The Longest Journey is a graphic adventure game for the PC. Like recent console RPGs, it features a complex story with many twists and turns. Unlike a console RPG, however, The Longest Journey focuses more on character interaction and puzzle solving rather than combat, and as we all know, console RPGs tend to be very combat intensive. How refreshing it was to me to play a story-intensive game where fighting did not take center stage.
The story's protagonist is April Ryan. April is an average 18 year-old girl who studies art at VAVA (Venice Academy of Visual Arts) in the Venice district of Newport City - a very modern 23rd century city. Because of the art school, Venice has a reputation of being a liberal, youthful, happening area not unlike New York City's Greenwich Village. Having escaped from a turbulent household, April has found happiness in Venice. She enjoys studying at VAVA, and has made some very close friends who care for her like a family.
However, April's idyllic existence is shattered by the strange dreams she has been having of this lush green fantasy world filled with magical beings like dragons and talking trees. April's dreams are frighteningly real and she is unsure if they are dreams at all. Through Cortez, and eccentric old man, April discovers that there are two worlds- Stark and Arcadia. Stark is the land of science not unlike our own world. Arcadia is the land of magic. April is a shifter who can travel between these two worlds, and is the only hope the two worlds have against the forces of evil that have reared their ugly heads. The story takes many twists and turns and always keeps you wondering, "What happens next?"
What makes the story so compelling to me is that April is no warrior or mage or anything like that. She's just an ordinary girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances. She's as human a protagonist as you will ever meet. Her mixture of skepticism, fear, curiosity, fortitude, resourcefulness, wide-eyed astonishment, a strong will, a great sense of humor, and a stubborn streak thrown in for good measure makes her a very easy character to relate to.
As the wonderfully written instruction manual says "by the time you're cast into a completely different world - one that's alien to both you, the player, and to April herself- it will be that much more difficult to adjust" (p.6). If you, the player, feel a bit out of sorts in a strange place, chances are April does too. This makes for a wonderfully immersive feel that few other games truly have.
Admittedly, the story does start out slowly. The first chapter (out of 13) is mostly a series of lengthy conversations between April and all the important people in her life, from the lesbian landlady Fiona, to her best friends Emma and Charlie, to Zack - the biggest jerk one could ever have as a neighbor.
While all this exposition at the very beginning is a bit much to wade through at first, it helps the player care more about April and all her friends. Her world becomes your world. Venice takes on those warm characteristics of home.
But April does not stay in Venice for too long. She explores quite a bit; from the sleazy, crime-ridden areas of Newport City, to the various natural wonders of Arcadia, her travels become yours. As you explore new places, you feel April's various emotions from apprehension of new surroundings to utter awe at the world around you. You and April meet many colorful characters on your journey, some good and some evil. All are quite memorable and integral to the story. My only complaint with the story is that the last few chapters (chapters 10-13) felt a little rushed. But the story was awesome, nonetheless.
What truly makes The Longest Journey's story come alive are the voices. All the dialogue is fully voiced and contains some of the best English voice acting I've heard in a video game. The voices fit the characters' appearances perfectly and the actors deliver their lines convincingly. However, there are instances where one voice actor plays multiple roles. Only in two instances is it really noticeable that pairs of characters share a voice. I found Sarah Hamilton a wonderful choice for April's role. She really brought April to life and I certainly hope to hear more of her work in future games and/or animation.
Of course, the best voices cannot save a game or movie if the scripting is bad. Thankfully, The Longest Journey is wonderfully scripted. The dialogue flows very well, conversationally, and has very few spelling errors in the subtitles. There are grammatical errors, but all are intentional to portray a character's dialect or manner of speaking. The realistic dialogue adds another layer of immersion to the story. I give much credit to the writers for the wonderful job they did. However, there is a LOT of swearing in the script, as well as sexual innuendo. This game does not have an "M" rating for nothing. I love it, but gamers more sensitive to these things may want to pass.
While the voices are the best part of the game's overall sound, one cannot overlook the sound effects and music. Music is rarely played in the game, but when it is, it's great. Usually it's played during FMV scenes or non-interactive scenes, and it's of the orchestrated/ classical fare with a lot of brass. What little music exists is well composed and fits the intended scene. However, the melodies are not catchy and you won't be humming this music in the shower.
As for sound effects, they're realistic. When something is dropped in the water, it makes a convincing splash sound. When a cabinet falls, it sounds like a cabinet falling. I tended to keep the music and sound effect volume low and the voice volume high when I played. Sometimes, the characters in their realism would speak at low volumes.
So how does all this look? Generally pretty good. The pre-rendered backdrops are a sight to behold. The art and architecture of the various places never ceased to take my breath away. However, I felt that the artists' efforts were more evident in the magical fantasy backgrounds of Arcadia rather than the dark futuristic world of Stark. I think this was intentional because the player spends more time in Arcadia, and it makes Stark look, well…stark.
