compare this series to Star Wars, the original trilogy (prequels don't count).  Like the original Star Wars (call it A New Hope if you must), TLJ is a complete story, with a solid beginning and end.  There's a journey, hints of a greater purpose for the lead character, etc, etc.  Dreamfall falls much more in line with Empire Strikes Back.  There are two active stories going on here, one for each world.  These stories cross each other at important parts, but for the most part are independent and about the growth of the characters.  What's more, the story does not end on a positive note.

The separate stories makes me wonder if the writers could have written them completely apart.  The crossing points between them have little effect on the two stories as they develop, so much so if there were no crossing points, only a little bit of work could break the two completely apart.  I do suspect for the larger tale, the crossing points are important, and will be necessary in the next sequel.  This indicates that there was a great deal of planning involved in the creation of the story and game, though leaving a bit of a cliffhanger was disappointing.

This planning is also reflected in the overall theme of the game.  That theme is actually spelled out in an interview, and I won't go into it here (go play the game first to see how it works).  The fact that there was a unified theme, despite 2 separate stories and 3 main characters, makes the story that much stronger, though one wouldn't necessarily notice the theme in playing, I certainly didn't.  I suspect that the writers didn't necessarily plan to reveal the theme as they were creating, hoping the game would reflect it a bit better.  I think one could suss out the theme with enough diligence, but sadly a lot of us, including myself, can't read that much into things.  The extra bump helps me appreciate what the writers were going for, and I better understand why certain events happened as they did.

And the best part of the planning, is that there are few continuity gaffes in the game.  In fact, I can only recall one that was pretty blatant.  Otherwise, every action either had a consequence or was mentioned.  My favorite, on watching the Let's Play I linked, is at one point there is a choice to fight or sneak around a particular bad guy.  When it's mentioned later, the dialog reflected the choice quite clearly.  I was very pleased with that, and it wasn't the only time such a thing happened.

The writing as a whole was quite good.  Dialog flowed quite well, despite some stiff, and probably poorly directed, voice work.  There's a bit of fun in some conversations, just as in the original game (where there was a LOT more dialog).  Choices were pretty clear, but sadly sparse.  The last couple of in game chapters were actually devoid of choice or options, which made me a bit sad in the long run.  I get why, any dialog options would have all been chosen or gone over the same territory anyway, but I would still have liked some control.  Though my favorite encounter is when two of the main characters meet just randomly on the street and strike up a conversation.  The fact that the game lets the player choose the direction BOTH sides take in the conversation is quite amazing, and I enjoyed it and would have loved to see more of that kind of thing.

So overall, the game is, well, good.  Perhaps not great, and certainly not one of my favorite games of all time.  The gameplay is bad, but there are moments with the story and the direction of that story that elevate it far beyond where it should be.  If the gameplay had been better, more in line with Beyond Good & Evil (whose story is far more pedestrian in comparison), it easily could have been incredible.  I'm glad I finally played it and will remember it for some time, but I don't think it'll have such a strong influence on me as TLJ did.  Or maybe it will and I just haven't felt it yet.  Have to wait and see on that one.

Until next time kiddies.

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