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Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168688)
Written on  :  Apr 12, 2007
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars

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More fall than dream

The Good

Unlike its predecessor The Longest Journey, which was more like a sleeper hit at its time, the release of Dreamfall was surrounded by big hype. It's obvious that the developers of this game came under much more pressure than when they were making The Longest Journey. The latter's success put Dreamfall into a difficult position. It had very large shoes to fill, it had to deliver a story that would match in quality its predecessor, and it had to do something about the dead end adventure games found themselves in.

I want to refer to the gameplay first. If there is a good thing about it, it must be the absence of illogical puzzles. Usually, there are two types of puzzles in adventure games: inventory-based tasks, and actual "puzzles", in the original meaning of the word, where you are presented with a screen that contains a puzzle that must be solved by thinking, not by combining different objects with each other, hoping to get the right result. The first kind of puzzles goes way back to the past, to the days of classic comedy adventure. Such puzzles usually feel awfully out of place in more serious games. Even great games like Gabriel Knight 3 were plagued by inventory-based objectives, such as the infamous cat mustache puzzle. The Longest Journey also suffered from conservative inventory-based gameplay, which only weakened the player's immersion in the game. The second kind of puzzles was mostly found in monotonous first-person Myst clones, which I really don't want to talk about.

Dreamfall pretty much eliminates both. In such an intensely story-driven game like Dreamfall, why should I care about solving puzzles which have nothing to do with the narrative? I want to be in the game's world, I want to talk to people, visit interesting locations, and enjoy the story. So I applaud the developers for their decision to make a "puzzle-less" adventure. Of course, they should have replaced it by some other kind of gameplay, but that's another issue...

The much-famed narrative of Dreamfall has a good pace, and the dialogues that advance it are well-written for the most part. The initial introduction of the mystery is indeed impressive, captivating the player from the very beginning. It's of those stories that doesn't let you go until you finish it. You'll want to play the game until the end. So many things in it annoyed me, yet I always kept pressing forward. There are no parts without story development, at any given moment there is mystery and suspense. If you compare Dreamfall to a book, it would be one in which you keep turning the pages feverishly, trying to swallow the whole story in one gulp - regardless of the actual quality of the narrative or its conclusion.

The short gameplay time is slightly compensated by the variety of locations. There are sharp contrasts between Stark and Arcadia, and also between different parts of them. The switch between the sunny Casablanca and the depressing Newport in the initial part of the game is just the beginning of location-jumping that will accompany you till the end. Dreamfall still feels like a long journey.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention graphics and music, which are both well above average. Almost all the locations are colorful and beautifully designed. And the voice acting is surprisingly good. All the three main protagonists did a good job, and the supporting cast didn't disappoint, either. Even the most unimportant characters were voiced well.

The Bad

I hope you enjoyed reading the good stuff above, because now we're heading into "The Bad" section. And yes, there's a lot to say here, since Dreamfall has glaring flaws, some of which are so painfully obvious that I'm surprised the developers allowed them to slip into the final product.

So let's start with the obvious, shall we? Everything you've heard about the thin gameplay of Dreamfall is unfortunately true. And the real problem here is not the lack of puzzles. No, what bothered me wasn't the absence of puzzles, but the serious restrictions to interaction and exploration this game imposes on you.

Why couldn't Dreamfall be more like Shenmue? In those games, they had already found a perfect model for future adventures. Throw puzzles to hell, but let the player explore. Let him run around a virtual city. Let him enter any place he wishes to enter. Let him talk to dozens and hundreds of characters. That's how it was done in Shenmue games, and that's why they worked so fabulously.

There's precious little interaction in Dreamfall, and I can't help feeling disappointed when I think how enormously it would enrich the game if the developer's added more optional locations. In Marcuria, there are three or four taverns, but you can only enter one. There are plenty of houses, but you can enter none. When you arrive to the Dark People country, all you can do is run in a straight line from the ship to the library. You can't do anything on your way. Mind you, the location is beautiful; you want to explore it, but you can't. Even as Zoe, you can't explore much; so what is left to say about Kian? The most enigmatic of the three game protagonists barely gets game time anyway. But when he is finally on stage, he is confined to tiny areas and cannot do anything but run to his next objective.

