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SummaryScandinavian homage to a dying genre
The GoodWhen Longest Journey appeared on the stage, it generated a small sensation among adventure fans. Made by a Norwegian developer hitherto focused on console games, it was quickly proclaimed a modern classic, and was frequently mentioned in speeches as argumentation against those who have condemned the genre to death. So, is it really that good? And, more importantly, can it save the adventure genre?
My opinion is that it is a very good game, but one firmly rooted in the existing traditions of adventure-making, most notably echoing the tendency of merging old-school inventory-based gameplay with serious settings and strong, emotionally charged plots rich in lore and characters. As everyone know, Gabriel Knight truly started that trend, and is rightly regarded as a milestone for that. Longest Journey was clearly influenced by that game, as well as perhaps the more recent Grim Fandango, which it resembles in overall structure and aspirations.
The journey is indeed long. The game has a linear story with rather frequent changes of locations; but each area is appropriately large, usually consisting of at least several interconnected screens you can explore. Longest Journey takes you to many interesting places, and it keeps up a good pacing, neither precipitating events and rushing towards the end, nor sticking too much to the same location. The game world is generously designed: there is a variety of indoor and outdoor locations, and most of them are interesting to visit. There are a dozen or so chapters, each focusing on a particular event or task needed to fulfill in either of the two worlds the game is set in. The considerable length of the plot reflects the game's premise of an epic adventure.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the game is the new world it creates. The central idea of the story - the conflict between science and magic - may not be very original, but it is executed with love and attention to detail. The concept of allowing a normal, ordinary girl to catch a glimpse of a world she had no idea about, making her gradually unravel the truth about it and herself, works here just like it should. Like April Ryan, you discover a new world, surprised by everything you see. The larger part of the game is set in that "other" world, and the feeling of magical, wondrous exploration of the unknown is captured very well.
The developers weren't stingy with material: the game contains loads of information about the world, its history, its characters and concepts, and so on. It's true that the dialogues can get too dry and overly informative; but it is admirable that the designers wanted to cram as much lore as they could into them. In that way, Longest Journey is similar to role-playing games: its star is the universe itself rather than its characters or even concrete events constituting the game's story.
Longest Journey is a beautiful game. Most backgrounds are exquisitely detailed and ooze atmosphere. The Norse love of vast, majestic landscapes serving as potential battlegrounds for an upcoming confrontation between forces beyond our imagination is strongly manifested in this game. It is interesting to note that, although the nature in the game can hardly be called lush or exotic, some of the backgrounds convey an almost mystical, appropriately otherworldy feeling, mesmerizing in their somewhat cold beauty, reminding of pure and transcendental things lost to the futuristic world of soulless skyscrapers and high-speed transportation.
The BadThe gameplay of Longest Journey is archaic. What's worse, it doesn't really fit the game's ambiance and story. Most puzzles are taken directly from classic comedy adventures of the past (most notably LucasArts' works) and are out of place in this seriously-minded and only mildly and very sporadically humorous game. Predominantly unrealistic and artificial, the game's puzzles involve sterile and awkward inventory item manipulations. They may not be as offensive as the contemporary cat mustache, but they aren't as amusing as that one, either. Besides, this game doesn't have investigations, computer research, or other challenging activities besides inventory combinations and a few isolated logic puzzles.
Some of the inappropriately nonsensical, contrived tasks are at odds not only with the tone of the game, but also with the situations it puts the player in. For example, infiltrating a police station by means of a ridiculously labored concoction ruins the tension of the moment and the seriousness of the event. The game also has a few scenes where the heroine is in mortal danger; yet the ubiquitous "no death" policy turns them into unbecomingly serene affairs. Contrary to popular opinion, I don't think that LucasArtian device was the ultimate cure to the problems of adventure games. I believe that Sierra was on the right track creating potentially dangerous situations for the player instead of holding his hand all the time. This game, in particular, would have benefited from that design philosophy.
Much of the time here is spent on conversations with other characters. Unfortunately, they tend to drag quite a bit. Serving mostly as containers of background information necessary to understand the game's complex story, these dialogues can get very long-winded, often slowing down the game's tempo to a crawl. There are no close-ups on character faces during conversations, so you'll have to just read and occasionally click on a line to trigger the next batch, without having the feeling of really participating. The writing is good, but lacks personality and that extra treatment that made the classics of the past so inimitable.