Review: FunCom's "Dreamfall: The Longest Journey" (2006)

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Matt Barton's picture

There are so many critics nowadays who like to scoff at the venerable old graphical adventure game (GAG) genre. All I can say is that the news of the GAG's demise is highly exaggerated. If you desire proof, then I suggest you give FunCom's Dreamfall a chance. This epic-sized adventure game is an amazing achievement, and certainly ranks as one of the finest GAGs of all time. Although it's certainly not flawless, Dreamfall capitalizes on its key assets: Interesting and well-developed characters, a fascinating storyline, and excellent pacing. Although some GAG fans will dismiss any game that doesn't burden the player down with "puzzles" and other distractions, I'm refreshed by FunCom's focus on story, characters, and dialog. If videogames are ever going to move beyond just simple diversions for young men, we're going to need more games like Dreamfall.

Characters and Story
Although I'm usually reluctant to offer plot summaries of the games I review, in this case I'm moved to do so. The central plot concerns three worlds, or realities. The one most familiar to us is "Stark," which is a dystopia of our own world after it has been taken over by a mysterious, Big Brother-like syndicate. Then there's "Arcadia," which is a magical realm. The third world here is a mysterious sort of "Story Telling" world, whose relationship to the other worlds is never made quite clear. The game's plot focuses on a series of events occurring on Stark and Arcadia that at first appear to have nothing in common. On Stark, a powerful multinational corporation is rolling out "Dreamcore," a creepy technology that offers users complete control over their dreams. It's being billed as the ultimate in home entertainment, but there's something sinister about it. On Arcadia, a nation of religious zealots called the "Azadi" have occupied Marcuria. Although the Azadi arrived as liberators--they chased away the Tyren, who had destroyed much of the city--they soon set themselves up as dictators, forcing all the magical beings and magic-workers into ghettos. The parallels to the United States' "occupation" of Iraq and Afghanistan are all but openly pronounced.

Suffice it to say, Dreamfall's story is very complex and resists easy summary. The problem is that there are actually three characters, who the player gets to control at different points in the game. Each of these characters has his or her own personality, motives, and values. The first and most important character is Zoe Castillo. Zoe is at first portrayed as a totally apathetic loser, who has dropped out of school and entered a deep malaise. She gets pulled into the mystery when her ex-fiance asks her to pick up a package for him, then disappears. Zoe is also seeing images of a strange girl projected onto video screens. The girl simply tells her to, "Find April. Save April." Zoe will spend most of the game trying to figure out this message.

A Bit of Humor: GAG fans will delight in all of the inside jokes sprinkled throughout the game.A Bit of Humor: GAG fans will delight in all of the inside jokes sprinkled throughout the game.The second character is April Ryan, the star of the first The Longest Journey game. It's been some years since the events of that game, and now April has become a somewhat selfish, bratty Goth type who has rejected her old home of Stark and has taken on a leadership role in the fight against the Azadi. April's character is jaded, to say the least, but she's handy with a staff. The final character is Kian, an Azadi "apostle" who slowly learns that his leaders are unworthy of the worship and blind devotion he's given them. Kian gets the least attention, but he's a likable character that in some ways seems the most "normal" of the lot.

In short, we could sum up the story and characters by discussing their "faith." Zoe is an empty shell who lacks not only faith but any purpose whatsoever. During the game, she will eventually discover her purpose and values that are worth living--and dying--for. April has plenty of drive, but she's lost faith in humanity. Indeed, it seems that her obsession with the Azadi is really more about giving herself time to think than anything else. Finally, Kian starts off with absolute faith and sense of purpose. He never loses faith, but does begin to question his purpose--and see that one's religious faith and one's political convictions are not always compatible.

There are many intriguing and fun characters sprinkled throughout the game. Some of these characters were also in the previous game, such as Charlie or Brian Westhouse. Crow also returns, though he's not nearly as prominent in this game than the last. That's a shame, really, since he really adds some spice and joviality to a game that sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously.

Dreamfall really feels more like a series of novels than a single story arc. The games is broken into discrete segments, and though there are plenty of ways to tailor the story, my guess it's ultimately pretty linear. While this would be the downfall of most GAGs, the storyline and characters are more than interesting enough to keep the player invested in the game.

