Dreamfall Chapters

"Chapters is a solid game, but the gameplay rarely engages and the ending of the story leaves too much unsaid. Still, there is plenty of intrigue and a fantastic cast of characters driven by a superb script and delightful voice acting."

Like so many others, I've been waiting nearly two decades to see the story of The Longest Journey through. In 1999, the first game in the series was released to critical acclaim and its long-delayed sequel debuted seven years later to a more lukewarm reception. I have been a huge fan of The Longest Journey series and have desperately waited to see the conclusion to the cliff-hanger ending of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Dreamfall Chapters has a lot of hype to live up to, but it saddens me to say it struggles to reach its full potential.

Divided into five episodes, Dreamfall Chapters follows two of the heroes from the previous games: Zoe Castillo and Kian Alvane. For those of you not in the loop, The Longest Journey series takes place across two parallel worlds: Stark, an advanced world of technology much like our own, and Arcadia, a fantasy world of magic. Zoe's adventure begins in Europolis amid political turmoil and a society suffering from addiction to lucid dream machines. Kian finds himself a prisoner after the events of the last game and is soon caught up with rebels who fight against a powerful foreign empire. For most of the five episodes their paths don't cross, but their stories still intertwine and the two are eventually brought together.

Dreamfall, a narrative-focused game, suffers because of its episodic releases. If you're only starting to play the whole game now that all episodes are released, this is unlikely to be an issue for you. However, I often found myself struggling to remember minor plot details and character names when I came back to a new episode after a four or five month break. There's a tremendous amount of mysterious characters and plot twists given out early on that take quite some time to resolve — long enough that the middle episodes of the game drag a little at times. The ending leaves something to be desired too. While Zoe's and Kian's stories are mostly wrapped up, there's an ambiguity to both that is a bit disappointing. Other minor characters are mostly ignored and we don't find out what happens to most of them; a shame, really. There are a couple of fantastic twists though and it's pure joy to see familiar faces again. Still, the ultimate villains of the story have mediocre motivation at best and more character development would have been helpful.

It's also worth noting that Dreamfall Chapters is heavily tied to Dreamfall: The Longest Journey and, to a lesser degree, The Longest Journey. As such, you should play at least its predecessor first or you're likely to be confused by the lore and characters. In fact, even if you just haven't played them in a while you should play them again, because Dreamfall Chapters doesn't recap all that much for you.

As with past entries in the series, Red Thread Games show their talent in creating lifelike characters, an intriguing world and a script so natural it's easy to forget you're playing a video game. Zoe is a particularly impressive creation. She responds in believable ways to the difficulties she has with her boyfriend, to the trauma inflicted on her in the previous game and to her role in the world of dreams where she has newfound powers. Her voice actress is phenomenal, and her delivery of Zoe's lines is some of the most impressive voice work I've ever seen — er, heard. The rest of the cast is terrific too, but don't quite reach Zoe's level of performance. Jokes in the script made me laugh out loud often, particularly in relation to a robot affectionately known as "Shitbot" who loves welding more than anything else in the world. On that note, my only complaint of the script is an excessive amount of swearing, from one secondary character in particular, to the point where it starts to grate.

Dreamfall Chapters takes a traditional approach to its point-and-click gameplay. Gone is the awkward combat of the previous game as Chapters returns to the exploration and puzzle-solving of its roots. Dialogue options that alter the outcomes of the story are new and Dreamfall takes a Telltale-style approach in how it uses choices to affect later episodes and notifies you of important story-changing decisions. There were many difficult choices I had to make as Zoe and Kian, and many delivered results I didn't expect, often not for many episodes down the track. They have a real impact on the story and dialogue too, though the overall plot and ending appear to remain largely the same.

It's fortunate that the story is compelling, because Dreamfall Chapters is somewhat light on engaging gameplay. While there's no infuriating 90s-style head-scratching adventure game puzzles, Chapters goes too far the other way and presents challenges that are too easy to solve. The solutions to puzzles are often immediately obvious or just require hunting for the correct item in an area. There are a couple of instances of the opposite though, including a particularly nasty puzzle midway through the game that requires knowledge of the plot of the first game in the series. It's been a good ten years since I played The Longest Journey, though with only vague memories I did manage to succeed without too much trouble. Another infuriating puzzle requires you to repeat a musical pattern, but Kian sings so badly out of tune that the difficulty feels cheap. The final episode of the game actually has very little gameplay at all, aside from walking around. The interface is easy to use though and clicking on a particular character or object brings up a circle with choices to speak to, examine and so on.

There are plenty of beautiful environments to explore in Dreamfall Chapters, but there's a lot of walking back-and-forth to progress. Exploration on Stark is almost entirely limited to the city of Europolis. The city is a dark, depressing place reminiscent of dystopian stories like Blade Runner. I enjoyed interacting with the locals, learning about the politics and getting a feel for what life is like in the sc-fi city. Unfortunately, you'll spend close to 3 full episodes wandering around the city as Zoe in search of particular NPCs or items that are not always obvious. Europolis is a fascinating, but overused location and I was sick of it by the end of the second episode. Arcadia delivers a greater array of locations to explore from a fantastical city to deep caves and mountains that sit above the clouds. Marcuria, Arcadia's major city, suffers from the same problem as Europolis, though fortunately less time is spent there. Dreamfall Chapters' story is intriguing, but the gameplay rarely rises above humdrum.

Visually, Dreamfall Chapters fares well. Character models are detailed and appealing, especially Zoe and Kian who look gorgeous and sport a range of excellent facial animations. Environments are visually interesting and there's a lot of detail to be found in Europolis' skyscrapers and Marcuria's cobblestone streets, even if there are not enough NPCs to talk to. General animation is a little clunkier though and the dialogue-focused cutscenes often lack the dramatic impact to complement the words that are conveyed. Perhaps due to budget issues, the main action often actually takes place off-screen during these moments. Still, Dreamfall is an aesthetically appealing game and one without any major concerns. Does it look like the latest and greatest AAA titles? No, but it's still beautiful and the graphics serve their purpose.

Dreamfall Chapters is worth seeing through for fans who have come this far. If you're new to the franchise though, then I wouldn't bother starting it now if you're hoping to see it all the way through. Chapters is a solid game, but the gameplay rarely engages and the ending of the story leaves too much unsaid. Still, there is plenty of intrigue and a fantastic cast of characters driven by a superb script and delightful voice acting. Dreamfall Chapters may not quite live up to the expectations of long-awaiting fans, but there's a number of touching moments and familiar faces that are sure to bring a smile to the face or a tear to the eye.

© 2016 Red Thread Games, Red Thread Games, Blink Studios. All rights reserved.