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

felix (not verified)
I don't think that's much of

I don't think that's much of an objective artistic criticism. Take Anime, for example. I know there are a lot of terrible Anime out there but some are quite good. But even if they are good they are probably still based on a lot of typical tropes, and part of that are "oversexed" females. This doesn't necesssarily mean that sexuality is a major part of the character and the story, it's kind of "just in there". I think being offended by that is sometimes based on an overestimation of the exploitation. I haven't played Dreamfall yet, but I know the game is like the predecessor very much the vision of a single designer. So when something like this happens, it's not likely that some guy messed up in the good team work, it just happens to be part of the style. Not a major aspect of the style, mind you, and probably not meant as explicitly as it is perveived. It's just a slight nod in the direction of "our heroine is an attractive one". This can happen with men also. It's an intelligent game but it doesn't overturn all mainstream notions and what makes an entertaining "adventure" story. Did you know that Lara Croft is probably more popular with women than with men?
But I'm saying this all without having played the full game. It's just unusual for me to see this kind of criticism of an otherwise fine game.

Ronan (not verified)
Thanks for the recommendation

Great game. Am really immersed in it. Didn't mind the control problems so much but I know what you mean. Thanks again for the review. Really glad I came across this one.

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