Gameplay
If there's a problem with Dreamfall, it falls under this category. First, though, let me discuss something that is not really problematic: there are large parts of the game that offer little to no "interaction." Now, I realize that most gamers dislike any game that forces them to sit still for any period of time; the usual refrain is something like, "If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd rent a DVD" or some such codswallop. The truth is, there's nothing wrong with games that feature lengthy expositions as long as four conditions are met: (a) They are directly relevant to the gameplay, (b) the player is given enough incentive to care about the characters/situations they involve, and (c) they don't look or feel substantially different than the normal gameplay mode. The last criteria, of course, is that they be well executed. A cutscene with bad voice acting or animation is no better or worse than a movie or TV show with bad acting.

Fortunately for FunCom, the voice acting in Dreamfall is exceptional. Indeed, there is only one truly cringe worthy performance, and that's a relatively minor character (a treacherous female sorcerer). Everyone else really works well with the script, which is also excellent. Ellie Conrad Leigh is great as Zoe, and Sarah Hamilton really lends credibility to April's acidic personality. Ralph Byers is great as Roper Klacks, the crackpot magician April faced in the first game.

The puzzles in Dreamfall are usually quite intuitive. There was only one that stumped me (a sound puzzle whose clue is only offered once). Other than this poorly implemented puzzle, the rest range from clever to obvious. There are quite a few "fetch quests," but the game indulges in a bit of self-parody about these, which helps reduce their monotony. The upside here is that players don't lose track of the story or lose pacing engrossed in hours of "try everything on everything" or mindless pixel hunting.

A great deal of the gameplay consists of choosing dialog options. This is handled very intuitively, and puzzle-specific parts can be repeated as often as necessary. At most, players have four options for each part of the dialog, and I was never reached a "game over" by selecting any of them. This freedom allows players to really tailor the characters as they fit instead of always selecting the "correct" option. For instance, I enjoyed having Zoe complain about the mission and the tasks she was asked to perform rather than play the "Lawful Good Paladin" type of character you get in most games.

However, there are some major flaws in the gameplay that I must address. The worst is the control scheme. I tried playing with the keyboard/mouse and with a gamepad, but neither were ideal. This game is really tough to control, and it's difficult to keep the characters moving and/or looking in the right direction. At times, the awkwardness of the controls got so frustrating I just had to turn the game off for awhile. I thought the gamepad might help, but, ridiculously, I could not make the characters walk instead of run when using the pad (with the keyboard, you can hold down a key to walk). I'm frankly baffled by how such an obviously glitch got past play testing. How hard would it have been to have an option to always walk, or at the very least to be able to program a button on the controller to switch between walk/run modes? I got all the way through the game without ever managing anything like "grace" in the controls. Unfortunately, the downright irresponsible control scheme is what was fastened on by most other critics of the game, who used it to lambast the whole genre.

There are also a few "fight" and "flight" scenes in the game, though these are mostly painless. In other words, you can mash a bunch of buttons and usually win the fights. The flights are a bit harder owing to the pisspoor control scheme, but I managed to get through them. The problem here is that the camera controls are also terrible, and it's often difficult to swing it into a helpful position.

FunCom really, really bungled the controls on Dreamfall, but that's not all. Apparently, there's a problem with Nvidia drivers that will cause the game not to run at all on many graphics cards. The only solution is to install an old Nvidia driver. So far, FunCom has offered no patches to address this issue.

Graphics and Sound
Dreamfall excels in this category. The places the characters visit are rich in detail. I had to stop at several points and just spend some time admiring the view. Ambient sound is also top notch, and I the game put my 5.1 system to great use. Music is usually quite subtle, though well-implemented in a few key moments.

I was able to play the game in maximum detail on my rather aged system, though at times things got a bit bumpy. The recommended specs are 2.5 ghz and a 256 MB ATI card.

Conclusions
As I stated at the beginning of this review, Dreamfall is one of the finest GAGs I've played to date, and definitely deserves critical acclaim. It really is a travesty that the controls are so wretched; they no doubt will prevent this game from achieving the success it otherwise deserves.

