Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
First posted on 26 April 2006. Last updated on 07 September 2009.
Given the current polarized interest in the adventure genre, few titles have garnered the level of pre-release publicity and anticipation from the gaming community as Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (also known as Dreamfall) has in recent years. It is the much awaited sequel to Ragnar Tornquist's critically acclaimed masterpiece The Longest Journey. While the story of this sequel is said to stay faithful to the original, Tornquist has hinted early on during the game's development that other elements in the game have been completely revamped. When news is leaked to the press about the use of 3D graphics as well as the implementation of action sequences in the sequel, criticism quickly arises from fans who feel that this game has abandoned its adventure roots in favor of mainstream commercialism. It is, therefore, with much pleasure to finally see that not only this sequel has represented the adventure genre in its finest form, but it has also succeeded in broadening the genre's appeal to the masses with its unique blend of storytelling and play.
It has been a decade since April Ryan (the protagonist from The Longest Journey) has disappeared from the present world of Stark after the Collapse. Her sacrifice to save both this world and the magical world of Arcadia has been forgotten even by her friends. The year now is 2219. Zoë Castillo is a 20 year old young woman who has just moved back home to live with her father, after dropping out from her study in bioengineering and breaking up with her boyfriend Reza. She drifts from day to day living life without a focus, uncertain about her future—that is, until the day she starts having visions of a little girl standing in front of a black house and calling her with a mysterious message "Save April". When Reza suddenly disappears while working as an underground journalist on an expose about WATIcorp, Zoë decides to travel out of her safe home at Casablanca to find him. Unaware of the destiny which she has set forth, Zoë finds herself transported to Arcadia after being attacked. It is there that Zoë learns of an impending threat that is endangering both her world and Arcadia. In the end, Zoë discovers that she is a part of an unfolding prophecy that stretches across time and space between not only dream and reality but also magic and science.
Unlike the original game that uses pre-rendered backgrounds to offer a fixed perspective of the game world, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey employs a flexible 3D engine to render its game environment that is freely manoeuvrable. This, in turn, allows more freedom for the player to explore the game world, even though such exploration is confined to tightly scripted paths between key locations in the story (you cannot climb a ladder or move an object without it being the intended event). The fine detail lost in the beautiful but static landscapes in the previous game has been replaced by a dynamic environment in this sequel that is more interactive, animated, and immersing. In fact, the majority of transitional scenes in this game are generated as in game cut scenes. All the characters are modeled in 3D and move more realistically than previously. The big dark eyes of Zoë convey a lot of expression when she speaks, and body gestures (including lip synching) are animated for all major characters with speaking roles. Sarah Hamilton returns as the voice for April. Newcomer Ellie Conrad Leigh is the voice for Zoë. Ironically, Jack Angel is cast as the voice of Wonkers, a watilla toy with an artificial intelligence that bears an immediate resemblance to the toy Teddy from the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a character which Angel also voices. According to the developer, over 5000 lines of dialog have been recorded for the game. Since this game is quite dialog intensive, it is with much relief that all the voice roles have been done professionally. With few exceptions, lines are delivered with emotions and appropriate inflections. The only annoyance is the deliberate accents portrayed for stereotyped characters such as The Chinaman in Newport. Caption is also available as an option. The music soundtrack, composed by Leon Willett, is beautifully scored and adds much to the ambience in the game. This is particularly true for the many dream and flashback sequences.
