Retro Review: Dreamfall
Originally published in Cerise in February 2008
Does Ragnar Tornquist think he is George Lucas? Because Dreamfall would appear to be the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back in what will be the Longest Journey series. (At least one more game has been announced, an online release in episodes has been hinted at, and possibly an MMO from the same universe in the far future.) I don't want to spoil the plot, but if you go in expecting a happy ending you will be disappointed. I hate to make Star Wars analogies, but otherwise I'd have to call this game The Longest Trailer. It has a powerful story, but it can't stand on its own without the first game or promise of a sequel. If you haven't played the first game, you really should before you even think about picking up this one. Dreamfall assumes you know what happened in The Longest Journey, and as much character development as there is in this game, you still won't care if you haven't had prior experiences in this world.
As a sequel, the game delivered mostly. April Ryan is back, and you spend half the game anticipating meeting her before you are actually given control of her. But most of game is spent with Zoe, the new protagonist. Zoe is a lovely and psychologically deep woman, but she leaves you with a feeling of “but you're not April...” And when you do get to be April, it is only for a fleeting moment and she doesn't feel like April anymore. It may look like April Ryan, but the character only appears for big fights so she feels more like a space marine than a young art student. I get it, she's different now and feeling disillusioned after the events of the first game. But she has so little to do in Dreamfall, she loses the depth of character she had built throughout The Longest Journey.
Zoe disappoints me from a feminist standpoint too due to her character art. She is a well-written character but when we first meet her she is in her underwear. She is also shown in her underwear in every visit to Winter, and her outfit while in Casablanca is too provocative for an action hero. The lack of clothing undermines the heroic things you do with her during the game. It is also annoying that she is a rich child of privilege who before the adventure starts is bored even though she has enough money to go anywhere and do anything. It is cool that she is trying to rescue her boyfriend, but in the end it feels hollow and disappointing because A) you don't rescue him after all and find out he is likely dead, and B) Zoe falls in love with someone else in the meanwhile, and that someone else has not been developed enough to feel right as a romantic partner. The romantic subplot reeks of male sexual fantasy. Just because you help a girl break into a computer system and then let her spend the night does not mean she will instantly fall in love with you. Geez.
It also feels wrong that Zoe has kickboxing skills. At first you have a choice of fighting or finding nonviolent solutions to your problems, but the choice quickly dissolves into a lot of action game combat. I felt very clever breaking into the Victory Hotel and tricking the flunky guard rather than brawling with him, but later in the game you are forced to fight. The mandatory combat may well offend fans of the first game which was completely nonviolent. It is an interesting departure from adventure game genre conventions, but I'm not sure it was a good one. The combat system is rather complex compared to the point-and-click controls of traditional adventure games. It also feels a bit slow and stubborn to fight with letter keys on a keyboard rather than having a console controller.
This could have been a great game, but instead it is a flawed masterpiece that builds expectations higher and higher and then just drops the audience. And you get four controllable player characters, but Zoe is the only one you really get to know. I don't understand why I had to play as Brian Westhouse at the beginning-- I get that he's important just because he was in the first game and now he's back, but just having me control him for five minutes isn't enough time to make me feel like I know him. It was more of a "wha—where am I?” feeling and then the real game started. And I didn't like Kian at all. You play as Kian the moody apostle twice during the game, but he never rounds out into a real character. He is cardboard.
Where this game is most successful is in environmental immersion. The environment art and particle effects are the best I've ever seen in an adventure game and are comparable to what you usually only see in shooters. It's about time. The sound effects are great for adding tension, and although the pop songs on the soundtrack annoyed me (they sound like the love theme from an 80s action flick), I have to admit they were used appropriately and that is exactly the sort of muzak you would hear on a plane while flying across the ocean.
This game would seem to be evidence that the adventure genre is evolving by merging with other genres of game. But it is difficult to blend adventure with action without alienating an audience that traditionally avoids action. On the Dreamfall forums, I noticed several threads where fans were requesting a gamesave file to get past a particularly difficult bit of combat, since the fighting was their least favorite part of the game. I myself was driven to go to the forums to make sure I was doing the right thing to solve the puzzles, because when the difficulty of puzzles is only increased by adding monster agro, it is just too fucking annoying.
What does this game think it is anyway? The story is a worthy addition to the adventure genre, but the puzzles are very weak. If I got stuck, it was usually because of monster agro. Shouldn't it be a rule of game design not to have monsters attacking you when you are doing something you have to think about? There is not enough action for shooter fans but too much for adventure fans. Also, the story is very linear.
Parts of this game made me nostalgic for The Longest Journey, and parts of it made me want to throw the CDs against the wall. Why was “The Longest Journey” part of the title on the box when this game isn't half as long as the first one? The Longest Journey took me three weeks to beat even with a walkthrough, while Dreamfall barely took three days. All I have to say is, there had better be another game that wraps up all the cliffhangers and loose ends of the plot. And April had better not really be dead.