Zoe in Panties: There's really no excuse for this kind of exploitation in an otherwise girl-friendly game.Zoe in Panties: There's really no excuse for this kind of exploitation in an otherwise girl-friendly game.And speaking of travesties, I must also wonder how many idiots were responsible for the "bra and panties" scene that takes place right near the beginning of the game. I realize that "T&A" probably sells more games to sex depraved teenage boys than a rich storyline, but please, this was too much. Do we really need to see Zoe's breasts and hips bouncing in her nightie to invest ourselves in this game? I think not, and furthermore, I think this nonsense probably turned off many female gamers who would have otherwise loved this game. It does, after all, feature mostly female avatars who are otherwise treated respectfully. I just think these ridiculous scenes should have been avoided; there's simply no need for them. Not to sound crass, but if I wanted that kind of thing, I'd play the latest Dead or Alive or what have you. My dream is that, one day, perhaps in the distant future, some game developer will realize that a woman doesn't have to her butt in the camera to attract male attention. Doing so degrades both women AND men.

At any rate, I hope these last remarks aren't enough to put you off the game. Once you get past the controls and the few inappropriate scenes, what's left is a masterpiece of modern gaming. Go get it.

Comments

Matt Barton
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By the way, you can read my

By the way, you can read my review of the first game on Gameology.

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Michael McCourt
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Hmm, I think you're being

Hmm, I think you're being overly sensitive to the bra and panties scene. I haven't played Dreamfall yet, so I don't know to what extent the "Hanes:Her Way" are exploited, but I have known teenaged girls and they actually do hang out in their rooms wearing nothing but their panties and bra. Often. In fact, during the summer when one might think they're upstairs packing for vacation, they're actually hanging out watching Friends DVDs in their underwear. Seriously!

I think most females would think the main character's state of under-dress far more realistic than the anatomies of 90% of computer game females. Boys probably found this eye-candy seriously tame. Girls will probably say "Hey, I do that all the time! She's like me!" which was probably the motivation behind its inclusion.

IMHO, if they seriously wanted to attract males to the title using this eye-candy, then I'm surprised I haven't seen that screenshot before. In the age of the InPornNation SuperHighway, boys aren't going to buy a $30-$40 game based on an underwear scene when there's a lot of free underwear scenes already available.

Great review, though, and I'm looking forward to playing this game but I still need to finish the first "Journey" before I do. I'm glad they got the same person to do April's voice again, as I really liked it last time. I'm looking forward to seeing how she sounds all jaded. :)

Matt Barton
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mezrabad wrote:Hmm, I think
mezrabad wrote:

Hmm, I think you're being overly sensitive to the bra and panties scene. I haven't played Dreamfall yet, so I don't know to what extent the "Hanes:Her Way" are exploited, but I have known teenaged girls and they actually do hang out in their rooms wearing nothing but their panties and bra. Often. In fact, during the summer when one might think they're upstairs packing for vacation, they're actually hanging out watching Friends DVDs in their underwear. Seriously!

I think you might want to actually play the game before dismissing my complaint, buddy. I've actually played the game all the way through, and I don't make such a claim lightly.

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Michael McCourt
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Matt Barton wrote:I think
Matt Barton wrote:

I think you might want to actually play the game before dismissing my complaint, buddy. I've actually played the game all the way through, and I don't make such a claim lightly.

If we're talking about Dead Or Alive type breast physics, then I'll concede your point. Guess, I'll have to rent it and see. I don't want to play the game all the way through (gotta finish the first one) but are there any first game spoilers prior to the scene we're discussing?

Bill Loguidice
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It's a shame we couldn't see

It's a shame we couldn't see video of the offending scene, as I've read the same complaints in other reviews. Frankly, if it's a "lived in"/"realistic" type of hanging out in one's underwear, then I'll just say it's an accurate reflection of real life, which the game is trying to achieve. However, there are obvious limits before it becomes exploitation or primetime TV gratuitous. It's an interesting issue and one I'd love to see for myself, save for the fact that I won't be playing the game any time over the next five years or so (unless it appears on GameTap)...

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
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(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Bill Loguidice wrote:It's a
Bill Loguidice wrote:

It's a shame we couldn't see video of the offending scene, as I've read the same complaints in other reviews.

Hm. I did have the software to make video captures of my screen, but I'm sadly lacking it now. If anyone knows of a freeware solution for this, I'll be happy to make a video of the scene.

Here's another pic from the game that might also help.Another Bra and Panties Scene: Taken by Matt bartonAnother Bra and Panties Scene: Taken by Matt barton

This one I can almost excuse, since it makes sense in a sort of horror movie kind of way (i.e., you feel more vulnerable when you're naked or barely dressed). However, the first part of the game is lacking that kind of rationale, and the camera does linger a bit too long on the "naughty bits," so to speak.