The polygon models of the characters are another matter altogether. They don't look exceptionally good. They are of a higher resolution than, say, Final Fantasy 8, and have some nice facial detailing (such as moving mouths), but have noticeable blockiness and seams during close-ups. Also, when the camera pans really far away, there is a lot of break-up in April's polygon model. Far away, she becomes an almost invisible blob with a couple of really small polygons to show that she's there. If there's anything that could have used some more work, it's the polygon character models. (If anyone wants to know, I played this game on a 500 Mhz Pentium 3 with a 40x CD-ROM, which is well beyond the recommended system requirements).
There are a few CG FMV scenes scattered throughout the game. These have no voices attached to them. While they have wonderful clarity with no graininess, they are certainly not on par with Squaresoft's work. The backdrops look stunning but the characters look awful. The character movements in the FMV scenes are quite jerky and almost robotic. And April's FMV portrait looks drastically different from her in-game model. In-game model April has full curves (best polygon booty I've seen on a video game heroine), olive-tinted skin, dark hair, and a cute face. FMV April looks absolutely horrid! She's scrawny, pale, has light brown hair, and a very anorexic, sickly face. I groaned every time I had to see that sickly looking 'thing' that was supposed to be the lovely April Ryan.
Lest I forget that The Longest Journey is a game, I must comment on the gameplay. There's not much to it. If you've played a graphic adventure before, you know the drill. It's all just point-and-click. Different colored arrows signify different things. A broken arrow signifies a segment where you can't click anything. A dark blue arrow with a grey border means you can move. A red arrow with a grey border signifies an exit. Click once to walk, double click to run. Either way, April moves slowly, so check off the 'enable frame skip' option in the game settings and you can press ESC to skip frames and move April along at a speedier pace.
A light blue arrow that looks like a sword means you can interact with that object. In that case, a bar pops up with an eye and/or hand and/or mouth icon. You can look, talk to, or handle the object/ person. On every screen, it is imperative to keep a watch for these light blue 'sword' arrows as those may indicate items you can keep in your inventory.
I love how your greatest tool and weapon in this game is your brain. Progress does not depend on what level you are or what weapons and armor you have. It depends on the player's logical thinking and how well he/she uses the inventory and/or the environment to his/her advantage. There are a couple of monster battles, yes, but these battles are very scripted. Being the RPG nut that I am, I'd have liked there to be more interactivity in the battles, but the game is great as it stands. After all, the emphasis on the game is not on combat or conflict, but rather using one's wits.
As with any adventure game, your inventory is your best friend. What may seem like a useless object may turn out to be infinitely useful in a situation you encounter. Sometimes an object is useless by itself, but is useful with other objects in the inventory or useful with something in the environment. Since April cannot die, experimentation is highly encouraged. Click on the chest icon on the top left corner of the screen to access the inventory. Click on an object therein. Then that object becomes the pointer. Drag it over another object in your inventory, or with something in the environment. If it flashes, that means you can use it there. For those like me who are new to adventure games, the 'flash' feature and the 'April can't die' feature were a great help to me in figuring out how to get out of the pickles I found myself in.
Another cool icon is on the top right hand corner of the screen. It is the diary icon. When it flashes, April has written something new in her diary. Clicking on that icon will give you the menu screen. In that you can save/load games, change the game settings, view previous FMVs, read April's diary, or check the conversation log. The diary to keeps tabs on what you've accomplished and April's thoughts on the matter. Oftentimes, a helpful hint may be stored therein. It's always amusing to read the diary, and I encourage players to do so. The conversation log keeps track of all the conversations you've had with people. If you scrolled through a conversation quickly, or forgot what someone said, you can go to the conversation log and re-read what that person said. Again, if you're stuck, a hint may lie therein. These features are a wonderful asset to the game and I'd like to see features like that applied in more console RPGs.
The only downsides to the gameplay are ease and linearity. I'm new to the adventure genre, and I did not find The Longest Journey all that difficult. The puzzles were integrated very smoothly into the story, but were never abnormally difficult. A few did stump me though, but some trial and error saw me through. Also, I was surprised that the more difficult puzzles were near the beginning of the game, whereas the end chapters had noticeably easier puzzles. Veterans of the genre will find this game a cakewalk.
The game is also very linear. It follows a set path, and you cannot deviate from it much. Sure there are a few instances here and there where you have dialogue choices, but ultimately, the end result is the same. But the story is so immersive and involving that you won't even notice that the puzzles are fairly simple and that the game is linear.
But after all is said and done, I thoroughly enjoyed this game and highly recommend it. The story and characters are among the deepest and most involved I've encountered in a video game. For 25-30 hours, you will be treated to a fantastic journey through the realms of magic, science, and the human spirit. You will be up past your bedtime on many nights to see April's journey through. This will be an unforgettable journey, so grab your mouse and start clicking.