If the gameplay of Shenmue felt natural, the one of Dreamfall is often artificial. You can see the developers' intentions behind many actions you must take in the game, and that's a bad sign. They might have discarded the typical complexity and lack of logic found in adventure game puzzles, but they haven't got rid of their artificial nature. And it became only more obvious since the tasks you have to perform in the game are now stripped of challenge to obfuscate their true nature.

Instead of enlarging its world, Dreamfall attempts to bring some variety into the gameplay with its fighting sequences. I think you've heard enough about those. But you must see them to believe how bad they really are. They make absolutely no sense. If you can win a fight, you will win it. Just press the "strong attack" button several times. If you aren't supposed to win a fight, you won't, no matter how hard you try. The opponents' behavior is idiotic beyond belief. If, for example, you fight two people, one of them will patiently stand and wait till you hack his friend to death before he attacks you. You can't move normally during fights, and the awful camera doesn't help much, either. And yet, the fights you are supposed to win are still pitifully easy.

Which brings me to the next point: why let the player choose if all the choices lead to the same result anyway? You'll be often given several dialogue options, but they are merely cosmetic. No matter what you choose, the result will be the same. Only on one or two occasions, you'll have a "wrong" dialogue choice that will lead to a fight you won't be able to win. Which is just a fancy way of saying "Game Over". I was really angry when I saw how blatantly unimportant those choices were. I could've accepted it if Dreamfall was honest in its linearity, but why to deceive the players like that? The most infuriating "dialogue choice" came near the end of the game. You must decide whether to kill a certain character or to spare his life. Out of understandable curiosity, I selected the "kill" option. The protagonist said something like: "Yes, I'll have to kill you", and after a short break: "No, I can't do that!". Really, I'm not joking. And this is supposed to be a choice?! It was like in some Japanese RPGs, where you can select "No" as much as you want, but will still be forced to accept every quest you're given.

As for the story, I didn't find it great at all. Good, but definitely not enough to make up for all those gameplay deficiencies. Many times I felt that Ragnar Tornquist was suffering from a "Hideo Kojima syndrome". You know what I mean? When the writer can't resist the temptation of using his story as a receptacle for his ideas. Many times these inclusions are too obvious, and then the quality of the story suffers greatly. What happens in Dreamfall is that its message is too obvious. The writer makes a common mistake by spelling out things for you instead of just indicating them. Basically, he tries very hard to make you believe that religious intolerance is bad, and that you shouldn't trust big corporations (a message which, by the way, had already been done to death in various works of fiction). It would have been much better if he let the players come to conclusions instead of putting them in plain view.

The story is also blatantly underdeveloped and lacks detail. What do we learn about the Six? Nothing. We just realize that they are obviously evil. But what is their motivation? We don't know. Much of the characterization is flat, descending into cliches, generalizations, and trivialities that even Japanese RPGs try to stay away from. The motives of the characters are often poorly explained; for example, there is nothing convincing in Kian's ideological changes, and the whole thing feels rushed.

The writing can get corny. I found the comic relief largely inappropriate, especially the pop culture references in Crow's dialogues. Anachronisms should also be done with style, as early Monkey Island games showed.

The narrative of Dreamfall is also clearly unfinished. It's true that Zoe's story is more or less resolved in the end, but we are left with so many unanswered questions that you want to scream "Where is the second part?!" after you finish the game. You'll begin doubting whether they sold you all the game discs when you have completed it.

The Bottom Line

Dreamfall is a disappointment on all fronts. Its gameplay is disastrously shallow and unsatisfying. Despite the strong premise, the narrative fails to reach the expected quality. Any adventure classic of the past will provide more compelling gameplay; and if you are interested in "philosophical", larger-than-life melodrama... well, there are always Japanese games out there.