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Michael McCourt
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Well, my logic says to take

Well, my logic says to take your word for it. Actually, my gut says that, too. But my heart, which really liked the first game, keeps saying "NO! Why would they screw up such a nice gender-neutral/girl-friendly adventure with such crap?"

I didn't mean to imply a lack of objectivity on your part, Matt, I just didn't want to believe they'd soil the artistic integrity of the series with fan service. I mean, they got a grant from the Norwegian Film Fund to do this second game, if anything, I had expected them to raise their standards and not lower them. I couldn't be more disappointed than if they'd put a car chase in, y'know what I mean?

I'm going to restart TLJ tonight. Maybe I'll get to DF sometime soon.

Matt Barton
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mezrabad wrote:Well, my
mezrabad wrote:

Well, my logic says to take your word for it. Actually, my gut says that, too. But my heart, which really liked the first game, keeps saying "NO! Why would they screw up such a nice gender-neutral/girl-friendly adventure with such crap?"

That's exactly how I felt about it, mezrabad. I can tell that we think alike on this, and my guess is that the moment you get to this scene, you'll have the same reaction I did.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not adverse to strong language, sexual situations, and so on as long as they have their place and aren't just put in for the sake of it. If you noticed in my review of TLJ, I felt that the cussing was overdone. At first, I was fine with the cursing. I thought, okay, this is a game for mature audiences; there's no reason why a game should be held to higher standards than a movie; and so on. However, after about the 50th f-bomb, I started thinking, okay, now they're just cussing because they're lazy and immature. It got to the point where I was very disappointed at the script writers. My thought is that a truly talented writer can come up with more creative ways to get his point across than just relying on cheap expletives. If the worst insult they somebody can come up with is f* you...

I can remember back to those days of boyhood when you enjoyed nothing more than sitting around and trying to cuss as often as possible. The idea was to show your manhood by cussing. Well, I left that kind of thing back at age 15 or so. I don't need to see it in a game now that I'm pushing close to 30.

My concern with the bra and panties in DF is based on a few criteria. First, this scene is very early in the game. Second, basically the first time we meet Zoe, she's in her underwear. Thirdly, there's no real reason to justify it. As I mentioned, later on there are more bra and panties scenes, but these make more sense in context (and we've had plenty of time to learn about the character and view her as more than just a sex object). Even if Funcom wanted to show Zoe getting out of bed, they could've used discrete camera angles and had her fully dressed by the time the character assumes control of her. Instead, we get zoom-ins on her boobs bouncing in her bodice, and then close-ups of her butt and what-not. Just for kicks, I tried going outside with Zoe still in her underwear, but was told something like, "Even I'm not that crazy" or the like. Well, why not get dressed before coming down and talking to your dad?

Anyway, play the game for yourself and let me know what you think. It's really too bad we don't have more female gamers here, because I'd love have their perspective on this.

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Weefz
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Joined: 01/22/2007
Hehe... I was definitely in

Hehe... I was definitely in the "If I wanted to watch a movie..." camp. I enjoyed the story but I disliked the dialogue-as-gameplay concept for exactly the reasons you liked them, Matt. It didn't make any difference what options I chose so I never felt that my input mattered to the world. It took away my sense of achievement.

That aside, I'm really here to comment on the bra-and-panties scene that so many people hate. As a heterosexual female gamer who regularly laments the hyper-sexualisation of female characters... I didn't mind it at all. I didn't notice the supposedly overly-sexual camera angles. In fact, I thought the scene was more realistic than having her either get up fully dressed, or get up and hop into day clothes straight away.

Girls do get up and go about the house in their underwear. We also think nothing of walking around in front of our parents in minimal clothing. I thought her underwear pyjamas were a good compromise of slightly sexy yet decent and realistic. It's not like she was cooking breakfast in a lace bra and panties.

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zoe fan (not verified)
Female audience turned off?

I, and alot of my FEMALE friends loved the game, no, we are not "That way" but I felt it added the gam to a more human level, not some ou see this, and dont get to make a "relationship" so to speak, wih zoe. You are playing as her, and thus should play her life. So chill mister reviewer man. After all, the doa series is a different genre al together, you dont see zoe have her chest bounce, or her, well, its just gross... anywho, dfzoe fan out. bye bye

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