Throughout the game, you alternate playing as 1 of 3 characters—Zoë, April, and Kian Alvane. The role switches are automatic and allow the player to experience the story from the 3 different perspectives. The game unfolds over 13 chapters and spans many locations across 3 worlds (Casablanca, Marcuria, The Winter). The chapters are quite variable in length, depending more on the amount of dialogs needed to get through rather than the number of puzzles required to complete. The interface is context sensitive, changing as objects or people come into view with which your character can interact. An action (such as look, talk, jump, climb, use, and sneak) is selected with a single keystroke or button. Navigation is done using the keyboard and mouse combination or the mouse alone. In the former, movement is controlled using the keyboard and perspective is controlled using the mouse. While the control is largely intuitive, at times it can become awkward such that it is difficult to position your character correctly to focus on the object with which you need to manipulate. A much touted feature is the focus field, which can be turned on to emit a narrow beam of blue light that rotates around your character to locate areas of interest far away. This is an innovative feature and eliminates entirely any dreaded pixel hunting in this game. It also compliments well the automatic hotspot detection which is on at all times during gameplay. There is an inventory to collect items, where items can be combined together to form new items for use. Since puzzles can have multiple solutions, it is not necessary to use all the items collected in the game.
Undoubtedly, the element in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey that is going to receive the most contention from critics is its gameplay. There are 3 major styles of play in this game—puzzle, combat, and stealth. Most puzzles are inventory based, but there are few timed (such as hacking), logic (such as lock picking), and physical (such as turning wheel) puzzles. When compared to The Longest Journey, the puzzles in this game are much simpler. There is even a sense of handholding, in which the player is constantly reminded of the next objective. This makes backtracking, which exists in some amount in the game, a less painful exercise. The majority of gameplay involves solving puzzles. By contrast, both the combat and stealth sequences are few and far between. Combat is elementary and consists of simple punching, kicking, and blocking. Stealth is equally rudimentary and merely involves the correct timing of your character's movement to get pass through a danger. Neither element of play is robust enough to make this game compete against other contemporary action adventure games. Such omission is not necessarily a fault of this title. Instead, it is likely a conscious decision on the part of the developer to ensure that these elements do not dominate the adventure storytelling which is the primary focus of this game.
It is pretentious to say that this game is without faults, however few faults it actually has. The most striking is the balance, or rather the imbalance, between gameplay and storytelling. While it is true that the player is easily absorbed into the game with its brilliant story, it can be argued that the complex storytelling overshadows the relatively scarce puzzle play. The game only lasts approximately 15-20 hours of play, during which most time is spent on listening attentively to scripted conversations between different game characters. Some conversational scenes can be very long, even though the integration of branching dialogs helps to ensure that the player participates to some degree in an otherwise passive experience. It is unclear what motivates the developer to shift the balance of play away from puzzle solving. Some puzzles are also a bit unfair. In a particular puzzle (melody), a critical clue is hastily given only once to the player without warning, after which there is no second chance to obtain that clue to solve the puzzle. Having said this, however, the story is so engrossing that I hardly notice the downscaled puzzle play in between. Fans who desire closure of the story may leave disappointed at the end. Suffice to say that the game ends where it begins (literally), leaving questions about matters on dream, faith, reality, magic, and science to be better answered in the next sequel.
None of the minor shortcomings, however, can detract from the solid fact that this game is a masterpiece of design and play. Indeed, some parallels can be drawn between this game and Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The story is epic and intelligently written. It treads on themes of metaphysic and philosophy with such maturity that is rarely, if ever, seen in a computer game. The characters are lovable, particularly Zoë whose inner vulnerability draws out immediately the protective instinct of the player. The environments, such as the many landscapes of Arcadia, are awe aspiring to look and explore. The voice acting is top notched, and the music adds greatly to the ambience. The puzzles, albeit easy, are all well integrated into the game. The interface is clean and not overburden with unnecessary complexity to distract the immersing onscreen experience. A bonus feature is the ability to review transcripts of all past conversations. While some characters speak in foul languages, most are done with discretion (except perhaps Marcus).
It has been a long 7 years since the release of The Longest Journey for the arrival of this sequel. In all respects, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey succeeds in upholding the legacy left by the original. It is contemporary interactive fiction at its best. Its unique blend of storytelling and gameplay should appeal to a broad range of gamers beyond those who are loyal to the adventure genre. It is a rare gem and an instant classic which rises above the mediocrity that currently saturates the gaming market. Given this game is the second title of a planned trilogy, there is much to look forward to finishing the final chapter of this epic odyssey.