A range of emotions flowed over me on Monday morning. You see, after an eight-year wait with a damn cliffhanger, the next instalment of The Longest Journey saga was finally here. The stories of April Ryan and Zoe Castillo, of Stark and Arcadia, of order and chaos, are ones that have resonated with me ever since I played them years ago, and I have craved more. Thankfully, patience is one of my better virtues, although seeing the game in action and speaking to some of the main people behind the magic as helped make the wait a little less painful (and to this day, Tornquist still refers to me as the “wang guy.” See the reason why here.) So while this next statement shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, in the interest of full disclosure I’d like to state that I backed Dreamfall Chapters during its Kickstarter campaign. While I see no reason why it should affect matters, at least we’re all on the same page going into this review. It’s up to you to decide if it impedes my judgement.
Although if you think it does, you’re wrong and I’m removing your interneting privileges.
To recap the story would require far more space than I can afford, so here’s my best attempt at a quick overview. Dreamfall Chapters follows the adventures of Zoe Castillo, known as the Dreamer, and Kian Alvane, a former Apostle / assassin turned traitor, as they try to find their place in the twin worlds of Stark, a futuristic dystopian Earth, and Arcadia, a world of magic. With both of these worlds in grave danger, Book One: Reborn charges players with guiding both characters through their rebirth into the story, and begin their journey to save Stark & Arcadia from certain doom.
Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but without playing The Longest Journey and / or Dreamfall many of the references and plot points will be lost on newcomers. That’s not to say that they won’t be able to appreciate the exquisite narrative found in Book One, far from it in fact. The approach taken to slowly guide players (back) into the twin worlds, especially Zoe’s story arc in Europolis, is a great reflection of this. However, I feel the level of appreciation between newcomers and veterans will be leagues apart until the planned story recap is included. Without spoiling anything, the first minute of the game is a prime example of this.
The accessibility to the game’s content has been a well-documented challenge for Red Thread Games throughout development, and one I am glad to say they have overcome with fine execution. Refining the third person perspective used in Dreamfall, both mouse & keyboard and controller inputs work extremely well, with a natural flow between interaction states and the various menus. With the aim to provide an experience that is just as accessible on the sofa as it is at a desk, I feel the developers have succeeded. If there is a criticism, it’s that some of the tutorial pop-ups at the start of the game occasionally overlapped with text on-screen, but that’s it really.
And it’s a good job the controls are as well realised as they are, because there is a lot of exploring to do in Book One. Well, there is once you reach Europolis. You see, I was a little worried to begin with, as the first two scenes were well choreographed but extremely linear, but upon re-joining Zoe a second time the game is not only more overtly open, but showcases what future adventure games need to deliver in terms of scope and attention to detail. Everything, from the dialogue by both prominent characters and background NPCs, to the beautifully grim ambiance on the streets of Europolis, encourages the player to walk around and explore the world before them. To put it into context, what could have been a two hour playthrough ended up taking five hours to complete. This is because I ended up listening to conversations, chased virtual pigeons (no, really), and watched a virtual representation of Norwegian artist Egil Olsen perform a street gig.
And that was on top of great interactions with such characters as the wonderfully-named Shitbot. Man, if he doesn’t get a spin-off series with Wonkers and Crow I’ll be sincerely disappointed.
This leads me to how Dreamfall Chapters separates itself from other recent adventure titles – the willingness and encouragement to let players think at their own pace. Like Telltale Games’ recent titles, choice and consequence play a big role, but with the exception of a few interruptible situations most decisions occur while the action is frozen. The inner monologues that play help you to see the motivations behind each choice, but without implying one is better than the other. In this regard it really pushes the player to decide what sort of Zoe or Kian they wish to portray, and while there are already diverging paths in this episode (such as Zoe’s career path, for example) I look forward to seeing how the choices affect the story in the long run.
Artistically, Dreamfall Chapters may not be the most graphically advanced game, and the animations may not be the slickest out there, but the visual presentation is not only beautifully realised, but downright impressive in busier scenes. It’s evident that the team have pushed the Unity engine to its limit with Dreamfall Chapters, although the frame rate occasionally drops when aiming the camera towards highly populated areas. That said, it in no way affected the gameplay, which I consider the main thing. Complementing the visuals in an equally impressive manner is Simon Poole’s soundtrack, hitting all the right notes in a subtle way during active gameplay, while really illustrating the moment during the larger cutscenes. In short, I can’t wait to hear more, but that’s not surprising considering the impressive job he did with The Secret World.
So, are there any big concerns? Initially I thought I was going to have to complain about the voice acting as Zoe’s delivery at the start isn’t particularly strong, but as the game progresses it seems as though the actress portraying her fell into the right groove. So, that’s one thing that turned out to not be a thing. I can’t even complain about the puzzles being too hard or too easy - with a bit of patience and observation I was able to overcome them fairly quickly. Besides, with the mission statement being the narrative and choice as the main aspect of Dreamfall Chapters, I consider this a non-issue, ultimately. As I already pointed out, newcomers might feel out of place right now despite the concessions to make it an easy entry point into the series. Of course, I could be wrong (and I’d love to hear if that’s the case) but I do fear that until the recap is included, the audience will be limited to existing fans. Otherwise, the only other concern I can think of is the lack of gameplay innovation, but this is offset by fine execution of what is there.
And that’s all I have to say without spoiling anything, as there are some great moments that really are worth discovering for yourself. Returning to Stark and Arcadia after all this time has been a great experience so far, showing that even after all these years the story of the Balance is just as gripping and expertly told as ever. If the remaining episodes contain as much content as Book One, I suspect it could be one of the best value for money adventure titles we’ve had for years. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself – as far as Book One goes, Red Thread Games have absolutely nailed it.
- Expertly told narrative.
- Visceral controls on both mouse & keyboard and controller.
- Gameplay that encourages exploration & consideration.
- Without a proper plot recap, newcomers may be lost with the story.
- While well put together, it lacks true innovation.
- Where is the wang, Ragnar?
The Short Version: As cliché as it is to say, good things come to those who wait. With an expertly written narrative, a brilliantly realised location in Europolis, and subtly far-reaching choices to make even at this stage, Book One: Reborn is an excellent return to The Longest Journey saga. In fact, if this is reflective of the episodes to come, Dreamfall Chapters could end up being a masterclass in adventure gaming
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Platforms: PC (tested), Linux, PS4 (Coming 2015)
Developer: Red Thread Games